Anne-Sophie Mutter: 'I'm just a working mother'

The path from child prodigy to classical star has been an eventful one – yet Germany's violin virtuoso remains unruffled

Friday 01 May 2009 00:00

You'd think it would be enough to be one of the best violinists in the world. You'd think it would be enough to have commanded the rapturous respect of the world's music critics for more than 30 years, and to have accumulated the kind of wealth from your CDs and performances that enables you to buy a Porsche, or a work of art, as casually as the rest of us would a Twix, and to have been given more awards than most of us have bunches of flowers. But to look like a supermodel, too? No wonder Anne-Sophie Mutter believes in God.

I've been listening to her recordings, of course. As a classical music enthusiast who's also an ignoramus, I can't, I'm afraid, comment on the accuracy of her articulation or the eloquence of her tone. I can't laud the briskness of her tempos or the evolution of her Central European style. But I can tell you, after watching DVDs of her playing Mozart piano trios and Beethoven violin sonatas and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, that seeing her perform is an experience that can make you gasp. The sounds emanating from that ribbon of horse-hair kissing cat-gut is one to make you think that yes, the heart has strings, too, strings that can be stretched and plucked and that can sometimes even make your heart flip over.

And then there are the arms. And then there are the lips. And then there are the eyes. It's a smorgasbord for all the senses, a smorgasbord in which strapless Galliano dresses feature prominently. "Posh totty does sublime" might be a marketing guru's slogan to sum her up, except that it wouldn't begin to scrape the surface of the aesthetic, artistic, commercial, and altogether extraordinary phenomenon that is Anne-Sophie Mutter.

"She's just touching up her make up," says the besuited agent poised with a clipboard outside the hotel suite. There's no time for a photograph, so the make up is for me. And here she is: radiant, gorgeous, perfect. She doesn't look as though she's been up before dawn to catch a flight to get to a hotel on the outskirts of Munich, though she's probably been doing yoga since dawn, or jogging, or practising, or praying. She's wearing a little gold cross around her neck, but it's accessorised with skintight jeans, minxy little leather jacket and knee-high, high-heeled boots. And yes, at 45, she still looks like a model. And an angel. And a woman who's very polite and very civilised and whose time is very, very precious.

It's not that easy to imagine her floating in a sea of purple petals, actually, which is how she's presented in the promotional material for her new recording, with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor. But the purple is presumably meant to signify depth and passion, which certainly comes through in the violin concerto and in the performance. It's a piece she first discovered at the age of five. "It was on an LP which my parents gave each other for their engagement," she says in precise, perfect English. "It was with the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Furtwangler, and it was the trigger for me to really want to play the fiddle."

Mutter's powers of persuasion at five were clearly already firmly established. She got her violin and, in a small town in the Black Forest, in a non-musical family (her father was a journalist), a virtuoso was born. She studied with Erna Honigberger, a pupil of the great violinist Carl Flesch and later with Aida Stucki at the Winterthur Conservatory near Zurich. At 13, she was invited by Herbert von Karajan to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. At 14, she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival with the English Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim and at 15 her first recording, of Mozart's Third and Fifth Violin Concertos, with von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. She has, I'm reminded, as that perfect cupid's bow forms answers to my all-too-familiar questions, been giving interviews for 30 years.

Amazingly, she first performed the Mendelssohn when she was 11, "played it extensively" as a teenager and then, in her twenties, "put it aside". A few years ago, she says, it "came back" and it's now "very passionately ingrained". Performing a work of this depth and complexity must, surely, be different at 45 and 11, even if you were a child prodigy. How do you start again? Is it like erasing a tape?

"Yes and no," says Mutter cautiously. "I was never quite satisfied with my performance as a teenager. Not that I'm always satisfied with my performances today, because recreating art is always a work in progress. It's never totally what you're dreaming of. So, yes, I had to erase certain memories of things I couldn't comprehend, or little technical details I didn't fully grasp." And what about life? In Mutter's case, the intervening 34 years have included two marriages, widowhood, divorce and two children. Doesn't this make a difference? "Sometimes," she says, again cautiously, "things on the surface don't seem to be different, but because the content of it is held more intensely, it is different. One has to listen very carefully to interpretations, really grasp all the fine minutiae."

When she was 26, Mutter married Detlef Wunderlich, Herbert von Karajan's lawyer, and a man 30 years her senior. They had two children, but he died of cancer six years later in 1995. In 2002, when she was 39, she married the pianist and composer André Previn, who was then 73. Seeing films of them performing together (which they still do, even after their divorce in 2006), it's quite hard to imagine this slack-jawed, liver-spotted old man married to this glacial goddess. I'd love to quiz her about her attraction to father figures, but it's off limits, of course. Instead, I mention the widely held critical perception that her performances after the death of Wunderlich appeared to have greater depth. Do you, I ask, and now it's my turn to be cautious, have to have suffered to produce a great performance?

"I don't know," she says. "I think in every really gifted musician, and obviously in geniuses like Mozart and Mendelssohn, there's an inborn maturity which has nothing to do with life experience. Then, of course, it doesn't hurt to be sensitised. You just have to make the best out of life. I think as a musician it's a wonderful idea if you try to also be a useful human being. It seems to be the less selfish way to develop as an artist. Music is a tool of communication, not a tool of self-presentation."

Gosh. I can tick off on one hand – on one finger, practically – the number of artists I've interviewed who've talked about trying to be good as a person as well as an artist. Or at least I can tick off the number who can back it up. Mutter is a patron of the arts, both visual and musical, and takes great pains, through her own foundation, to mentor and nurture young musicians. She also, it turns out, raises money for orphans, old people, and the disabled. "I have a very strong relationship with my priest," she explains, "who baptised me when I was six. I think he was the one who actually planted it, this understanding for the other."

As a child, when she wasn't playing her violin, or going to church, she was usually to be found with her (pretty little snub) nose in a book. "I very early fell in love with Sartre," she says, "then later German literature. I like Russian writers a lot. Thomas Mann is still one of my favourites. I always go back to either Madame Bovary or Effi Briest. These fabulous female figures who mostly ended tragically. Women who lived their lives with passion and by being different from society."

Certainly, if Mutter can appear a little glacial, her life and work is testament to her many and varied passions. And she's "different" too. For many musicians, music is the air they breathe. If Mutter breathes it, as she clearly does, she also breathes the air of the mountains she loves, and the air of poetry and literature and art. She is as passionate about contemporary music as that of the great composers she grew up with. She sounds, in fact, as wide-ranging in her interests as Mendelssohn, the baptised Jewish pianist, conductor and composer who was also an eminent man of letters, a magnificent painter and a linguist. Does he feel like a kindred spirit?

"For me," says Mutter, and for the first time her smile looks truly warm, "he embraces all a human being, or an artist, should be. Not only an artist, but somebody with a social conscience." And how would she sum up his emotional make up, something she has said in the past that it's essential for a musician to capture? "Well," she says, "I'm not a poet. I guess with poor words it's the innocent soul of a young man's burning passion which I find so touching in the music. It's the elegance, the exuberance, the depth. Above all, it's the nobility of the music which just sweeps me off my feet."

Passion again. So when the performance ends, does the passion continue? Do you switch off when you lay the bow down? "You don't have to go through the gruelling roles like mass murderers, like an actor," she replies. "But there are pieces, like this contemporary one by Sofia Gubaidulina, that are so shattering that you don't leave them in your dressing room, you take them home. It's the biography of a Soviet woman who was suffering under the system because she didn't cooperate. It's shattering. Music is what I think is necessary for part of the world to go on, so," she adds simply, "I'm giving it my all."

I think we can safely say that Anne-Sophie Mutter, virtuoso violinist, patron of the arts, charity fundraiser, mentor and classical music superstar – and adoring "mutter" of two teenage children who she won't leave for more than two weeks – is indeed giving it her all. Super-successful, super-bright, super-energetic and super-glamorous, she's the kind of woman to make other women feel – well, just a little bit inadequate. Is she aware of that?

"I think," she says, "that this is a question of perception. There might be one and a half people in the world who think like that, but I'm just a working mother. That's basically the whole story. It's totally unglamorous. I'm heading back soon to my kids, making dinner, having not played a single note today."

I take that "soon" as a dismissal. Before I go back to the airport, she tells me, I must go to the Lenbachhaus gallery and see the Kandinskys. I'm sure if I were Anne-Sophie Mutter, I would. But actually, I'm exhausted. Actually, all I want is a nice cup of coffee and a giant piece of cake.

Anne-Sophie Mutter performs Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto at the Barbican on 20 May (

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