Photo by Kristian Schuller / DG
In Conversation with
Star German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter spoke to Lionel Choi for The Straits Times while in Singapore on 1 December 1997. An article based on this interview was published in the paper. Below is a full transcript of the actual interview.
This is your second visit to Singapore. So what are your impressions of this country?
This country combines modern technology, science of our time, very vital economics, with the roots of tradition. That would of course make Singapore, like Hong Kong, one of the very fascinating cities for Europeans, seeing the leap of the long tradition into the future.
One of the reasons why I come back is that music plays such an important role in Singapore and it will more and more in the future, so it's a very interesting new part of my schedule actually to add, other than the usual places I have been working at for the last 20 years.
And the Singaporean audience, how is it different from one in Europe or in America?
Comparing audiences is impossible because every time the mixture of them, also depending on the repertoire that you're playing, is not the same as last time, so there is no typical French or American audience. And as the world (and this is especially true for Europe) is getting closer and closer together, the mixture of people of tradition and of characteristics is so high, then it probably… my theory is that every good concert also attracts a very intensely listening and reacting audience, and if you as an artist are not capable of captivating the concentration of the audience, there will be not such a good exchange. And this is true for Singapore as it will be true for New York or Berlin.
Do you feel that the local audience is not as sophisticated?
No. Absolutely not.
Being the child prodigy and the international superstar that you were since you were 13, would you say that you had a normal, satisfying childhood?
For me, it was normal because I didn't want to have any other choice then than to play the violin. I was very happy doing that. Actually, probably my childhood is more lucky than other common children because I wanted to play violin at the age of 6, and I actually got the possibility of doing it, and one of the most important things in a parent's life is certainly to find out the abilities of the child, their special gifts and, if possible, really nourish that. And if you are able to let the child make what they are really passionate about into a profession, then of course, great luck.
Were you able to do the things that regular kids did?
I was a great soccer player! And yah, basically I just did what everybody else did, but my interest was in the violin.
More than 20 years later since your debut, you are now one of the greatest sensations in the classical music industry, and are still growing from strength to strength. How did you manage to keep yourself interested, and from burning out?
That's actually not difficult at all, especially when it comes out from the interest in music. I started very early to work on a very large repertoire. And I always avoided to be put into a certain drawer, as being a Mozart specialist or Beethoven specialist… I never wanted to be that. I wanted to be all! Which of course means, on a regular basis, I play the whole violin repertoire. If you play 60 concerts a year, there is no chance to get bored because there is just so much different repertoire that you are always on the toes because of something you haven't played for a long time and so on.
But of course there is always the danger that comes when you feel not creative anymore. That's the reason why in 1990, I took the whole year off - one year completely I stopped playing - because that was the moment when I felt that I had done so many concerts that I needed to give myself time for other things in life. And that actually paid off because I got a very healthy distance to my schedule, and after that I also decided to play lesser concerts.
By coincidence I also got married at that time, and my first child, so it was kind of lucky for me. And I'm planning another sabbatical in the year 2000 (yes, every 10 years I take a break!)… in the middle of 2000.
I will do my own festival in New York to open the season in 2000. And it will be on a retrospective of the last 100 years of violin repertoire. And this festival will be repeated in London, Stuttgart and Frankfurt. And then after that, it will be time for another time-out. It's probably called "Anne-Sophie Mutter and Friends", and it basically shows the last 100 years of violin repertoire, for orchestra and chamber music.
Are you doing the planning for all that?
Yes. The planning is one thing, but finding people who understand how important contemporary music is, and finding the presenter who's able to, also puts the risk forward in doing. Because after Sibelius, what do we have in the century as violin concerto repertoire? Most of it is still considered modern in the audience. That's why it's a risky repertoire in terms of getting people interested, but I believe that the audience is much more adventurous than most presenters think. And I would be bored always playing the same repertoire, the audience must also be bored hearing the same repertoire too.
Mutter, in concert with Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg (1977)
Can you recall how you felt when you made your first recording of the 3rd and 5th Mozart concertos with Karajan?
It felt very normal.
Karajan is somebody who made people feel very relaxed, very good. On the other hand, he put enormous pressure on you. And relaxed and very good - you only felt when you met up with his very high expectations. There is always this balance. He was very warm-hearted man, and somebody incredibly timid. And there was no sign of arrogance whatsoever. I think he was very different from his official image. Other than that, the pressure he put on musicians to perform well, the high demands were just enormous.
I grew into that. I was used to it for 13 years to be under that pressure. And that probably was very good schooling, because after that, nothing can really shock you anymore.
And looking back at that recording now, what do you think of it?
It's a very interesting snapshot of a time when I hadn't done any concerts (I was 14), and that is definitely an interpretation I'm going to revise. One of my plans in the future is to re-record the Mozart concerti all at one go. As it is now, compared to 20 years ago, things definitely have changed not only because I do lots of chamber music but because of the many premieres I have given. It seems to be the right moment to review it. You know, recording in any case is only a snapshot of the moment. Of course it should have some quality to stay there forever, but it is very much related to the moment in which it is recorded.
Picking up on what you just said about re-recording the Mozart, there was talk that you were planning to re-record them with Roger Norrington. Is that really going to happen?
Yes, that would be one of my favourite choices because he knows, first of all, a lot about Mozart, about the phrasing and about the sound quality you need. On the other hand, his principles are very extreme, and I on my part am rather on the classical approach of Mozart, not extreme in the sense of completely non-vibrato and on gut strings and all of that.
I hope that though we will meet somewhere in the middle, that his qualities and my characteristics can meet in the middle and join forces. But this is something you cannot really decide beforehand. We have to work again together. (We did once work together.) Then, come to a compromise which both of us would find satisfying.
Have you spoken to him yet?
Yes, we have. But it is in planning. We don't know if we're going to kill each other or not, so this is still undecided.
Karajan met Edward Heath – former Prime Minister of Great Britain, amateur conductor and president of the European Union Youth Orchestra – and the 16-year-old Anne-Sophie Mutter whom he had invited to play the Beethoven violin concerto (May 1980)
Who are your greatest influences in life and in music?
They all have to do with art. Of course in the early years, it was Karajan. Later on, the composers I have worked with, Lutoslawski especially. Lutoslawski was such a pure man. A man of incredible nobility which you could also see in his music. He was never looking for cheap effects, like a sense of wanting to impress the orchestra by enormous endings, you know, roaring virtuosic showpieces. He certainly touched me very, very deeply.
And then there are lots of painters and sculptors which enlarged my view of art altogether. One of them is Karl Prantl. Austrian sculptor. A very restrained level of expressivity. If you look at the stone, it almost looks as though he hadn't done anything. What I like is the life underneath the smooth surface, something which is very mysterious, yet also very strong… that’s also important in music.
How do you think your playing and your view of music have evolved since those Karajan days?
It's very difficult to judge on an objective basis. I don't listen to old recordings because they are, like I mentioned earlier, snapshots. They are definitely not what I am doing today. Everyday is an evolution.
The most horrible thing would be if I were to wake up one day and I wouldn't be excited about music anymore, I wouldn't change anymore. I hope the change also means growing. It means movement. I hope it's development. My dynamic range has enlarged a lot, and the colours as well, mainly because of playing contemporary pieces. In other areas, you just have to judge for yourself.
Would you agree that one of the things you found since those early years was a bolder, more assertive and aggressive personality in your playing?
There are certain pieces which would require a stronger tact like the last movement of the Sibelius. But that doesn't mean that altogether I would treat a Mozart concerto in that way. So it's one aspect of my playing, but only if it's appropriate to the piece I'm going to play. I think more important, and that's because of chamber music, is the quietness in music, the non-vibrato kind of playing, things I learnt from Lutoslawski, which has enabled me to play with confidence even more.
Photo by Harald Hoffmann / DG
We read a lot of articles and reviews that talk about your "seriousness" to music. Do you consider yourself such a "serious" musician, and how would you define this "seriousness"?
I have no idea!! I think I'm a very honest musician. Honesty means I will never go on stage and perform a piece I don't believe in, a piece I cannot bring something very personal to. An example of that is when I also turned down contemporary pieces which were written, or commissioned or dedicated to me. I just couldn't take the responsibility of going on stage with it. I'm very interested to be a musician who is able to perform a large repertoire. And to leave something behind, once I'm not playing anymore, which means I am very much into finding new composers. Which is also reflecting our time, and it would be horrible if we are not able to reflect music and not reflect our time. This is necessary so that when we look back 100 years, we still have these monuments of music which are growing and growing.
And my social concern is very high. I do lots of benefits throughout the world. This is for me a very useful way of using my popularity. I can do a benefit and get the public's interest in the cause which is not yet so much in the public's eye. I'm really happy about that.
This next question relates to your choice of music. Apart from Mozart and contemporary music, your repertoire is largely focused on the big concertos of composers like Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Berg and Sibelius, and sonatas by Beethoven and Franck. All these are, generally speaking, "serious" music. On the other hand, you haven't gone back to or explored very much the two Prokofiev concertos and sonatas, among other things…
I think there is some misunderstanding here. I have recorded the Prokofiev and the Glazunov very early in my career. But I don't think my discography reflects my repertoire. Well, that's all I can say.
The only thing that I'm not terribly interested in are the showpieces. I play them in a repertoire recital – I do Wieniawski and Kreisler and all of that, and I like to do it, but I couldn't live on it mentally and my soul cannot live on it for a long time. It does not go as deep as Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart.
Would you say that your "seriousness" to music has made jovial humour and wit something difficult for you to grasp?
No, absolutely not. One of the interesting parts (actually, that's a very good question) of this Beethoven project of the 10 Sonatas is the fact that the first three sonatas which he wrote when he was a pupil of Haydn were so incredibly witty and funny that when Lambert and I played them, it's hard for us to stay serious, because there are just so many moments that are full of life. I'm not such a serious person… I mean I can be but I know how to have fun too. So you see, there are various sides to it!
What I don't like is cheap effects. If somebody else can do it better than I, then good, because I'm not there to do that. I try to find repertoire that for me is very meaningful and which I think I can play well.
So we can safely say that you know how to have fun!
Absolutely! Otherwise, I wouldn't do it!
But you know, I'm not an actor when I'm on stage. I perform. No matter what impression I give optically, I don't care. I just want to give a good, not a visual performance, but a performance for your ear and your soul.
Photo by Tina Tahir
There is a well-publicised story about you walking out on a rehearsal with Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic while in your early 20s, and you refusing to play a contemporary work because it sounded like it was created by accident. Do you think you are a difficult person to work with?
In Celibidache's case, I'm not willing to give up my personality, my interpretation altogether. But I'm willing to learn, that's why I'm so interested in the collaboration with Norrington, because he's a musician with brilliant ideas but he's not a dictator. Conductors who are dictators are absolutely impossible to work with. I don't see why I need to subject myself to someone who is trying to break my musical integrity.
I don't like musical compromises. I'm always looking for the highest possible quality. This is a very subjective point of view, but I always want to be able to stand up for what I'm doing, and in this sense, yes, I guess I can be difficult.
But sure, it's all for the sake of art.
Bearing in mind your incident with Celibidache, and the situation in Europe, for example in the Vienna Philharmonic, do you have any firm views with regards to the role of women in professional classical music-making?
In general, women don't have a problem in art, much less than in any other profession. There is no difference in payment. In other professions, in Europe, women who do the same work are paid less than the men, which is ridiculous. The idea of the Vienna Philharmonic, they cannot play as well if women aren't there. I think it's just outdated. And I feel that it's a pity that they put themselves into such a position. It's just the wrong position. 100 years too late!
Photo by Tina Tahir
Being the very glamorous, beautiful lady that you happen to be, the marketing machine has obviously picked up on this through glossy, stylish posters and CD covers. Do you think your attractive physical, external image has ever gotten in the way between the art that you are trying to communicate, and your audience?
It all lies in the viewer's eye. If you are content with one side, you've seen it and you believe that this person has only this one side, then it's your problem. There are obviously many, many sides to my character, and to my personality. They pick up on my so-called glamorous image, but you know, I think it's very one-sided. I like to hike in the mountains. My personal life is very different from what you would expect from a glamorous person.
But you know I like aesthetic things, like aesthetic cars, you know, whatever.
What do you think of Vanessa-Mae?
I heard one of her earlier recordings, one of those so-called "Classical…" whatever. There are probably many talents that are out there who are also very gifted and who are not as well-marketed as she is. But she's a very beautiful young woman and why shouldn't she have success? I think it's OK.
Do you think it cheapens the art she is trying to sell?
No, I don't think so. If the audience enjoys it, the audience gets something out of it, that's fine. There is a lot of space in the world for all sorts of communication, and if there's a certain audience for entertainment, and your playing is more on the entertainment side rather than the seriously classical-oriented, then that's fine.
Photo by Monika Hofler
Given your commitment to music and your jet-set lifestyle…
I don't have a jet-set lifestyle! It's just work. I'm basically just working a lot, and very hard. There are many months in the year I have to stay home. Because there is just so much preparation like for the Beethoven sonatas, so I'm not concert-touring.
How do you balance your professional life and your family life with your two children?
They are the most important part of my life. So that's also one of the reasons why I cut down on the concerts, that's one of the reasons why I stay home for about three-quarters of each year. One of the reasons why my schedule is so hectic because after every second or third concert in Europe, I fly home to be there for several things. So, it is more flying because I want to be home either in the night after the concert, or just as early as possible.
So while you’re here, who’s taking care of the children?
Oh, you mean you brought your children with you?
Yeah. We're going to the zoo to have tea with the orang-utans this afternoon. And then to Sentosa island. You know, it's the children's time.
Like the legendary pianist Michelangeli, you have a passion for fast cars. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I used to love fast cars, but since I have two small children, you know, forget it! There's this family there, and… you know…
What car(s) do you own?
This would sound like an advertisement for something. It's just a basic car. Let's just say I have a car big enough to stuff luggage, children and friends… a family vehicle.
What do you do for leisure?
Mountain-climbing. Being up in the mountains means for me being in peace, quietness, getting back in relation to everyday's problems, just, you know, the way all of us are in a hectic schedule and always trying to pursue higher goals, and even playing even better and knowing even more and so on and so forth. Being in the mountains, I feel being closer to creation. Makes me very humble as a human being.
It's also spiritually refreshing, and it's wonderful physically - gives me strength… for Beethoven!!
Do you listen to music?
Yes. I listen a lot to jazz. I love the swing. Ella's been my favourite for at least 2 years… I know, it's terribly one-sided. She was such a wonderfully expressive artist, and she also has lots of fun with music.
You feel how she enjoys music and life.
Do you think you’ll be venturing into that area?
No, unfortunately not. I'm not gifted for it. So I just enjoy listening to it, but I'm not the kind of musician who's able to do it, unfortunately.
There are so many good violinists around today, even child prodigies that have survived adulthood like yourself. In your own words, what makes Anne-Sophie Mutter different from the rest?
Oh my, I don't know. Who cares? Just close your eyes and listen. Then hopefully, music does touch you.
Other than that, yah, who cares?