Alessandro D’Ausilio, Andre Previn, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Eric Morecombe, Ernie Wise, Herbert von Karajan, Morecombe and Wise, The Carnival of the Animals, Theatre an der Wien Vienna Austria
Do we all have preferences amongst this and that?
That said, when asked about mine, or in terms of violinists, for yonks there’s only one name with whom to bother: the German-born phenom, Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Her career as a violinist has been governed by the guru-pupil principle.
In 1976, as a 13-year old, she was invited by the longtime notoriously finicky-to-perfectionist conductor, Herbert von Karajan, to come perform with his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Was von Karajan really all that great? Per the Viennese joke I first heard 40 years ago and which still circulates, the answer is an overwhelming yes. Absent the wickedly funny Viennese intonations, the story goes this way.
A violinist dies and ascends to the pearly gates for his interview with St. Peter, who immediately recruits and schmoozes the violinist with just how great the Heaven Philharmonic Orchestra really is and since it contains the greatest players who ever lived.
“Who conducts?” asks the violinist. Peter smiles and answers: “God!” The astounded violinist exclaims “Wow! Terrific! What’s he like?”
Peter confides: “He’s not bad, but he thinks he’s von Karajan!”
Then and now, the Berliners remain the ne plus ultra of orchestras.
Was then-young Mutter’s trek then a fluke?
Not at all.
At 15, Ms. Mutter made her first recording of the Mozart Third and Fifth violin concerti with von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Fast forward to 1997, and when she created her own foundation, which nurtures brilliant young string players from all over the world.
When last I saw and heard her in performance at The Barbican in London, she was then aka Mrs. André Previn.
At that time, her Berlin-born polymath hubby (jazz pianist, orchestra conductor, composer (jazz, classical and two operas) was busy conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in an entrancing match-up of musical genius.
Years before his nuptials with Ms. Mutter, however, way back in 1971, Andre Previn showed a much lighter side, agreeing to perform with the English comedic duo, Eric Morecombe and Ernie Wise (billed as Morecombe and Wise) on their BBC-TV Christmas show.
With huge apologies to a seemingly permanently sad-looking Norwegian, Edvard Grieg,
enjoy this classic:
[If this fails to play, my apologies. Please click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7GeKLE0x3s&feature=related]
In fact, it was in 2002 that Ms. Mutter became the fifth Mrs. Previn, or following his previous marriages to Betty Bennett, to singer-songwriter-lyricist Dory Langan, then to the American actress, Mia Farrow, and then Heather Sneddon.
Ms. Von Mutter’s status as Frau Nummer Funf (number five) lasted until 2006.
The age gap has always been both curious and problematical, or in part, because Previn himself is unsure whether his birth was in 1929 or 1930. He opts for the latter.
Why the confusion? As per normal with so many 20th Century Jews’ histories, when it came time for his parents to flee Nazi Germany for the USA, his birth certificates got lost in the rush.
Before her nuptials with Previn, in 1989 Ms. Mutter had been married to and widowed by a German lawyer much older than herself, Detlef Wunderlich, with whom she had two children, Arabella and Richard. Sadly, Detlef Wunderlich died of cancer.
Journalists have long feasted like vultures on her dramatic private life; hence, no surprise, her hatred of press intrusiveness and her rigid control of her own publicity. But that control is constitutional, and underpins her utterly commanding authority on stage.
Her artistry, whether in Mozart and Beethoven or in the music of the contemporary composers she champions, is perfection incarnate.
This youthful 49-year-old seems to live in a permanent golden age.
But back to von Karajan. Oddly enough, none less than The Economist (London) has just done an article on whether one really needs conductors, at all.
The science of conducting – Von Karajan was right: Orchestras really can use the smack of firm leadership
DO ORCHESTRAL conductors do anything useful? Alessandro D’Ausilio of the Italian Institute of Technology, in Genoa, and his colleagues tried to answer that eternal question in a study published in the Public Library of Science.
Determining a conductor’s influence is tricky. Does a “good” conductor wangle bravura performances from his players, or simply preside over a self-organising virtuoso ensemble? To find out, Dr D’Ausilio watched two (anonymous) conductors leading five excerpts from Mozart’s symphony number 40 played by eight violinists from the Città di Ferrara orchestra.
Each violinist had an infra-red reflector attached to the tip of his bow, and the conductors had them attached to their batons. Dr D’Ausilio and his team were thus able to follow the movements of both bows and batons by bathing their little orchestra in infra-red light, which their cameras could see, but human beings cannot. They then used the movements of the reflectors to analyse who was affecting whom.
To do this, Dr D’Ausilio employed a mathematical trick called the Granger causality test, which makes it possible to determine how one sequence of data points affects another. The movements of a violinist’s bow—and the waving of a baton—are just such sequences of data.
Ten experienced classical musicians marked each performance on eight measures, including melody, tempo and emotional content, on a scale from 0 to 100. The panel judged both performances of three of the excerpts more or less equal in quality. They were also, it turned out, evenly matched when it came to the two conductors’ assertiveness (as measured by the correlation between the accelerations of his baton and those of the violinists’ bows) and the players’ proclivity to take cues from each other (as gauged by the correlations between the different bows).
The remaining two excerpts is where things got interesting. There, the judges preferred one performance to the other. In the first excerpt, one conductor’s assertiveness went hand in hand with a dip in the violinists’ mutual dependence, compared with the second rendition, where that dependence was high and the conductor’s assertiveness low. The first conductor, it seems, could impose his will on the musicians, where the second could not.
Crucially, the judges rated the dictatorial performance more highly of the two. In the other excerpt, the despotic conductor was just as assertive, but the violinists seemed to pay as much attention to themselves as they did to him. This led to a performance that the panel liked less than the one under the meeker conductor, who exercised little influence over his players.
The findings are in harmony with what conductors knew all along: that baton-toting despots, like the late Herbert von Karajan, do add value—but only if they rein in the uppity musicians in front of them.
So, what’s all the excitement about the von Karajan-Mutter chemistry?
Pour a cup or glass of whatever you prefer, sit back and enjoy Ms. Mutter’s skills in the First Movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61 under the direction of von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
This gem premiered on 23 December 1806 in the still utterly delightful acoustics and setting of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Austria.
[Theater an der Wien interior]
Ludwig von Beethoven must be smiling down with genius like this on display. Surely, the Good Lord has restored his hearing by this time.
[If this fails to play, my apologies. Please click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vya1bOW6HVQ]
Hat tips to:
The Economist, http://www.economist.com/node/21562182
The late Maestro von Karajan’s Foundation is run by his widow. Their website is here: http://www.karajan.org/jart/prj3/karajan/main.jart?reserve-mode=active&rel=en
Anne-Sophie Mutter’s own website is here: Anne-Sophie Mutter website
Maestro Previn’s website is here: Andre Previn website