Anne-Sophie Mutter has some pull. How much pull? What other star, in this economy, could get a major label to put out a CD made up entirely of all-new classical pieces? Probably nobody; or at least no one who also relishes performing such challenging, gnarly repertoire, which Mutter obviously does.
So this release of four world premieres, all written by contemporary European heavies, is an event for anyone who likes new sounds. The album also comes on the back of Mutter’s 2010 residency with the New York Philharmonic, whose new-ish conductor, Alan Gilbert, has been sharpening the ensemble’s chops on late 20th and 21st century material. (The two longest pieces on this disc are live recordings made at Lincoln Center during the season that just ended this spring.)
The benefits of Gilbert’s work with the ensemble are immediately apparent in the way they support Mutter on the first track here, a Wolfgang Rihm composition entitled “Lichtes Spiel.” Just because it’s orchestrated for reduced, Mozartean-style forces doesn’t mean it’s an airy thing; the piece carves out its theme with an aggression that’s all the more striking for its uncluttered orchestration (relative to Rihm’s last violin concerto written for Mutter). The other Philharmonic-supported piece, Sebastian Currier’s “Time Machines,” is also compelling, and suffers only from comparison to the lithe attack and concision of Rihm’s work.
The program is rounded out by two studio-recorded duets for violin and double-bass. Anyone who knows Krzysztof Penderecki merely from his iconic “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” will be surprised to hear his brief entry here, “Duo concertante.” The man’s gone almost neo-classical, relative to the shrieking old days. And that’s even counting how the bassist daps out Mutter at the end with a little col legno (in which a string player bounces the wooden, side of the bow on strings for percussive effect) tapping. Still, like Currier, Penderecki also manages to be outclassed by Rihm, who provides the other duo piece here, “Dyade.” It starts out gently, before getting somewhat predictably thorny and virtuosic, with Mutter’s violin in particular navigating a more hairpin turns than you’d want to count. But even if the return to grace (or a resting heart-rate) seems structurally inevitable, it doesn’t feel rote.
The live-recording sonics of the two Philharmonic pieces are a touch distracting, compared to the pristine quality of the studio duets. But when compared against the possibility that we might never have heard these works at all, if not for Mutter’s advocacy, that’s an easy fault to overlook. Would that more stars could see their way to using prestige like this.