The Return of Mutter and a New Concerto
Williams: Violin Concerto No. 2/Selected Film Themes Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin. Boston Symphony Orchestra/John Williams Reference FR-744 Total Time: 50:59 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
One of the many highlights for Boston-area music fans in 2021 was a return of the live concerts at Tanglewood, the orchestra’s summer home. Among the many programs, was the premier of a new violin concerto by John Williams. The work had been mentioned as he and Ann-Sophie Mutter were promoting a couple of the film music releases which contained special arrangements he made for her (Across the Stars; John Williams in Vienna). Last fall, the piece was programmed again as part of the BSO’s regular season and it appears the present release was recorded at that time.
Williams’ first violin concerto was written to honor his late wife, Barbara Ruick, back in the mid-1970s. An early version of that work with Mark Peskanov appeared on Varese Sarabande at the time. More recently, Gil Shaham recorded a revised version of the piece with the composer and these same forces. That makes this new work equally fascinating to compare approaches that recall some of the intense anguish of that earlier work, but now seem to have more reflective and hopeful moments. Williams says that he wrote this thinking about Mutter’s personality and the special tone she brings to the instrument. He is in heady company of contemporary composers who have been commissioned to create new works for her (among them her ex-husband, Andre Previn; Lutoslawski, Rihm).
The piece is cast in four movements which is in and of itself a bit unusual for the form, and the interconnectedness of these movements will begin to reveal itself upon repeated listening. The opening “Prologue” begins quietly with harp and moves into some often brilliant displays for solo violin. The technical virtuosity comes to the fore in an extended cadenza allowing for moments of semi-improvisational performance. “Rounds” is a quite stunning slow movement of color with beautiful lyrical lines. These twist about in chromatic inflections that often have some traditional harmonic support. Williams suggested that while it may have an impressionistic feel, the general orchestral style is referencing the great Claude Thornhill. Film music fans will hear a style that has blends of several scores (Close Encounters; A.I.; Minority Report; and even a bit of Sabrina—part of one of the melodies feels like such a distant cousin). The harp returns at the end which somewhat rounds off the opening half of the concerto. In “Dactyls”, Williams has some bursts of colorful chords that gets things off slowly at first, but then begins to become more intense as it moves along. Motives and gestures are organized in groupings of three which is a somewhat cerebral compositional approach in what is an intensely dramatic movement. Balancing the “Prologue”’s cadenza, Williams has also included one here for violin, harp, and timpani. The first two will merge to bring us into the “Epilogue” utilizing a film technique of “sound dissolve”, as he puts it. From a composer who has certainly written big and bombastic music, the finale moves into a bit more reflection that creates an interesting serene quality resolving on a major harmony as a sort of moment of renewal and hope.
Having heard most of the concerti written for Mutter, Williams’ concerto is in the top five of pieces written specifically for her. Rihm’s Gesungene Zeit and Penderecki’s amazing second concerto (Metamorphosen) are significant repertoire pieces and this new concerto may very well be in the running as well. It will be interesting to see if it is taken up by others as well. The second concerto is a solid work that blends contemporary and traditional musical language so exquisitely with an equally assured command of orchestral color that one has come to expect. This work, along with Williams’ tuba, cello, and bassoon concerti is among his finest concert pieces.
The concerto itself is around 35 minutes in length and one wishes the label would have included Markings here as well with the three film arrangements being a nice additional set of encores. However, we get three new arrangements made for Mutter. The first is a truly gorgeous exploration of the theme from “The Long Goodbye”. One has to wonder if there is not a bit of bittersweetness here coming from a composer celebrating such a long career. If the concerto is not enough to entice, this track alone would be worth picking up the album. A warm run of “Han Solo and the Princess” from The Empire Strikes Back is another fine performance of one of the composer’s memorable love themes and things wrap up with “Marion’s Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The modulations into new key areas make these three pieces really amazing new works.
After several decades of familiarity with Williams’ work, the Boston Symphony responds beautifully well to both the contemporary inflections of the concerto as well as the warm expansive melodies of the film themes here. Expressive playing comes to the forefront in the film music, but even in the concerto there is such equal attention to detail as if the orchestra has played this piece for years. DG captures the sound of the hall superbly as they have been doing with the orchestra’s Shostakovich series. But at the heart of this album, recorded when orchestras were returning to live concert hall performances again, there is a sort of extra mark of joy and energy that shines through, and perhaps even a bit of deep admiration to be a part of this significant new work. An album that will likely be among the best of the year.