The German violinist talks candidly about Mozart, life after Karajan and when to call it a day.

German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is soon to make her much-anticipated return to Australia where she will play three Mozart concerti in Sydney without the aid of a conductor. A child star playing for Herbert von Karajan, Mutter now has a 37-year recording career under her belt but she’s sanguine about the future and crystal clear about when will be the time to call it a day. A passionate advocate for contemporary classical music, Limelight caught up with her in Austria preparing for her latest premiere and found her cool, calm, collected and refreshingly candid:

Whereabouts are you in Austria at the moment?

Close to Innsbruck, which is about an hour from Munich. It’s about 800 metres high and the skiing looks fabulous.

And are you skiing?

No I’m not. I do love skiing but I’m here to study for my world premiere, actually two world premieres next month, of pieces by Previn and Penderecki. It’s so calm here and so much easier to get into study mode than close to the office in Munich. When things get really tight, I say, “I’m going to Austria”, just so I can get in the proper state of mind to study my music.

And quite literally chill out, by the sounds of it. I’ve got some questions about your Australian concerts. This is your second visit and you’re playing not one but three of the Mozart concertos, is that a big challenge in one concert?

I think the challenge will also be for the orchestra who I’ve found extremely positive and capable. They seem to be really up for a challenge where every player has to take a much higher level of personal responsibility. The leadership comes from the violins, as in Mozart’s time, because there is no conductor. It’s a smaller group of players, which gives it more transparency and the look and feel of an extended chamber music group.

I started doing it without a conductor in the year 2000 and of all orchestras I started with the Vienna Philharmonic! Playing three concerti is challenging of course, both physically and intellectually, but particularly because you have much more responsibility as player and leader. While you are playing you have to take mental notes of what you will do differently for the next rehearsal or the next concert. It’s a higher level of awareness of your personal shaping of the musical outcome than it would be in an ordinary solo performance.

Was this your idea?

Yes. I just thought, “this orchestra is up for it”. I had such a wonderful time in Sydney with the Beethoven violin concerto before, and so I thought why not give us all the chance to get to know each other on a much deeper musical level.

You’ve played the Mozart concertos all your professional life, famously recording No 3 and No 5 when you were 15. What draws you back to them again and again?

Mozart wrote a massive amount of pieces for the violin. Not only the five concerti but also the Concertante, the Concertone and so many sonatas and piano trios. Following his musical development through all these pieces is one of the luxuries you have as a violinist. Other composers like Brahms and Beethoven tended to write one or two concerti. In Mozart, there is this wonderful development between the first and last concerto.

In the program that I’m going to present in Sydney we’re going to play the second, the third and the fifth to show the development of Mozart as a composer in only two years. For a man who was only 19 years old, it’s breathtaking how he changed the form and how revolutionary the big A Major concerto is – when the violin enters in the first movement it introduces a totally new theme which back then had never been done before. Then you have this rustic ‘Alla Turca’ motif in the third movement, which was musically totally shocking. So the concerti are endlessly fascinating even after many decades of playing them. I guess I’ll never outgrow this repertoire.

You’ve recently recorded the Dvořák concerto – one of our orchestral Editor’s Choices. Given that you’ve been recording for 37 years, is there a reason it took you so long?

That’s a very good question. Actually, there’s no reason except that I got sidetracked every time I wanted to do it. It’s been in my concert repertoire very often in the last 35 years, but whenever I was ready to say, “OK let’s do it!”, some contemporary piece came along or there was some great piece of chamber music. There was the Mozart cycle I wanted to do; the Brahms cycle; the Beethoven cycle. And then all these premieres: Penderecki, Currier, Rihm, Lutosławski, and now I have more premieres coming. The Dvořák always got pushed aside, But this year I was determined to do it – particularly because last February, when I played the Dvořák concerto in Berlin, it felt so perfect.

Yes, you’d not recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic for 30 years. Was there any reason why?

At the beginning, after Karajan’s death, I did not play with the orchestra. That was on purpose, because I had such strong memories of most of the core repertoire with Karajan that it seemed impossible to go back to the same hall with the same orchestra but with a different conductor. Also, in Karajan’s last years the Berlin Phil had its share of bitter moments with the orchestra fighting and me, of course, always taking his side. After all, he was an old and frail man and I felt a lot of empathy for him in that situation – besides enormous gratitude. So I needed that break.

Mutter with her mentor Herbert von Karajan

Finally, after 12 or 13 years I started to concertise with the Berlin Phil again, who by then had started to change orchestra members. Now it’s a totally new generation – I think there’s only one musical colleague from the old days – and it’s one of those great orchestras who pass on its own school of playing and tradition. Nothing Karajan or Fürtwangler said will ever be lost, although they have a different way now of approaching repertoire.

With your long and impressive career, are there pieces that you still have not recorded yet that you’d like to?

Oh yes, especially in chamber music. The Schubert Fantasy – one of the very few and most important chamber music works written for violin and piano – I haven’t recorded yet. I would dearly like to do that. Maybe one or two of different violin concertos which I would like to perform – the Walton; the Elgar is beautiful; the Britten; the Barber. This is repertoire I’m interested in. But time is kind of running out and I will concentrate in the few next years on repertoire that is important to me personally. For whatever strange reason I’m really on the last round of my concertising life and I will choose my repertoire very carefully – particularly the works that I will record.

And are there any works that you would like to record again?

I’m not sure. I guess you have to let go of the idea of re-recording one day. A recording, like a concert, represents the pinnacle of your ability to get close to a composer at any given moment. You will have a new perspective the next day anyway – the next concert will be slightly different. Sometimes on a recording you might have been able to really capture the spirit – if you listen to the Brahms sonatas I think the G Major has really captured the specialness I find in the piece ­– but re-recording what I have already re-recorded? Really, I don’t know. Of course you always have a burning wish to do it better, and you always think you can do it better today than yesterday. But I think I’d rather concentrate on recording pieces that I haven’t done yet.

You have a terrific reputation for championing contemporary work. I presume you’ll still be doing that?

Yes, two world premieres coming up! Penderecki – a second piece called La Follia, based on the baroque theme and André Previn’s second sonata for piano and violin. Both will be premiered at Carnegie Hall on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of my first Carnegie Hall appearance. It’s also 25 years that I’ve been working with Lambert Orkis, which is one of the most meaningful musical relationships I’ve had in my life. Musically speaking I’ve spent half of my life with Lambert so this will truly be a meaningful moment on stage for us.

Mutter with chamber music partner Lambert Orkis

Do you commission these works or do people nowadays just write them for you?

Hmm. Probably I’ve commissioned them. I’m a little bit less timid when it comes to commissioning things now. It has taken me decades to overcome my shyness and to commission pieces, but it’s exciting. This La Follia has really driven me to the edge of my marbles, seriously. It’s technically so difficult, but it’s really a wonderful piece and it is constructed in a way that you can only admire. And it sounds fabulous! And of course, Previn always sounds wonderful – whatever he writes sounds absolutely gorgeous.

You’ve premiered some of the greatest works of the 20th century: Dutilleux, Lutosławski etc. Do you look back on that now and think, “that was a golden age for contemporary classical music”?

Yes, but I think we are also hitting one now. We seem to be moving into an age, far away from the 1970s, where composers are reconsidering the existence of the audience and the other players who might want to play a piece after it has been premiered. We are moving in a direction where things are skilfully written and very cerebral but they still connect to emotions and some kind of storyline. It’s not just like a musical class where not even the composer can tell if it has been rightly performed or not.

So of the people writing today, who are the most interesting?

John Corigliano, I think. And I’ve always loved John Williams’ classical scores. I think he could bring something totally fresh and very different to the repertoire. I missed Takemitsu when he was still alive. I was way too shy to ask and that was one of my major mistakes. A violin concerto by Takemitsu would’ve been an immense gift for the violin repertoire. There are a few younger ones – there is a woman from Finland: Kaija Saariaho, and without saying something too early I would love to have something from her. I think I could understand and connect with her music on a good level. So maybe she might be the next on my wish list. Whether she’d accept I haven’t the foggiest. But I’m a dreamer, and often the things I’m dreaming of come true.

You say you’re coming to the end of your concert career. Why do you think that is the case?

Yes I am. Everything in life is always changing and it will end one day. Very early in my life I had the great fortune to see a generation of violinists in their very last days of playing – Milstein, Oistrakh, Menuhin, Isaac Stern. I’ve spent really great moments with them sitting in audiences, just admiring what they had done and were still able to bring to the stage. But one could also see that there comes a moment that an artist should consider that staying at home can be an option. I’m very aware that not everything in life gets better with age. Some of our skills might go out of the window one day. Life is like that. So that’s why very early in life I made a solemn, very loud plan not to go on forever.

I’m very grateful for what I have at the moment. I’m planning my two premieres next month, and I’m planning one or two concerts over the next couple years. But I have my wonderful children, and there are other things in my life that I can be totally committed and involved with, like my foundation, without feeling the need to hang onto something onstage when it might not be the proper thing to do. All I’m trying to do is take responsibility for my life and be as good as I can be for as long as humanly possible, and then to be grateful and intelligent enough to leave people in peace when my time has come.

You’re a great role model for young violinists today. When you were young, did you have role models?

All the ones of the past that I have just mentioned, but above all my wonderful violin teacher Ida Stucki. Besides being a fabulous soloist she was just a great teacher and pedagogue, very dedicated to her pupils, a wonderful mother, a great wife and a very beautiful, intelligent woman. What can I say? She was just the perfect role model to look up to as a golden star for the rest of my life.

Do you teach?

I teach the students who are part of my foundation, and I do occasionally give masterclasses, particularly in the Far East because they seem to have the largest need for input. But I’m not teaching on a regular basis.

Your foundation has been quite influential over the past few years. Is that exclusively for violinists?

No, that’s for string players in general. We attempt to help worldwide wherever it’s needed, so we have students from America, lots from the Far East, Eastern Europe – even a few German speaking ones. And we are aiming at giving commissions in order to enlarge the repertoire as we have done for the double bass – much of which has been written for Roman Patkolo, the wonderful bass player – by Penderecki, Previn and Rihm.

And we will go on to buy instruments for those who really need it – if we have funds. Then there is the private tutoring. I have my own little orchestra with whom I go on tour. We do a lot of chamber music together on and offstage. I bring them to the great conductors for auditions, and hopefully one day they will develop a concert life. I’m looking for managers for them; I’m looking into record companies to get them into their catalogue. There’s nothing on an individual basis that I’m not happy and willing to do for them.

Mutter on her first "Virtuosi" tour for her Foundation

At the end of the day, life for musicians today is as difficult as it always has been. Particularly with the demands of a media where today you have to look like a model! It’s crazy. If you look at my beginning with my home-knitted sweaters! I don’t think I had gone to the hairdressers until the age of 20-something. It’s unthinkable. I wish people today would hear with the ears as intensely as they used to. We tend to hear with the eyes now, which I find dangerous for the future of music. But at the end of the day, I do think quality (with the help of great colleagues) will prevail. At least let’s believe in that illusion – otherwise life would be useless.

How long will you be in Australia this time?

This time I’m indulging myself. I will make it to the men’s tennis finals in Melbourne and then I still have one or two days off. I will go back to Sydney and explore the city. I have made one or two wonderful friends whose gorgeous farms I might look at. And then it will be time to work with the orchestra on the Mozart cycle, which is very demanding. But I’m very excited to be coming back to Sydney – to an audience to whom I felt so close. I have very vivid memories of those concerts when I played the Beethoven. It’s this intensely listening crowd. And if they like something, they’re not shy about it, which, as an artist, I really like.

Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Mozart with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra January 31-February 2