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Viktoria Mullova: From Moscow to Rio

Posted on 14 August 2018

From Finland’s brooding forests in the icy north, to the sultry tropics of South America – by way of the rugged, Romantic charms of Germany. Violinist Viktoria Mullova is embarking on a globetrotting, not to say time-travelling, musical voyage in her four contrasting concerts across the 2018-19 season. ‘I find it really exciting to play different types of music,’ she explains, ‘and to change the style of my playing.’

Her continent-hopping sonic adventures are partly inspired, perhaps, by the life-changing travels that Mullova herself made earlier in her career. Initially trained in Soviet Russia – with intensive studies at the revered Moscow Conservatoire – Mullova became increasingly aware of just how restricted her musical horizons were behind the Iron Curtain. After winning the prestigious Sibelius Competition in Helsinki – one of the violin world’s most prized awards – in 1980, she used the opportunity to expand her musical knowledge, furtively slipping some of her prize money to Helsinki students to secretly buy her LPs: of the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, Herbie Hancock, all hardly known in the USSR at the time.

She defected to the West just three years later. During a recital tour in Finland, she drove across the border to Luleå in Sweden with her then boyfriend, conductor Vakhtang Jordania, posing as her accompanist, catching a flight to Stockholm – only to discover that her intended destination, the US Embassy, was closed for the 4 July celebrations. The couple hid out in their hotel room for two days, not even daring to go outside. Shortly afterwards, however, they were welcomed into the US, and Mullova didn’t return to Russia until the thaw in 1991.

After two years living in New York, however, Mullova felt she needed to return to Europe, and has long lived in London with her husband – cellist and composer Matthew Barley – and children. Her rigorous, uncompromising Soviet musical training no doubt formed Mullova’s fearsome technique – but since then, she’s since thrown herself enthusiastically into the sheer richness and variety of music she felt she was missing out on. Mullova is now one of the most outward-looking musicians around – just as curious and inquisitive about Bach and Beethoven as she is about jazz, pop, rock and more.

Viktoria Mullova

Stradivarius in Rio

And accordingly, the furthest-flung of her four Gateshead concerts takes us all the way to Brazil for an event on 25 September that Mullova calls Stradivarius in Rio, bringing together intimate chamber arrangements of laid-back Brazilian jazz and pop songs with Barley on cello and Paul Clarvis on percussion, another regular musical collaborator. ‘I love these songs,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t even know some of them when I started playing them. I just love playing this kind of music because it’s so free. There are lots of opportunities for improvisation between us – it’s a lot of fun.’

Before her Stradivarius in Rio live events came her 2014 album of the same name, only the latest in her genre-straddling CD releases. The Peasant Girl in 2011 threw together Bartók, Kodály, Weather Report, Youssou N’Dour and eastern European folk tunes; and on 2001’s Through the Looking Glass, she played more Weather Report alongside the Bee Gees, Miles Davis, Alanis Morissette and many others.

How did she get started with the Brazilian project?

‘It was in the company of some really good musicians,’ Mullova explains, ‘but not classical musicians. I played these pieces with the Brazilian guitar player and singer Carioca Freitas, but it was just for a circle of friends. After two or three years of playing them together, I felt very comfortable with the style and the repertoire. Of course, I didn’t know how the recording or concerts would come out – it’s one thing to play for friends, but you have to make them sound very special and interesting for an audience. But I think it came out very well.’

Judging by the critical acclaim Mullova received for her silky, sensuous sophistication, it worked a treat. And this is music that clearly matters to her just as much as her classical repertoire. ‘It’s such beautiful music,’ she enthuses, ‘and I don’t think it’s very different from the language of classical composers like Schubert or Mozart. This music is no less important to me, in terms of its melody and harmony – they’re absolutely stunning.’

What about Beethoven?

But alongside her wide-ranging musical explorations, there are still plenty of established classics across Mullova’s four concerts. On 21 March, she gives a recital of three contrasting sonatas by Beethoven with pianist Alasdair Beatson – from the relaxed lyricism of the aptly titled ‘Spring’ Sonata (No. 5) to the stormy extroversion of the magnificent ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata (No. 9). Here, too, Mullova is deeply influenced by her musical explorations, in this case into Baroque performance. She’s hardly a tub-thumping authenticist, but her approach has nevertheless been coloured by her study of Bach, Vivaldi and others. ‘I’m going to be playing the Beethoven sonatas with gut strings and a classical bow, and we’ll also be using a fortepiano,’ she explains. She’ll also be playing her 1750 Guadagnini violin, which she finds lighter and more agile in this earlier music than her regular ‘Jules Falk’ Stradivari from 1723.

And Sibelius?

Leaping forward to more recent times, Mullova’s other big focus across two of her four concerts is Sibelius, a composer who’s been with her throughout her career. It was with his passionate, virtuosic Violin Concerto that she won the Sibelius Competition back in 1980, and she returns to it on 29 September with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Thomas Dausgaard.

Does she view the piece differently now, 38 years later? ‘My perspective has changed over the years,’ she admits, ‘but probably only in a subtle way. I couldn’t really say how I play it differently now – possibly less intensely! Actually, I remember struggling technically in a few places back then, but they’re easier for me now – I’ve finally really got them, and that feels very satisfying.’

The Sibelius Concerto is one of the most loved and respected in the repertoire, and a piece she must have played dozens of times throughout her career. How does she go about keeping it fresh, for herself and for her listeners? ‘First of all, I have to be alive to it myself,’ she explains, ‘and also very close to the music. If I just play it automatically, the same way I’ve always played it, it becomes routine – and that’s just not music. I have to be as close to every note in the music as possible.’ There’s more Sibelius, too, in Mullova’s concert with Royal Northern Sinfonia on 3 May, but this time it’s a collection of lesser-known but equally evocative works: his lyrical Second Serenade, and two of his inventive Humoresques. ‘I haven’t actually played those pieces before,’ Mullova admits, ‘but I’ve always wanted to learn them, and this is a fantastic opportunity!’

It’s an extensive, expansive repertoire that Mullova brings to Gateshead. How does she balance all the different styles of music she plays, to remain authentic to their contrasting styles?

‘To me, it’s all just music, and I treat music in the same way whatever it is. If you want to play a piece of music, whatever it’s like, you need to ask yourself what you want to say with it, and what you want other people to enjoy about it. That’s the same whatever the music is.’

David Kettle