Viktoria Mullova is one of the great violinists. To her musically candid and technically patrician conceptions of core sonatas and concertos, she now adds a historically informed perspective to baroque and classical music, and is extending beyond time-honoured repertoire with no-barrier projects. Some commentators suggest Mullova is cool, even an ice maiden. Nonsense! I’ve loved Mullova’s playing for years, captivated by the intensity and vivid communication of her musicianship. “You know who gave me the ice maiden title?” A London-centred publication is disclosed! (It’s not What’s On in London, which this article was originally written for!)
It’s folly to listen with one’s eyes. Viktoria elaborates on her undemonstrative platform manner. “I was nervous as I was growing up. I was scared not to be perfect – in Russia it meant that you’d end up teaching in Siberia instead of having a career. That’s stayed all my life. People think I’m not nervous and not showing my emotions; inside I was petrified, which made my figure so tight. I’m less and less tight now.” The gracious and spontaneous person I talked with recently certainly equates to the concentrated and deep musician that Viktoria Mullova is.
Appropriately we met at the Wigmore Hall where Viktoria gives a Bach recital, on 20 May, of unaccompanied pieces and ones with harpsichord (Ottavio Dantone, “a wonderful musician”). Authentic, then? “I am trying to be authentic, yes, and I couldn’t play with a piano because I’m using gut strings and a baroque bow, which makes clear what baroque style is. I play with the music too; having it in front gives me a sense of calm, then I’m not nervous about forgetting the notes. That’s the main thing I’m nervous about, even the pieces I have played for so long. With Bach it helps to have the music. As I’m playing I’m creating new things. It’s great fun to be free like that.” Maybe seeing the notes rather than dragging them from the memory adds to the improvisational aspect? “Actually you’re right; it’s beautifully written and you can see the line.” The Wigmore recital includes the D minor Partita, with the famous chaconne, “which I love. The Sonata I’m playing is very different, there’s a fugue, and I love the slow movement. The sonatas with harpsichord are beautiful.”
The infant Viktoria “was singing a lot and my parents wanted me to study a musical instrument. We had a tiny room in a Moscow suburb for five people to live; the easiest thing was to buy a small violin. My first teacher was very good; it’s so important to have a good first teacher. My engineer father came to all my lessons and practised with me at home. I was very determined and disciplined; and talent and a good musical ear helped.” Mullova is a complete musician, her carefully chosen, scrupulously prepared repertoire adding to her success. “It’s very important to enjoy what I’m doing; if I don’t enjoy the music then the audience will feel that.”
One appreciates her single-mindedness. “What I haven’t played I don’t want to play. I would prefer to re-think and play music differently over the years. When I defected I became more open-minded and I have learnt from other musicians. My playing has changed a lot.” She’s realistic in saying that she’s moved away from some of her early recordings, although “I was lucky to record nearly everything.” She now wants “to explore and find new things. I never really enjoyed playing Mozart until the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; it sounds more interesting with gut strings, much gentler, the colour is much more beautiful.” One of those new-direction projects, Through the Looking Glass, is what, fusion? “I’m glad you didn’t say jazz!” Try it for yourself on Philips 464 184-2. And the OAE Mozart is on 470 292-2. (Search under Mullova on the Universal link below.)
Catch Viktoria this week in Bach, the “number one composer – because from Bach everything goes. It’s very swingy, close to jazz. The slow movements are magical.”
The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 12 May 2004 and is reproduced here (in slightly revised form) with permission