Muffled Acoustic Impedes Mullova Crossover Concert

Dresden Music Festival 2013 logo







GermanyGermany Bratsch, John Lewis/Bratsch, Bartók, Kodály, Weather Report/Joe Zawinul, Matthew Barley, DuOud: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Matthew Barley Ensemble [Matthew Barley (cello),  Paul Clarvis (drums, percussion), Sam Walton (percussion, marimba, vibraphone), Julian Joseph (piano)], Residenzschloss (Kleiner Schlosshof), Dresden, Germany,  25.5.2013. 

Bratsch: Bi Lovengo (arranged Matthew Barley),
John Lewis/Bratsch: Django (arranged Matthew Barley),
Béla Bartók: 44 Duets for two violins, Sz 98 (selection arranged Matthew Barley),
Zoltán Kodály: Duet for violin and cello, Op. 7,
Weather Report/Joe Zawinul: Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat (arranged Matthew Barley)
Matthew Barley:  Yura
Weather Report/Joe Zawinul: The Peasant (arranged Matthew Barley),
DuOud: For Nedim (arranged Matthew Barley)

Viktoria Mullova with the Matthew Barley Ensemble, photo Mat Dunlap (1)-22
Viktoria Mullova with the Matthew Barley Ensemble, photo Mat Dunlap (1)-22

I was fortunate to interview the renowned Russian born violinist Viktoria Mullova prior to her concert at the Residenzschloss in Dresden and I had heard a snippet of her rehearsal with her cellist husband Matthew Barley and his ensemble. Looking serious Mullova voiced her concerns to me about the acoustics where they were to play in a small hall of the Residenzschloss remarking that they couldn’t hear each other playing. As a professional she was quite right to look anxious. In truth, what little I had heard of the rehearsal had sounded as if they were performing in a building made entirely of cotton wool. They had been asked to play in a stone building that was in effect a high walled castle courtyard roofed with what looked like a clear thermoplastic material. For what must surely have been only for aesthetics reasons the stage had been positioned plumb in front of a large arch entrance to a passageway that served only to drain even more sound away from the audience.

For some years Mullova has been experimenting with the soundworld of jazz, folk and world music, an interest that resulted in the album ‘Through the Looking Glass’. I see it as a similar passion to that which Nigel Kennedy has been pursuing with his jazz ensemble and it seems most likely that Mullova’s husband Matthew Barley, a keen jazz lover, will have been a big influence. I’m not sure how successful it has been commercially but maybe the real intention is to try something different, demonstrate their versatility and perhaps show a degree of rebelliousness. As the repertoire for violin and cello is very small it is not surprising that Mullova will be looking for works that she can perform with her cellist husband.

This Residenzschloss concert by Viktoria Mullova and the Matthew Barley Ensemble consisted of performances of eight works all of which are included on their 2011 album ‘Peasant Girl’. All the arrangements have been made by Barley. This felt like an eclectic mix of musical influences where classical fuses with folk, gypsy, jazz and world music. Some may find it challenging to accept calling oneself a ‘Peasant Girl’ and living in the plush surroundings of Holland Park, London but if Mullova feels like a peasant girl in spirit then that’s all right with me.

As soon as they opened with Bi Lovengo by Bratsch a work featuring gypsy style fiddling from Mullova the muffled sound quality in the hall became evident. I could barely hear the cello although the percussion fared rather better. Another drawback was a continual low background hum which could have been caused by rain on the plastic roof or maybe by air conditioning. Clearly the sound never improved all evening but it was surprising how the ear became accustomed to the acoustics.

Next In Django by John Lewis/Bratsch was a tender piece featuring genial interplay between the violin and cello with particularly effective accompaniment by Sam Walton’s marimba. The selection from Bartók’s set of duets in the arrangements for violin and cello interspersed with contributions from the percussionists and piano was more to my taste and also probably helped by my ear getting used to the hall acoustic. If I didn’t know it already the Bartók demonstrated what a fine cellist Mathew Barley is.

Kodály’s Duet for violin and cello had a great appeal for me and it was impressively played by Mullova whilst the other three had left the stage. As it was the night of the all-German Champions League final Barley joked that the lads had gone off to watch the match. Given the gypsy elements in the score Barley remarked interestingly that they didn’t play gypsy music but celebrated it. Playing with an abundance of passion and commitment Mullova particularly and Barley too seemed very much at home in this repertoire. What the music may lack in memorable melodies it makes up for in emotional and stylistic contrasts. In the Bartók and Kodály works it was good to see Mullova standing erect playing those long violin lines with such passion and precision.

Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat by Weather Report/Joe Zawinul felt like a jam session involving all five players. Mullova hardly seemed overstretched by her part and I’m not sure how comfortable she felt either. But she wasn’t the only one as pianist Julian Joseph hardly had to break sweat all evening.

I also enjoyed the final work of the concert proper For Nedim. It contained a distinct Middle-Eastern flavour attributable to the North African heritage of the composers DuOud. The repetitive violin part increased in intensity and speed with everything feeling quasi-hypnotic yet at the same time somewhat disordered. In response to the enthusiastic audience applause they returned to the stage for a fascinating encore piece which allowed Mullova some opportunity to display her virtuosity. Oh, as pointed out by Matthew Barley the prize for the most ridiculous pair of trousers ever seen must go to drummer Paul Clarvis. I won’t dare to describe what they were like apart from being yellow.

In spite of all the sound issues I’m glad the audience were appreciative of being entertained – which is what really matters. Personally I’m not entirely convinced by Mullova’s ‘Peasant Girl’ material although I’m glad to have heard it played live and while I enjoyed parts of the concert I’m not too sure if I would want to hear it again for a while. Part of me feels that this wonderful violinist is only fully utilising her talent when she is playing the great concertos and works of classical music.

Michael Cookson