The Rebellious Violinist: Michael Cookson Interviews Viktoria Mullova

The Rebellious Violinist: Michael Cookson interviews Viktoria Mullova

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


In 1983 I remember reading about a young but highly regarded violinist from the Soviet Union called Viktoria Mullova who had fled to the West during an overseas recital tour. She arrived, seeking political asylum at the American Embassy in Stockholm, with her boyfriend who had been acting as her accompanist. I recollect thinking that it was just like a plot from John le Carré or Len Deighton Cold War spy novel and in many ways it was. I’m not sure if I had come across this violinist’s name before her escape from the clutches of the KGB but I have followed her progress with interest since, and she has become one of the most renowned violinists on the international stage. This has now been explained in great detail in her biography ‘From Russia to Love’: The Life and Music of Viktoria Mullova as told to Eva Maria Chapman (The Robson Press UK, 2012).

It was a few weeks ago at the Dresden Music Festival 2013 that I met the slim, lithe and fresh looking Mullova; appearing far younger than her fifty three years. She was once rather wickedly dubbed as an “Ice Maiden”. I must admit that I’m surprised that she didn’t turn it round to her advantage more and use Ice Maiden as the memorable name for one of her tours or a CD. She was waiting in the green room and had just finished rehearsing for ‘The Peasant Girl’ concert that evening with the Matthew Barley Ensemble. The concert was to be given in the smaller of the two courtyards that form part of the State Museums complex in what was the Royal Palace, once the permanent residence of Saxon Kings and Queens. The space where the concert was to be held is, in effect, a high walled castle courtyard roofed with a thermoplastic material to create a dome.

I had heard a snippet of her rehearsal with her cellist husband Matthew Barley and his ensemble. Looking serious Mullova voiced her concerns about the acoustics of the space where they were to perform; remarking that they “couldn’t hear each other playing.” As a professional performer, no doubt eager to show herself at her best, she was quite right to look anxious. For what must surely have only been for aesthetic reasons the stage had been positioned in the courtyard plumb in front of a large arched entrance to a passageway that served only to drain more sound away from the audience. In truth what little I had heard of the rehearsal had sounded as if they were performing in a building clad entirely in cotton wool.

For some years Mullova has been experimenting with a crossover soundworld, an immersion 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 second husband Matthew Barley, a keen jazz performer, has 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 not wide it’s not surprising that Mullova has been looking for works that she can perform with her husband. This Dresden Royal Palace concert by Viktoria Mullova and the Matthew Barley Ensemble consisted of performances of eight works, all of which are included on their 2011 album ‘The Peasant Girl’. Including, ass it did, Kodály’sDuet for violin and cello it was an eclectic mix of musical influences where classical fuses with folk, gypsy, jazz and world music in arrangements made by Barley. (See

I have read several Mullova interviews over the years and a sense of her being guarded with her answers seems to be a commonly held theme so I was quite prepared for her to answer with a degree of caution. As Mullova has been settled in Britain living in London for some years now I asked her if she felt British and I was taken quite by surprise by the strength of her lightening quick and rather curt response that she “didn’t feel especially British” adding that “I don’t feel anything.” Almost making an excuse for her I asked her if she felt more ‘International’ in a way what with all the travelling that she does which she agreed might be the case.

In ‘From Russia to Love ’ Mullova recounts how she left the Soviet Union and with a nerve racking plan defected to Sweden then very quickly arrived in America. “Yes, I went to America for two years, lived in New York and just wanted to be in Europe so I went back there… I found I couldn’t settle in New York. It was too busy, too distractive and I didn’t like the climate, which was either too hot or too cold. New York felt much colder than Russia. It’s so windy. I don’t feel comfortable with the extremes of temperature. With Russia and Moscow in particular not exactly being famous for its warm winters I was left wondering if there was another more candid reason for leaving America.

With regard to the much reported Holland Park property in an affluent part of London where she lives together with Matthew Barley and her children I asked about its refurbishment. She quickly corrected me “it was not a renovation it was a full rebuild. In fact it was a burned out building that I had demolished and completely rebuilt as a new house.” It came as no surprise when she confirmed that this successful project had a music room (and why not?), and one can only imagine the dimensions of the space.

Being interested by her ability to memorise a number of music scores I asked about her talent for recall and her answer was that she has an especially “good memory for dates, rather than numbers.” As she has to plan everything ahead like the kids’ school holidays and half-terms she described her ability for remembering dates up to two years or so ahead.

Late last year in an interview Anne Sophie Mutter explained to me that in these cash ridden times the performers like herself at the top of her profession haven’t been affected too much by the global recession. Concert organisers want bums on seats and the best known musicians can virtually guarantee to have the highest audiences, as long as they play familiar repertoire. Viktoria Mullova is in that elite category and I’m always fascinated about the influence that the finest players have on concert planners. So I ask how it was decided what she would play at this Dresden Music Festival appearance. She revealed that the organisers had asked for ‘The Peasant Girl’ crossover programme having probably heard a CD, or maybe they saw something on YouTube. I can’t help feeling that Mullova playing something like the Beethoven, Brahms or Sibelius concertos in a larger concert hall would have attracted a far greater audience than the more intimate setting of the small covered courtyard of the State Palace that revealed a number of empty seats. Having said that ‘The Peasant Girl’ programme allowed her to have a welcome break from the classical music repertoire and have the intimacy and satisfaction of playing with her husband and his ensemble.

I asked her what happens with programme selection with concert organisers and she explains “they will usually ask me to play for them and then ask me what in particular I want to play and then I give them a choice.” In response I ask if the concert organisers ever say that they want you to play the Tchaikovsky concerto for example? “Sometimes they do” she says “In which case I say I don’t play the Tchaikovsky now, and they either take something else or take another violinist.So if she doesn’t want to play a particular work, even if she has it in her repertoire, then she won’t play it “because I play what I want to play.” This is clearly a highly privileged yet understandable approach that performers not part of this elite group couldn’t afford to take.

Many of the top performers like to play new works that they have commissioned themselves. She explains that “Mathew and I commissioned a concerto from Austrian composer Thomas Larcher for violin and cello which we premièred a couple of years ago and we played it at the Proms.” Also commissioned is a work from Dai Fujikura, a Japanese composer based in London, who is going to write her a seven minute piece to fit into a programme of Bach. This will enable her to play contemporary music from Fujikura on her Stradivarius fitted with a modern set up and J.S. Bach on her gut stringed Guadagnini. Mullova doesn’t feel that she has changed into a baroque player “I’ve just added something to my repertoire, to my playing.”She was keen to stress “I just didn’t suddenly become a baroque player. I still play Shostakovich and Brahms. I still play Prokofiev and contemporary music, so I don’t see it as changing.”

An obvious question but a pertinent one nevertheless is how easy is it to adjust between a violin with gut strings to one with a modern set-up? Mullova explains that “It’s easier now than before. In the beginning it was very difficult because it’s a different technique.” This left me wondering if she has ever before played a violin with a modern set-up and one fitted with gut strings in the same concert. She explained that she did once. “I was playing with Giuliano Carmagnola [Editor: A renowned Italian early music specialist] in a programme for two violins. We played baroque music by C.P.E. Bach, Leclair and Haydn together with the Prokofiev Sonata for two violins. So we did change our instruments during the concert. It was okay.” During a concert that I attended only a few day previously at the Albertinum in Dresden I tell her that it felt like Carmignola’s gut strung violin was going out of tune during his performance. She seemed surprised “Was it really! My violin doesn’t go out of tune. I’m very lucky with mine as it usually stays in tune. With gut strings it’s mainly a question of strings, tuning pegs – that sort of thing.”

Always wanting to promote the cause of British Music to the world’s finest performers I was wondering how familiar she was with the violin concertos by Elgar, Walton and Britten. She thought for a moment and I was heartened when she said “I haven’t played them… but maybe I will.” It was no surprise when she brought up the ‘international’ theme again. Mullova doesn’t believe that you have to be British to play British concertos or that only Russians can play Russian music. “For me music is international. Maybe one day I’ll play the Britten concerto. Yes I like parts of what I heard but I don’t know it that well. The Walton Concerto also maybe. The Elgar for me is probably too long.” I was somewhat perplexed by her disclosure that its length was the reason for not playing it, leaving me thinking that if she really rated the Elgar the length would be inconsequential. So I asked her if she had formed an opinion of the work and she candidly revealed “You know, I don’t listen to violin music very much. I never do really.”

I wanted to know which group of violin concertos she was currently playing in concert. It seems that she is playing the Beethoven concerto a lot and that she has started to play Shostakovich’s first concerto again this year and no longer plays the second concerto. She imparts “You see it changes. Every year for me is different and I come back to playing some composers. There was a year when I played quite a lot of Sibelius and another year when I played quite a lot of Shostakovich. I try to concentrate on one or two concertos each season and then change.”

With her new release of Bach violin concertos with Italian early music group Accademia Bizantina directed by Ottavio Dantone on the Onyx label the Baroque era is clearly still a prime area of concentration for Mullova. It was with the London based period instrument group, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, that she started playing on gut strings about fifteen years ago. “Then I started to play with Il Giardino Armonico from Milan and lots of other Baroque orchestras, and I have made recordings with harpsichord accompaniment. So you see I am playing this more and more.” Mullova is in the enviable position of having two valuable violins that she selects according to the repertoire. Her Jules Falk Stradivarius (1723) is fitted with gut strings and the Guadagnini (1750) has metal strings.

In a thirty year concert career Mullova has played with a large number of conductors so I ask her which of them she feels especially at one with. It is at this point that she shows the most enthusiasm. “I like very much Paavo Järvi. For quite a while now he has positions with five orchestras. He is very good with a wide range of repertoire.” In addition she also likes to work with Esa-Pekka Salonen. Eagerly she explained “they are both very good musicians, you can tell by their approach to the music. Both are nice to work with too.”

Since she has played with so many of the world’s elite orchestras and also with those less highly regarded, I wondered if she noticed the difference between the playing of different orchestras. “Well an awful lot depends on the conductor and what the conductor can get out from the musicians. Also a lot depends on the spirit of the orchestra. Sometimes the orchestra may be less known but if they have real spirit, which I can hear from the playing they make, it can be wonderful.” As an example Mullova highlights the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie of Bremen as one of her favourite orchestras, explaining how the orchestra started out as young players who although are older now “they seem young because they play with the same enthusiasm. They are always open to learning new things, they are always curious and are a great bunch of people. Paavo Järvi, whom I mentioned earlier, is the orchestra’s artistic director.”

I remember an interview I had in Munich with baroque violinist, now conductor, Andrew Manze. He disclosed that if he didn’t play the violin for a while then he would struggle to get back to performance standard. This is not the case with Mullova who feels lucky that she can play after a break. “Twenty years ago I couldn’t do that as it was difficult for me. But not now and I don’t know why. I sometimes take time off and I can leave off playing for a month or so and pick it up straight away.”

As a concluding question I ask her if she considers herself an analytical or an intuitive player.Quick as a flash she retorts “I’m an intuitive player. You see I don’t like rules… I don’t follow rules easily. Especially with Baroque music, people feel they need to know how it was really played but no one knows how it was played. Then they analyse and analyse but I don’t, I’ve no interest in doing all that, I’m lazy.” I wonder if she means she cannot find any enthusiasm for analysing music scores from back to front. Mullova says “I don’t like rules, I break rules.” Immediately I wonder if this aspect of her character made it easier for her to escape Soviet Russia when she did. “Yes it did. I’m the rebellious type… Yeah, I am, definitely.”

Michael Cookson