by John Sidgwick
LONDON - Viktoria Mullova's credentials as a leading modern virtuoso are
impeccable. Since her arrival in the west some ten years ago, she has
forged a position for herself as one of the world's great violinists and
her repertoire is impressively wide. Yet she held surprises in store for
us. First there came her recording of the unaccompanied sonatas and
partitas by J.S.Bach, issued in 1994. Suddenly we were confronted with
playing on the modern violin that was imbued with all the lightness and
dance that one has come to expect from baroque performers. Now, there has
just come out a disc of Bach concertos (Philips Classics) played with her
own ensemble of like-minded musicians. A delight from beginning to end.
Tense alertness in the swift movements, delicate and sensitive embroidery
in the slow movements. And overall, a spirit of authentic
authenticity...that of the musician.
I called on Mullova in her
south London home recently. She took me into the large and
sparsely-furnished ground floor room and squatted on a cushion on the
floor. As usual, I was struck by the grace of her movements and it
occurred to me once again that had I not known that she was a violinist, I
would have sworn that she was a dancer, for all the world like some sort
of latter-day Isadora Duncan.
Mullova's presence is calm and
contained, whatever may be the fires smouldering beneath. She is quite
clearly an intensely private person. It is probably this aspect of her
nature that has betrayed some musicians into claiming that her
performances tend to lack in warmth. To charge such people with preferring
to listen with their eyes rather than their ears would certainly be
excessive. But it is true that the history of musical criticism is
littered with examples of otherwise thoroughly-reliable and sensitive
observers making occasional and bewildering lapses of judgment.
I immediately tackled Mullova
on her Bach performance
style. "How did you come to this? Surely you did not learn to
play Bach like that during your youth in Russia?" She laughed and
said, "Good heavens, no!" She explained that she had met the
bassoonist, Marco Postinghel, some four years ago and had let herself be
guided by him. "He is very knowledgeable about music and particularly
baroque music. I think he's a genius."
Mullova worked with Postinghel
regularly for several months. "At first, I needed constant lessons; I
couldn't do without him. Not only was it a question of learning a new
style; there were also technical things that I had to work out. Gradually,
I was able to be on my own. I made the recording of the Bach sonatas and
partitas. Actually, I think I've made progress since then in the
performance of this music."
She has also listened to
recordings made by many of the leading early music performers and attended
their concerts. She is particularly admirative of John Eliot Gardiner and
the English Baroque Soloists. "Gardiner is such a fine musician; and
you've only got to watch his musicians in concert to see how much they are
enjoying themselves. The only thing, of course, is that they are playing
on period instruments." I asked her if she would ever consider
playing the baroque violin. Almost sadly, she shook her head. "No,
it's just too different."
Indeed, it is unlikely that
anybody today could maintain a concert career at the highest level on both
instruments. There would be too many adjustments to be maintained
constantly. Even the changes of pitch would
be a permanent source of confusion.
I asked about the repertoire of
Mullova's ensemble. "So far, it's what's on the disc. We made the
recording on one day during our tour last year. But we are thinking of
doing the Schubert octet. And we shall be preparing some Couperin for the
Berlin Festival. Everybody tells me, however, that French music is very
difficult to get right, so I'm looking forward to working at it. But the
great thing is that in the ensemble, we all want to be sure of enjoying
ourselves. Otherwise, it simply isn't worth doing."
In December last year, it was
reported in the press that the performance Mullova was due to give at the
Royal Albert Hall of the Tchaikowsky Violin Concerto would be her last one
of this particular work. Was this really so? "Yes, it is just too
exhausting. It's difficult to imagine just how tiring it is. And to be
quite honest, for the amount of effort you have to put in, the musical
content isn't really worth it. I'd much prefer to spend my time on
learning and performing more interesting modern repertoire."
This led the conversation on
to a terrain familiar to violinists the world over: aches and pains.
Mullova said that until recently, she had been free from trouble. But now,
somebody comes regularly to give her massage, on account of pains on the
right hand side of her neck. "Having children has probably had its
effect on my body. [Mullova has a son of five and a daughter of one-and-a
half.] Also, the position we have to adopt to play is a crazy one."
She demonstrated. "Just look at that. And then, I have a long neck.
Fortunately, there are shoulder-rests today. I just couldn't do without
one. In any case, almost everybody uses one now."
I told her that it was
precisely on account of the discomfort of playing the violin and the viola
that in my retirement I had decided to play the 'cello. So much more
Her face lit up. "Can you
play The Swan yet?" I assured her that my ambitions were far more
limited. Renaissance music and any of the easier Haydn and Mozart cello
"I tried the cello,"
she said, but it's so different in everything. There's the bow hold and
the position of the strings, everything."
"For how long did you try?"
"Oh, for half-an-hour at
least. Than I gave up." I suggested to her that even with her immense
talent, half-an-hour was putting it a bit on the short side.
Finally, what about practice? "I
find I don't need to do so much as I used to. And if three days go by
without my playing, I can get back into it with a day's practice. It used
not to be like that."
As I walked away from Mullova's
house, I could not help feeling amazed that an established international
virtuoso had been willing to bring into question her whole style of
playing music which for most violinists is the essential sustenance from
cradle to grave, the violin music of J.S.
Bach. More importantly, Viktoria Mullova has demonstrated that it
really is possible to be utterly faithful to the fundamental message of
the music and perform it on an instrument for which it was not conceived,
something which up to now has not been readily admitted.
here for the Guide to Baroque Instruments
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