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MULLING OVER MULLOVA
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 comfortable.

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 parts.

"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.


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