LONDON (Reuters) - There’s a word that crops up in relation to violinist Viktoria Mullova’s recent performances, one not often associated with the cosseted classical music world, and that word is “danger.”
Her recent recording of Beethoven’s popular Kreutzer sonata for violin and piano (Onyx 4050) was singled out by one critic for the “nervous quality” of Mullova’s playing and the “extra excitement, danger even,” she and accompanist Kristian Bezuidenhout of South Africa created by using gut strings on the violin and an 1822 fortepiano rather than a modern grand.
“That was how Beethoven was hearing his music — in his head, of course, because he couldn’t hear it otherwise,” Mullova, referring to the composer’s increasing deafness at the time he wrote the piece, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Gut strings require a different playing technique from modern metal ones and the fortepiano has a knack for rapidly going out of tune — making everything that much more difficult.
But this is exactly what Mullova has been working toward, ever since one of the most prominent musical defectors from the former Soviet Union — where she was trained in the big, romantic Moscow Conservatory style — decided to become equally adept in the so-called “period” playing techniques.
“We have so many recordings these days of the Beethoven sonatas I don’t think it’s interesting anymore to hear another one, they are all played more or less in the same way,” she said, with a noticeable accent perhaps betraying that Mullova, although she defected in 1983 and lives in London, remains faithful to the “Russian soul.”
“I didn’t record it because I wanted to be different, but because I wanted to go to the actual composition, how it was intended to be,” she added, underscoring the determination that allowed her to slip away from the Soviet state music industry.
“It’s not like I have stopped playing in the Russian way,” she noted, promising “big sound and vibrato all over the place” when she tackles Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra during a three-month residency at London’s Barbican, starting Sept 30, as part of the UBS Soundscapes program.
Here’s what else she had to say about why she made the change to gut strings, what it was like defecting, leaving her parents behind, and her likes and dislikes about Russia today.
Q: You had a perfectly good career, recording for a major label and performing the “big concertos” with major orchestras. What possessed you to delve into the highly specialized, and some might say “anoraky,” world of period performance, using gut strings instead of metal — which produce a bigger sound?
A: “It basically started from meeting my friend (bassoonist Marco Postinghel, in Paris) and listening to him talk about recordings. It was in the early ‘90s, and then I realized how little I knew...and he gave me some recordings to listen to and I listened to the Giardino Armonica (an Italian early music ensemble) and it was amazing how beautiful it was...Then the big push was an invitation from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (a British orchestra specializing in period performance) and that’s how it all started because I was obliged to change the strings.”
Q: Of course, this is partly a process of turning your back on what you learned under the Soviet music regime. If you had it to do over, would you still defect, leaving everything behind?
A: “Right now it’s very difficult to say because I have children myself and I could imagine how hard it was for my parents to realize they would never see me again....But what I can say is I don’t regret that I defected because they were great years and I started my career and I don’t think it would have been as easy to do that now.”
Q: When you go back to Russia, what is it like for you?
A: “I don’t like Moscow very much, it’s changed in a way, it’s become very commercial and people changed a little bit. I feel more at home and I feel more Russian in small places, like when I went to visit my father’s family in Irkutsk near Baikal in Siberia and that kind of Russia I like a lot, it’s still the same people that I don’t think have changed.
Q: As for yourself, have we got the final incarnation of Viktoria Mullova, or is there another version yet to come?
A: “I just came from a trip, I played with Reinhard Goebbel, leader of Musica Antiqua Koln, a group which doesn’t exist anymore though they recorded a lot for DG (Deutsche Grammophon) and his interpretations are so different from anything you ever heard before, whether you agree or disagree, but he has a major knowledge about this music. So I came away like completely my head was turning around and I realized again that I know nothing so again a change is probably going to come in the way of playing. It never stops, when you meet musicians like that, they influence you so much.” (Viktoria Mullova performs three violin concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra, Sept 30-Dec 21, as well as chamber works and an “artist conversation.” www.barbican.org.uk)