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Viktoria Mullova - Ice Queen melts to the bluesBy Norman Lebrecht / February 14, 2001
The most austere of classical violinists had to turn her technique upside down to play jazz.
THE poster leapt out at me from the wall of an Italian opera house, and I had to read it twice. Viktoria Mullova, the most austere of classical violinists, was on a jazz and blues tour with a band of "amici". Come again? Mullova, also known as the Ice Queen, was doing riffs and wrinkles on Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul, Youssou N'Dour and other laid-back legends - and, judging by what I got to hear, doing them with respect and feeling.
This is not what you might expect from a winner of the Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius competitions, a precision instrument forged in the Moscow powerhouse of sinewy virtuosity. Mullova left Russia in 1983 and has lived for the past decade in Britain.
This month she brings the tour home, not without trepidation. "It was Matthew, all Matthew," she sighs, meaning her husband, Matthew Barley, a cellist who flits from playing ascetic modernisms with the London Sinfonietta to jazz gigs in smoky dives. "Matthew has been a big influence," she says. "He just changed my life."
Barley introduced her to the jazz pianist Julian Joseph and the percussionists Paul Clarvis and Colin Currie, all of whom cross fluently from classical to other genres without yielding to the gilded temptations of commercial crossover. Mullova heard the guys improvising together and envied their interactive freedoms.
"You need courage to do that," she says. "I thought I could never do it. When you have been trained as a classical soloist, it is very difficult after 30 years to play something which is not written. You have been raised to play every single note and play it perfect. You are terrified of making a mistake. All my stage fright is about playing wrong notes. The more scared I am, the better I play."
Barley wrote down some arrangements for her, but she could not grasp the idiom. "It's a completely different way of playing," she explains. "When we tried a Beatles song, he would say, 'Don't play the rhythm I wrote down, try something else.' I couldn't do it."
Barley was keen to produce a record and booked a quiet hall in Suffolk. One day in Sydney, weeks before the recording date, he shut the door of their hotel room and played a blues scale on the cello. "Then I played the chords myself, pizzicato, while he developed a melody and we just exchanged phrases back and forth a few times," she reports. "After that I felt completely wrecked. I realised I had to open up. I was so excited."
It was playing off the pianist, Julian Joseph, that got her through the recording. "Julian was very gentle. He knew I could not improvise, but if I played one or two notes that were not written he would give me such an encouraging smile . . ." In the final edit, Mullova, for the first time in her life, agreed to leave in her "wrong" notes because the ones she had played "right" on alternate takes had different accompaniments from her flexible friends.
The disc, Through the Looking Glass, is an assortment of moody blues. But when Mullova hits her stride in Erroll Garner's Misty and Mike Hazelwood's The Air that I Breathe she brings to the music more than anyone knew was there, as a good film script does to an original novel. There is nothing compromised about this project, nothing that a corporate record label can take credit for.
On tour, before concerts, she now insists on having a jam session backstage "in order to connect and loosen up". The Ice Queen is glistening in the warmth of a new-found sun. Playing blues has made her listen differently to the orchestra when playing a concerto, easing her adamantine stage immobility. She writes more of her own cadenzas and has a more acute awareness of audience reactions.
Her clothes, too, have loosened. When playing the Stravinsky concerto, her current trademark piece, she wears a red Yamamoto creation with a ruched rear, which more than one conductor has tried to pull down, thinking that it was caught in her undergarments. For Brahms she wears brown, for jazz she bares her midriff.
Yet she makes no concession to fashion. As the Looking Glass tour packs her diary, she is busily relearning the Schoenberg concerto, the most refractory piece in the repertoire, which she will play in Los Angeles this year on the 50th anniversary of the great scale-breaker's death. With the pianist Katia Labeque, Mullova has taken to commissioning new recital works.
Mullova - "Vika" to her friends - conforms neither to stereotype nor to her gelid nickname. At 41, with three children, she is model-slim with a girlish complexion, more alluring than bimbo-fiddlers half her age. Her playing was always warmer than it looked and her outlook livelier than other captives on the classical treadmill.
In the dorms of the Moscow Conservatoire, she used to listen to the Bee Gees after lights out. Her defection was virtually the last artistic flight from the collapsing Soviet Union. "I couldn't wait," she says. "I had to be free. I didn't even care if I never played the violin again."
With her boyfriend, the conductor Vakhtang Jordania, she sought asylum after a recital in Finland. She left Jordania three years later in America and moved to London, where she met Claudio Abbado at the LSO, and sparks flew.
Abbado, married and 30 years her senior, was smitten. "He was crazy about her," observes an orchestral player, "and wouldn't let her out of his sight." She moved into his penthouse in Vienna, where Abbado was music director of the Staatsoper, but when Mullova got pregnant in 1991 the relationship fell apart.
Seven months pregnant, she packed up, flew to London and bought a house. Abbado pays maintenance for their son, Misha, but does not see him. "It is very painful," she says tersely.
Her second child, Katia, six, came from a one-year relationship with Alan Brind, a player in the European Community Youth Orchestra. Six years ago she met and married Matthew Barley; they have a three-year-old daughter, Nadia.
Unlike other circuit soloists, she refuses to delegate child care to a team of nannies, juggling her diary and Matthew's to make sure that one of them is home for the kids. She will sometimes take a daughter on tour, or fly them out to join her for a weekend in Berlin. Family, she insists, is more important to her than music: "Each year I promise myself to play less."
H er one disappointment in the jazz tour is its failure to reach a new public. "It's exactly the same audience as my recitals, because they promote these concerts in classical venues," she frets. "How does one reach other people?" Bound hand and foot to antediluvian agents, she longs to break through without concession, as Kennedy has done, to an audience that is, in her phrase, "not classical at all".
But this is a minor gripe beside the musical freedoms that she has finally found, 18 years after her escape to freedom. "All my life," says Mullova, "I was trained to be perfect. If you made a mistake in the Soviet Union, your whole life was in trouble. I feared being criticised. I had this terror that people would laugh at me on stage, or ridicule me. Now I feel happy, at last."
24 July 2000: Peak performance [review of Mullova at the Proms]
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]