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Viktoria Mullova. Photo/Supplied; background/Getty Images

The Russian violinist who escaped from the USSR

Ahead of her New Zealand concerts, violin star Viktoria Mullova recalls her escape from the Soviet Union.

Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova’s high-profile defection to the West during the Cold War made international headlines. It began with a Soviet regime-sanctioned recital tour in Finland in 1983, requiring elaborate deceptions about the piano-playing abilities of her conductor boyfriend, Vakhtang Jordania, who travelled as her “accompanist”. They gave a KGB minder the slip and were driven across the Swedish border, knowing that any mistakes could mean exile to the gulag. Famously abandoned on her hotel bed was Mullova’s state-owned 1720 Stradivarius violin.

To ensure her defection gained career-enhancing publicity in the West, Mullova arranged for it to be revealed by a Finnish newspaper on a Saturday, timing that almost scuttled their plans. She and Jordania arrived in Stockholm to discover the US Embassy closed for the July 4 Independence Day long weekend. After two terrifying days hiding in their hotel room without political asylum, they were eventually driven to the embassy by Swedish police in a bullet-proof car, farcically disguised in blond Harpo Marx wigs. Two days later, they were in Washington.

In her mid-twenties when she defected, Mullova had already established an international reputation, winning the Sibelius Competition in Finland in 1980 and a gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982. In the former, she played the famous Violin Concerto, which she will perform in Auckland this month in very different circumstances. In film of the 1980 event, the young Mullova is a tense, unsmiling soloist in a demure, long-sleeved white dress. Her strong command of her violin, however, is nothing short of astonishing. In a recent conversation with the Listener, she explains the austerity of her youthful stage demeanour.

“A big chunk of my life as a young musician was being scared, terrified of making a mistake or not doing it right and the thought of not winning. This feeling accompanied my life from age four. Studying in Russia, I had to achieve really good results and win competitions. That was the main thing. I had to prepare the repertoire very well and win; second place was not enough. I had to be best and I had to be perfect. That’s a lot of pressure for a child.”

Now close to her 60th birthday, and still considered one of the world’s great violinists, she describes her defection as “a turning point, the best decision I’ve made. I gradually began to open up. If you’re scared, it’s an obstacle to making music, as you can’t make the music give something.”

Mullova will play with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of another Russian defector, Vladimir Ashkenazy. “I really admire his talent and musicianship, he’s a great musician.”

She claims her conception of the Sibelius concerto hasn’t changed greatly since that nervous competition nearly 40 years ago, but that she has changed as a musician. “It’s easier for me to play technically now, which is strange, because usually the older you get, the more difficult works are for your fingers.”

With the Russian “cult of perfectionism” behind her, Mullova blossomed in the West, collaborating with other musicians and developing broader repertoire interests. Acclaimed for her Bach performances, her approach to Baroque composers was hugely influenced by performing with the Italian ensemble Il Giardino Armonico and other “early music” greats. The abandoned Stradivarius was replaced by her Jules Falk Stradivarius from 1723 and she later acquired a fine second instrument, a 1750 Guadagnini, now strung with gut strings for playing early repertoire.

In New Zealand, she will play as the Viktoria Mullova Trio, with her husband, English cellist Matthew Barley, and New Zealand pianist Stephen De Pledge, in major chamber works by Schubert and Ravel. De Pledge, who has played separately with both Barley and Mullova, says the trio concert idea has been “bubbling away for about five years”, waiting to fit into the London-based couple’s busy schedule.

Mullova gives Barley a lot of credit for her more relaxed approach to music. “If I hadn’t met Matthew, I’d be very different. It’s wonderful to play with him, because I really admire his music-making; we have a very similar understanding about music and that helps when you play chamber music together.” Is it all harmonious? “Playing with my husband is challenging, because we argue a lot. Last year, we sorted it out and came to rehearse together as professionals, not as a couple. It went really well after that.”

Barley’s “genre-blurring” musical approach has also been an inspiration. Mullova brought her effortless virtuosity to a recent “crossover” programme with her husband, “Stradivarius in Rio”, where they were joined by a Brazilian guitarist and two percussionists. She has another project with Misha Mullov-Abbado, her 28-year-old son from her short first marriage to conductor Claudio Abbado. Together, she and her jazz double-bass player offspring have created a programme called “Music We Love”, consisting of songs, his compositions, improvisations and classical arrangements for the two instruments.

“I love this project and the Rio one with Matthew; they’re quite easy for me, because they’re very relaxed. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone about how well I play the violin; it’s just pure music and the enjoyment of it.”

Ashkenazy & Mullova, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, September 12; Viktoria Mullova Trio with Matthew Barley & Stephen De Pledge, Chamber Music NZ, Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, September 14-16; Matthew Barley & Stephen De Pledge, Chiaroscuro, Napier, Palmerston North, New Plymouth, September 10-12.

This article was first published in the September 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.