Arvo Pärt and Viktoria Mullova: searching for musical freedom

Andrew Mellor Mon 1st October 2018

In applying her trademark steel and passion to Arvo Pärt’s measured simplicity, Viktoria Mullova has found hidden depths in his music – perhaps because, like Pärt, this violinist knows what it is to experience Soviet repression, writes Andrew Mellor

Arvo Pärt and Viktoria Mullova (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Arvo Pärt and Viktoria Mullova (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

The Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn is typical of its kind: a classical (in this case, neo-classical) shoebox with a wrap-around upper gallery on three sides that makes way for the stage and organ at one end. But, as in the opera house that occupies the same building – the largest single structure in Estonia when it was inaugurated in 1913 – there is one rather beautiful twist. The velvet that sits like icing on top of the concert hall’s balcony front, just like that which lines the opera house’s boxes and circles, is not an ostentatious red but a deep, introverted blue.

It is the blue of Estonia’s flag, of course; the white of the walls and the black of the seat frames complete the tricolore. In that sense, it is also the blue of stoicism, of patience, and of hope lined with pain. It is the blue of hesitance but also the blue of unabashed dignity and cautious pride. The velvet might well resemble a steady chant, threaded through resounding white walls of silence. Arvo Pärt’s music must have been played countless times in plush auditoria of red, gold and mahogany. But listening to it here, in this architectural meeting of monastic purity with unerring resolve, the very thought seems ridiculous.

On the hall’s compact stage, Viktoria Mullova and Florian Donderer are recording Pärt’s Tabula rasa with around 25 members of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Paavo Järvi is on the podium, and Pärt himself is shuttling between the control room and the auditorium holding a Post-it note covered in handwritten notes.

Arvo Pärt and Viktoria Mullova (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Arvo Pärt and Viktoria Mullova (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

For music of such simplicity – or perhaps because of it – there is an awful lot to discuss and a very high margin for wobbles, noises off and textural collapse. ‘It’s the transparency that makes it difficult to record,’ says Mullova. ‘Normally if you touch another string or make a sound with your bow, you don’t hear it. In this music, the microphones will pick up everything.’ Particularly so in the section now recording, from Tabula rasa’s second movement, ‘Silentium’. Here, it is as if Pärt’s sounds hardly dare trespass upon those white walls of silence.

The composer is on stage talking to individual string players in Estonian, apparently dealing with bow strokes and emphasising the difference between the p and ppp markings that alternate, note by note, in the low strings. To Mullova, he speaks frequently and in Russian, singing occasionally. To Donderer, on leave from his regular duties as concertmaster of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Estonian Festival Orchestra, he speaks German. When Järvi addresses the soloists, it’s in English. It can feel as though this cacophony of verbal communication between takes is being raised on purpose, as if to prompt a natural swing back to stilled focus when the assembled musicians pick up their instruments to play.

Either way, Mullova – who is on the receiving end of the majority of the circulating opinions – remains largely calm but occasionally pointed in her responses. ‘Sometimes what you want, what actually comes out and what other people hear are all very different,’ she tells me after the second day of sessions is finished, across the road at one of Tallinn’s many new altitudinous, glass-fronted hotels. ‘You need to go around and listen to the takes, and to listen to other people. That’s how you change things. I couldn’t find the right sound for the start of Fratres [two pages of unaccompanied arpeggio figurations] so I tried different ways of using the bow, though not necessarily different bowings. There was one Arvo liked that he hadn’t encountered before. If you can find a new way of doing something and the composer can help, that’s fantastic.’

As interesting as it is to hear Mullova in this repertoire, in a sense we get only what is to be expected: strength and depth of tone, purposeful and clear articulation (particularly in Fratres, which follows after the first morning break), a certain eagerness (now and then the producer pulls her up on it over the loudspeaker) but an overall solidity that is audible as much from her instrument as it is visible from her characteristic motionless stance when playing. Her performances of both Tabula rasa and Fratres are markedly slower than the classic accounts from Gil Shaham under Järvi senior. But they are also more direct and emotive – angry, even – to a point that you might not expect the music could take. Apparently, it absolutely can.

Paavo Järvi, Arvo Pärt and Viktoria Mullova (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Paavo Järvi, Arvo Pärt and Viktoria Mullova (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Long before Mullova had played any Pärt on her Stradivarius, she was listening to the composer’s choral works on the 12 speakers of her Tesla’s sound system (she devours recorded music while driving). ‘I have goose-bumps when I hear it,’ she says. ‘His choral music is so powerful. I listened a lot to De profundis – a very dark piece.’ In 2015, she was invited by Paavo Järvi to participate in the Orchestre de Paris’s celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday, when she played Tabula rasaFratres and the Passacaglia. ‘I met Arvo at the Philharmonie de Paris. He came to all the rehearsals,’ Mullova recalls. ‘I really enjoyed playing the music and Paavo is one of my very favourite people to collaborate with. That’s why we decided to record it.’

But there is a deeper connection, too. As a teenager in the 1970s, Mullova’s first venture outside Russia was right here, to Soviet-controlled Tallinn. She returned a few times that decade, but this is her first time back in the city since she defected from the Soviet Union in 1983, and since Estonia gained its independence eight years later after decades of economic and social repression under communism. ‘I stayed in that hotel’, Mullova says, pointing across the road at the Sokos Viru. ‘I checked the name, “Viru”. It was the only Western hotel at the time, built by the Finns. I even remember what the room looked like. I can’t tell you how exciting it was – my first time in a different country, hearing a different language. I was here with my professor’s violin class and I am pretty sure we performed in the hall we’re recording in now.’

Mullova’s residual bitterness towards the Soviet Union – both political and musical (she still shudders at the mention of her teacher Leonid Kogan’s name) – is well documented. But experiencing, first hand, the anger she unleashes in the first double-stopped section of Fratres, it’s hard not to read her interpretation as an act of solidarity with the long-suffering Estonians. ‘I actually wonder if I have any Baltic blood in me,’ she says when we discuss the collective experience of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and even Finland (‘a country I feel very connected to’) and the musical fruits born of their respective Russian occupations. She describes Pärt’s works as carrying ‘a lot of pain’, a comment that echoes the composer’s own description of his music as ‘works of suffering’. But, she says, she actually asked Pärt if he holds politics or national imagery in his mind when composing. ‘He said he doesn’t. It’s just what he hears.’ So she followed up by asking where those ideas come from, and how he harbours them and transforms them into music. ‘He just said, “It’s all mathematics. And love.” Which makes sense.’

Viktoria Mullova, Paavo Järvi and Arvo Pärt (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Viktoria Mullova, Paavo Järvi and Arvo Pärt (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Mullova cuts an evocative figure on the Estonia Concert Hall’s stage, despite her comparative lack of movement while playing. She is dressed simply but highly appropriately, in a white shirt-dress with streaks of primitive patterning in deep blue, and folksy leather ankle boots. For all her here-and-now optimism and enjoyment of life, post-defection, her eyes, both close up and far away, barely conceal the not-quite-forgotten misery and sure determination that this very hall has witnessed courtesy of Estonia’s recourse to music in times of anguish.

‘The interesting thing about these countries around the Baltic Sea is that you get a lot more than you see on the surface,’ she says. ‘The people might seem cold and cool but underneath they are very, very emotional. They cry easily.’ Does that bear any relation to the music of Pärt – or to that of the Latvian Pēteris Vasks, whose violin concerto Distant Light she is soon to add to her repertoire? ‘Certainly in terms of the sorts of emotions and the musical clarity,’ she says. ‘Both Pärt and Vasks can do so much with so little and that is the reason they are so popular. Their works speak to people who don’t generally listen to classical music.’

She describes the major chord that comes at the end of Pärt’s Passacaglia. ‘You have the mathematics that he [Pärt] described in the final passage of music, and then you have a silence, and then you have this major chord. It’s just a major chord. But it tears your insides. I can feel it in my body.’ We discuss the silence that comes before it, and the even heavier silence that is scored in at the end of Tabula rasa (a whole four and a half bars with a general pause appended to each). ‘There’s a reason that silence is written there,’ she says. ‘It’s not just waiting.’

Capturing that silence – bottling it and encasing it within the plastic of a compact disc or the bits of an MP3 – is the dichotomy of recording distilled to its very essence. The more tangible difficulties in Pärt’s music come, says Mullova, in its consistency. She maintains that it is ‘not difficult to play technically’ (some violinists might disagree, but not all enjoy the benefits of Mullova’s hard-core training) but explains that ‘it becomes difficult because you stay for a long time on very, very high notes. It’s very hard to sustain – you feel like you are dying. But it’s good to hear that it’s difficult. If it’s too easy then it becomes too clean, like it’s played by a computer.’

‘What is dangerous now is that anything can be played in tune. You just adjust it with a machine, and that is the death of art’

The big developments in Mullova’s career since she was routinely associated with a fulsome, rock steady, deep-brown sound have been her embracing of historically informed performance techniques and tools, of gypsy music and of South American improvisatory styles. This, she says, has been vital for the preservation of humanity in her playing. ‘What is dangerous now is that anything can be played in tune. You just adjust it with a machine, and that is the death of art,’ she says. ‘I believe that when something is difficult, that difficulty is an important element of the music itself. When I made my first recording for Onyx, Vivaldi concertos with Il Giardino Armonico, I remember Giovanni [Antonini] saying “It’s good to hear the difficulty, that people know you struggled”.’

South American and gypsy music may have sated Mullova’s thirst for musical freedom. In that sense, Pärt can look like an odd repertoire move following those sojourns and her rip-roaring recording of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. How much freedom is there, really, in Pärt’s measured mathematics and provocative simplicity? How much room for human expression is there in his music derived from hymn and chant, which sails steadily along as if controlled by what Pärt has described as ‘the wing-beat of time’? Mullova draws another comparison with machines. ‘There is always freedom, because otherwise you would just play it electronically,’ she says. ‘You can decide, okay: this is the speed of the bow; this is the pressure. What is important is to feel that there is a person playing it.’

Her performance of Pärt’s Passacaglia the next day proves an interesting case study in the wake of those comments. Mullova’s is, in some ways, a fiery interpretation of this brief, compartmentalised piece. But it is a fire that benefits from a certain rigidity, as the solo violin part mutates from quavers, into triplets and then into semi-quavers. The emotive qualities in her interpretation come not from playing fast and loose with the notes or with Pärt’s ‘mathematics’, but instead from her particular use of the bow, often at the heel. In response, Paavo Järvi stops the orchestra – numbering rather more than for Tabula rasa the day before – and urges its strings to dig deeper into the oom-pah gestures that form the short piece’s structural turning point.

It’s hard to imagine a violinist other than Mullova playing that particular passage with such a combination of steel, passion and perfection – Mullova trademarks if ever there were any. It seems obvious that however much she might wish to disown her roots in the Russian School, the lessons learned are still paying dividends. Are they, in fact, allowing her to pursue even greater freedoms? ‘You can only be imaginative, and develop taste and interpretation, when you have your basic technique right,’ she concurs. ‘If you can’t play scales then you can’t be free to create music. I find there are people in the West, even people with careers, who lack this technique. I can see the lack of technical ability.’

The scars of Mullova’s nationality and training still run deep, despite her reconnection with her father in Siberia shortly before his death in 2010 and her subsequent visits to his family. In her very first interview with Gramophone, published in January 1987, she was already distancing herself from the Tchaikovsky concerto 
(it is no longer in her repertoire). Apart from that, there was little sign of the huge relief and tinge of guilt she felt to be out of Soviet Russia. ‘I have really horrible memories of Moscow,’ she admits. ‘I was very isolated, I didn’t have any friends. All I remember from that time is practice, practice, practice – and fear. Fear of every situation I found myself in. Fear of playing, fear of competitions, fear of Leonid Kogan who was so scary for me. That’s why I didn’t want to reconnect to it.’

But is the technique instilled in her by that training, the technique that won Mullova the Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius competitions (the latter paving the way for defection) and appears to have survived intact, a price worth paying? ‘I’m very grateful for it,’ she responds. ‘I was saying to my husband [the cellist Matthew Barley] the other day that I’m only three generations away from Leopold Auer, even though he was living in the 19th century. And it was Auer who really created the Russian school from this marriage of the Hungarian gypsy tradition to the Austro-Hungarian tradition.’ The observation speaks volumes about the stylistic DNA of Mullova’s own playing.

But still, she fears a cult of perfection that she believes shows few signs of dissipating. ‘Perfection is very boring,’ she says. ‘You hear some young players now – amazing violinists and pianists – and their technique is just fantastic; they’ve practised long hours and achieved incredible things and in some instances become famous. But sometimes I feel it’s just too easy for them. The humanity has become lost. And it’s not just pianists and violinists either. It’s everyone – even ballet dancers.’

Back at the sessions, the assembled party has been working on the five minutes of Pärt’s Passacaglia for well over an hour. Mullova is at the back of the stage now, discussing the timbre of the percussionist’s marimba sticks. The orchestra’s leader Arvo Leibur is on his feet too, analysing bowings with the viola section. The level of detail to which all are working on this music, with its astonishingly low rate of notes per page, is remarkable. Even more so is Mullova’s reconciliation of her personal response to Pärt’s music with the composer’s own constant interjections.

With all this discussion and dissection, I worry that the musicians will soon lose sight of the wood for the trees. But over time, when the complex alchemy of musical opinion gives way to humans breathing and playing together, the piece appears to drift into its own space – to find its own equilibrium that suits this room, these people and this particular moment in time; the reason anybody re-records anything. The notes on the page remain as fixed as the velvet-lined balcony and sturdy organ case of the hall. But in this evermore hectic world – not least for Estonia, now spoken of so often as the start-up powerhouse of Europe, cradle of the minds that brought us Skype and TransferWise – the slower but more resolved approach that these musicians have found in Pärt’s music seems to me an appropriate counterpoint. They appear to have found an accord.

But just to check, I call Viktoria Mullova a couple of days later to gauge the progress of the sessions that happened after I left. ‘It was very good,’ she says. ‘They say they have never seen Pärt so happy.’

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Gramophone. To explore our latest subscription offers, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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