By Laurence Vittes
Like her playing, Viktoria Mullova is eternally young, curious, and ready to explore. Her new Onyx recording of Arvo Pärt’s music for violin and orchestra, conducted by Paavo Järvi, represents yet another milestone in her remarkable career.
This season, Mullova will be presenting the US (Seattle Symphony) and UK (London Philharmonic) premieres of Pascal Dusapin’s exciting new double “violincello” concerto for Mullova and her husband Matthew Barley. Based on the Irish novelist Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, written in the same year as James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the Seattle Symphony describes Dusapin’s “sonic tradition” as “distinctly French, filled with the same joie de vivre that enlivens Debussy’s Petite Suite.”
Sibelius and Beethoven will also play a large part in Mullova’s 2018–19 season. She will play the Sibelius Concerto in Sweden, Gateshead, London, Cardiff, and Lucerne. Leading into the Beethoven 250th birthday bash in 2020, Mullova will play the Beethoven Concerto with Kent Nagano conducting at the new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, and with period-instrument specialist Giovanni Antonini conducting the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo. She will string her Strad with gut strings to play Beethoven sonatas with fortepianist Alasdair Beatson in Gateshead and Antwerp.
I understand that you only met Arvo Pärt recently?
Yes, I met him for the first time in Paris three years ago when Paavo Järvi invited me to participate on two concerts he was conducting in Paris, entirely of Pärt’s music. It was an 80th birthday celebration with the Orchestre de Paris at the new Pierre Boulez hall. I was very excited that Pärt came to the rehearsals and to the concerts. He was very excited himself and very warm. I had played the violin and piano version of Fratres but it was the first time I played his music with orchestra.
How did the concerts turn out?
They went very well but there were some anxious moments. Just two weeks before the concerts I fell while climbing in the mountains and damaged ligaments in my left hand. I didn’t know if I would be able to play at all. However, the concerts went so well that I asked Paavo if we could record an all-Pärt disc together. He was very excited about the idea, as was the composer, but I had to wait a long time before finding dates that fit into Paavo’s schedule. When we finally fixed the dates Pärt notified me that he would be at the all recording sessions so we could work on the pieces together.
What is Pärt’s writing for the violin like?
For me his writing has some similarities with Beethoven’s. It looks very simple but there is a lot you can do with it and at times it can be harder than a piece of romantic music. His writing in these pieces seemed very simple and easy to play but when I started working on them I realized how wrong I was. In fact his Spiegel im Spiegel is the hardest piece technically I’ve ever played. It’s very slow and very long—nearly ten minutes—and very hard to sustain a bow for such a long time whilst still making music.
How does listening to one work at a time, as on the radio or streaming, contrast to listening to the whole CD straight through?
For me it doesn’t matter if I listen to just one piece from an album or the whole thing. In fact I prefer to listen to playlists I create on shuffle: You never know what comes next and it’s nice to be surprised! But of course, if I buy a new CD I want to hear the whole disc and decide what my favorite tracks are. It’s rare though that I happen to like a complete album.
Tell me about Pascal Dusapin’s new double concerto for you and your husband?
After I met Pascal through a close friend of mine a few years ago Matthew had the idea of asking him to write a concerto for us. At first Pascal said that he had just finished a cello concerto and before that a violin concerto so he didn’t feel like he was ready to write another piece for the same instruments. But when Matthew said to him, “This one should be completely different. You can call it a violincello concerto”—which we thought was quite funny—Pascal decided to do it. He called it At Swim-Two-Birds from Flann O’Brien’s novel. It took him only few months to write.
Who commissioned the piece?
It was commissioned by Netherlands Radio, which gave the premiere performance in Amsterdam, the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Torino, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Orchestre National de France, the Seattle Symphony, and the London Philharmonic.
Was it love at first sight?
As with all new pieces we didn’t know what it would be like. When we started to practice our parts we found them to be very difficult, individually and especially playing them together. We spent a couple of months rehearsing just the two of us, trying to make sense of the piece; only after the first rehearsal with the orchestra in Amsterdam, however, when we were really hearing it complete for the first time, were we really able to appreciate the music. And now each time we play this first ever violincello concerto we love it more and more. In my opinion it’s a masterpiece.
What will your next recording be?
I don’t know yet but I am preparing a new program with my son Misha Mullov-Abbado who is a jazz bass player and a composer. We will play arrangements and some of his own compositions. The program is called Music We Love. We will be touring it together next year, and may record it at some point in the future.