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Hers is a story from which good novels come; the discovery of an innate musical talent and a rise to prominence whilst still young…a fear and loathing of an oppressive regime…a defection and a rise to superstardom. Yet Viktoria Mullova seems to take it all in her stride; she speaks of her early days under the Soviet system in the same matter-of-fact manner that she speaks of a glamorous life which involves scores of appearances at top venues and a renown that has made her one of the world’s leading concert violinists.

John Woodford reports.
Photos: Brigitte Lacombe (page 1); courtesy of Philips Classics (page 2)

It was only when I mentioned the rather unfortunate epithet with which Viktoria Mullova has been stuck for some years that her voice rose slightly above its calm and collected normal – it was clear that she didn’t want me to bring it up, and I certainly hadn’t intended to, but, like a good bottle of Beaujolais, it was irresistible: what about the Ice Maiden? ‘Oh my God. Don’t you even say that the Ice Maiden’s melting…that’s so old and worn out; journalists always say that they don’t find me icy and the next thing they write is ‘The Ice Maiden melts’. It’s so boring! But maybe I’m lucky to have a label like that…at least people sit up and listen. Perhaps we can have a joke with and use my nickname for my next album title!’

Born in a town near Moscow, she started learning the violin at the age of four: ‘My mother wanted me to learn a musical instrument, but there were five of us, my parents, myself and two sisters living in a tiny room and, since there was not space for a piano, I was given the cheapest and smallest option, a violin.’ Determined to help, her father went along to all her early lessons. Despite his own lack of musical training, he took note of what was going on and coached her at home, reminding her of everything her teacher had said. ‘When they practise, it is really important for children of that age to have a parent present all the time, especially with such a difficult a instrument as the violin. I was very lucky in this respect, my parents were ambitious and encouraged me all the time.’ She was accepted at the age of nine into Russia’s most prestigious music school, the Central Music School in Moscow. Competition for the place had been fierce, with Viktoria having to overcome not only a peer group that was musically gifted, but also one that was politically connected: ‘My parents had no connexions at all…and there were others who had powerful people behind them!’ She studied hard and succeeded, winning both the Sibelius Competition in 1980 and, two years later, the Tchaikowsky Competition. By that point, she was a student at the Moscow Conservatoire with a career as a Soviet musical icon mapped out. People also took notice in the West. A book, The Way They Play, in which a chapter was devoted to her, was written in the US. ‘It is important not to take too much notice of that because I wasn’t talking as a free person…I can’t remember quite what I said, but I think they were probably things that were expected of me. The interviewer was American and I was quite scared of foreigners, especially because at that time I was also thinking of defecting.’

In fact, the idea to leave the Soviet Union had been germinating for some time and she admits that it was a huge decision to make. She was, nevertheless, quite determined, the only problem being finding a date and a means of escape. Others had gone before her, but to make sure that any Soviet diplomat, musical or otherwise, didn’t defect, neither families nor partners were allowed to travel abroad together. In her case, however, official bureaucracy misfired and she and her boyfriend found themselves on tour together in Finland. ‘After that it was quite simple because we got in a taxi and drove across the open border into Sweden. I went to the American Embassy, asked for asylum and it was granted.’ She had kept her plans to herself, having told no-one at home. ‘Only now that I have children do I understand what it must have been like for my family; I thought I would never see them again…Communism looked as though it was going to continue forever and, after my defection, the only contact I had with my parents was by telephone. Although my mother came to see me in the States, I didn’t see my father again until I went to play in Moscow in 1991. All the time my father had spent with me had paid off and they were immensely proud of what I had managed to do.’

For the following two years, Mullova lived in New York, but fearing that her practice was suffering because of all the distractions America and freedom offered, she decided to move somewhere quieter and opted for Vienna. She stayed for the following five years, becoming Claudio Abbado’s partner and mothering his child. She talks of her Vienna days as if they were unsettling; wanting a place of her own to live, she moved to London where she lives today with her husband, cellist Matthew Barley, and her three children, Misha, eleven, Katia, six and Nadia, three. Family life is hectic and she admits that things become difficult when she has to travel: ‘I used to take the children with me, but now that Misha is at big school he has to stay behind…it’s terrible for him. They’re very musical, but I don’t spend enough time with them when they practise so I don’t think they will become big solo players…my son, however, might become a composer since he has an incredible musical memory and he is good at inventing music.’ But with three children, a house to run and a concert career, how does she fit it all in? ‘I don’t know’, she laughs, ‘I think it’s all possible. I was told that I couldn’t have a career and a family, but I think that’s an excuse!’

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