Attraction of opposites

The music of “Yura” begins ever so gently. A series of subtly changing piano chords punctuates a violin line that develops into a folk-tune. The track lasts a mere five minutes and expires with the same stillness as it began. You don’t need to know how or why it was written to be touched by its beauty, but if you know anything about Matthew Barley or Viktoria Mullova you may be puzzled by the way two such apparently different musicians have found so much to say in such simple material.

Barley, 46, is a British cellist who loves breaking barriers between musical traditions – classical, jazz, Indian, electronic. Mullova, 51, is a Russian violin virtuoso with a reputation for strict discipline. They met in 1995, married four years later and live in a compact family home, built to their own design, in London, Barley’s native city. This summer they and the Matthew Barley Ensemble are touring Europe with “The Peasant Girl”, a programme of music of which “Yura” is part, inspired by folk, gypsy and jazz traditions. They have made a CD of it and will perform selected tracks at a late-night Prom at the Royal Albert Hall on August 18. Earlier the same evening, in the same hall, Barley and Mullova will give the world premiere of a concerto for violin and cello by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher.

Classical music’s “golden couple”? Not really. Nothing in the past 10 years has suggested that Barley and Mullova are interested in intertwining their careers on a permanent basis. Barley, exuberant and voluble, is too interested in exploring common ground with non-classical musicians. Mullova, quiet and composed, is too immersed in developing her knowledge of 18th-century performance techniques.

But the partnership they built on a domestic level was always going to have musical repercussions. Both reckon they have changed each other’s style and taste, and “Yura” celebrates this. Barley wrote it last summer when the couple were holidaying near the birthplace of Mullova’s father in Siberia, shortly before he died. “We were on the banks of Lake Baikal,” Barley recalls. “It’s 12km deep, 10 of which are silt – the cleanest, most untouched nature I’ve seen. I started the piece because I wanted to write an introduction to a gypsy song, and it expanded. The morning after we first played it, Viktoria’s father died, so we called it “Yura” after him.”

They will take it back to Siberia in September, when they play at a festival in Irkutsk. For Mullova, the return to Russia with a programme of quasi-improvisations is both ironic and poignant. A star product of the rigidly controlled Soviet state cultural system, she won international attention in 1983 when, aged 22, she made a dash for freedom, escaping her KGB minder in Finland and driving with her pianist-boyfriend to Sweden, where they applied for asylum. She quickly established herself in the world’s musical capitals, winning the sobriquet “Ice Maiden” for her brilliant but apparently emotionless musicianship. When she became pregnant by Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, with whom she was living in Vienna, their relationship broke up abruptly, although their son Misha, now 20, has recently been reconciled with his father. Mullova later had two daughters – Katia, 16, with the British violinist Alan Brind, and Nadia, 13, from her marriage to Barley.

Now that all three children have achieved a measure of self-sufficiency (Nadia is a boarding pupil at the Royal Ballet School), Barley and Mullova are seizing the chance to tour together instead of individually. Both believe the freedoms of jazz and gypsy music have loosened up their playing. “I’ve worked for years with jazz musicians, but I wouldn’t call myself a jazz cellist,” says Barley. “Julian [Joseph, pianist in the Matthew Barley Ensemble] can do jazz improvisations because he has built up that way of articulating music over a lifetime. The most interesting collaborations take place when there is a big overlapping area, like a Venn diagram, which becomes big because the musicians on either side have worked consciously to expand it.”

So how do the two worlds overlap in “The Peasant Girl”? Only one of the pieces in their late-night Prom is “pure” classical – Kodaly’s duo for violin and cello, and even that has gypsy roots, which should be all the more apparent in the context of the music surrounding it.

On the CD Mullova sounds wonderfully liberated when racing through gypsy figurations, which she describes as “brilliant – but it’s music that always comes from the heart. You can tell gypsies have a lot of fun. That’s our problem [as classical musicians]: our music is too difficult. The gypsy way of playing doesn’t go against the violin. It ‘sounds’ fast and difficult, but it’s body-friendly. Too many classical composers go with their heads, and it goes against the [natural sound of the] instrument. I wonder why composers don’t like writing a simple tune. Thomas Larcher does – it’s so nice to hear.”

So we can expect tunes in his new double concerto for the Proms. As a reference point, Mullova recalls learning the violin concerto of another Austrian, Arnold Schoenberg, in the late 1980s “and wanting to die, I was struggling so much”. Asked to take it back into her repertoire for the 2001 Schoenberg festival in Los Angeles, she refused. “Despite the perfect circumstances, it wasn’t worth it. The music wasn’t good enough for me to put up with the pain.”

Mullova “renounced” the Tchaikovsky concerto even earlier in her career, for different reasons: she had played it too often. So how does she go about making up her own script when improvising with the Matthew Barley Ensemble? Mullova smirks, as if to acknowledge that she has not been the easiest of pupils.

Barley explains: “When we toured ‘Through the Looking Glass’ [a cross-disciplinary project devised for Mullova 10 years ago], every rehearsal started with a half-hour improvisation, but for some reason Viktoria was always late. One of the joys of ‘The Peasant Girl’ is how much further we are now. Improvising in a fast tempo over a complex series of chords is a huge task and it takes years, but a lot of Miles Davis solos begin with one note out of nowhere. The tension behind it is astonishing – the accent, the pitch he chooses, the decay [of the note], the timbre he finds. You can make a huge statement, or nothing. The brain knows the script of improvisation, because we improvise when we speak. The challenge is to connect that sense of making things up with playing an instrument.”

Using Youssou N’Dour’s “Life”, a track on “The Peasant Girl”, to illustrate Barley’s argument, Mullova points out that “you think you have to play so many notes [when improvising], but you don’t. You just live in the moment. When I analyse some of the most famous songs, the way they use just two notes with a changing harmony around them, you realise how much you can do.”

When playing “The Peasant Girl”, does she use gut strings on her violin, as in her recent Bach and Beethoven performances? No, she says, because most gypsy music is virtuosic, and metal strings are easier to play. “Gut strings are much thicker and when you go up the fingerboard they don’t speak quickly. It’s difficult to use gut strings when you play high up.”

Barley admits that he and Mullova “are a funny mixture, very different and very similar”. He studied at the Guildhall School with a Moscow-trained Bulgarian teacher, “so we have that Russian school in common. With ‘The Peasant Girl’ it looks as if she has come over to my world. My mind is used to zooming everywhere, which is useful for a creative project. But when I had to rebuild my cello technique after injuring my shoulder in a skiing accident, her ability to focus was inspirational.”

Mullova says the two have swapped roles. “He has become extremely disciplined in his practice, which is how I used to be, whereas now I’m disciplined about taking holidays. I hate practising, it’s all aches and pains. I used to be terrified of making mistakes, and people took it for coldness. I move around a lot more now on stage, I feel more free musically. If musicians are having a good time, the audience understands it and everything clicks.”

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