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Monday, February 17, 2020

Émigré Debut

From the Concert Vault Dept.: My stint as a classical-music reviewer began after I submitted samples to all the area newspapers, correctly conjecturing that there was little competition in this field – and it was back in a time when the periodicals thought it part of their missions to cover the classical-concert scene. Here’s the second piece I wrote for the Schenectady Gazette. I’m delighted to report that Victoria Mullova is still going strong, and still championing the music of Prokofiev.


VICTORIA MULLOVA ATTRACTED MUCH PUBLICITY last summer when she left her luggage and Soviet-owned violin in her hotel room and defected from Finland to the American Embassy in Sweden.
Victoria Mullova, shortly after
her arrival in the U.S.

Upon her arrival in the U.S., she announced her affection for this country and its attractions, particularly baseball.

Any suspicion that the young violinist’s art may have suffered from so many distractions was swept aside last night, as Mullova made a triumphant East Coast debut in Troy Music Hall.

Later in the evening, following a standing ovation, Mullova was presented with a violin from the collection of Troy resident Henry Ainsworth (he is making a gift of two instruments, one of which was given to her during the concert). Assemblyman Neil Kelleher made the presentation with a speech worthy of an Academy Awards ceremony.

The program was well-chosen not only to demonstrate her considerable talent but also to attract and please an audience. Opening with Bach’s Partita No. 1 for violin solo (one of the least-played of his six unaccompanied sonatas), she displayed a rich, warm tone and fine sensibility to baroque interpretation.

Hers is a very Russian point of view, with idiosyncracies the purists aren’t too fond of, but within the context of that interpretation she trimmed romantic enhancement to the bone and presented Bach that was lean and lovely and filled with grace.

The work is in eight movements, four dances each followed by a variation. Each movement is in two parts, each part repeated. She dropped most of the latter repeats, which was a shame, particularly in an environment such as the Troy Music Hall, where the sound of each note lingers long enough to sound almost organ-like.

There was a sense of control about her playing which made it clear that she has solved the technical problems of the violin and is able to concentrate all the more on interpretation. To interpret a work is to play it as closely as written as possible, informing the playing with a clear understanding of the beauty and the surprises which lie in the work; this, at any rate, is the Toscanini-Heifetz school of interpretation, which leaves no room for the sort of embellishment that, say, Stokowski or Kreisler might add.

In the second piece of the recital, Brahms Sonata No. 3, Mullova and pianist Jonathan Feldman gave a spectacular account of a demanding work. The pianist is taxed as much as the violinist; Feldman was a worthy match.

The individual character of each movement came shining through, from the lyrical sweep of the opening Allegro through the humor of the scherzo, concluding with an energetic, percussive finale.

Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 was originally written for flute, although the composer’s rewrite has suited it so to the other instrument that it is on violin that it receives its most frequent performances. It is a very difficult violin piece, calling on most of the instrumentalist’s technical resources. It was a pleasure to hear the work played so effortlessly, the result again being that Mullova was able to bring forth her very mature interpretation.

The recital concluded with two pieces by Paganini: a Cantabile, a sweet, pseudo-Viennese movement which served as a nice bridge to the longer and fantastically difficult “Variations on Nel cor piu non mi sento.” Decades ago it was the custom to end a violin recital with a large assortment of short pieces, many of which were written to highlight the soloist’s virtuosity. Sarasate, Ernst, Wieniawski. and many other violinist-composers have left us a large legacy of such works.

A traditional format with many of them, especially Paganini’s, was to present a set of variations, each one utilizing a couple of very challenging violin techniques. In this particular piece, Paganini used a theme from an opera by Paisiello (as popular for variations as Paganini’s own 24th Caprice would become), to show off such things as left-hand pizzicato, spiccato bowing, arpeggios, harmonics, and so on.

Well-played, the piece is fun. There’s a kind of “can the soloist get through the next bit?” feeling in the audience. Played by a soloist with the caliber of Mullova, the result was breathtaking. She tossed off each section with nonchalance, also making it a pleasure to watch – no false agonizing from her.

Mullova’s encore, played on her new instrument, was Kreisler’s lovely arrangement of a melody from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 21 November 1983

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