MUSIC / A new string to her bow: Since her flight from Russia, Viktoria Mullova has been exposed to the liberating influence of early music. She will never be the same. Robert Cowan talks to the reconstructed violinist

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Viktoria Mullova greets me with gracious formality, glides hurriedly into the kitchen, makes coffee, then returns to chat. I'd remembered her as a rather shy brunette (we last spoke seven years ago), but the 'new' Mullova, although unmistakable in face and form, is quietly decisive, confident and noticeably fairer. And when her new Bach recording arrived in the post, I was totally unprepared for another transformation, one where the familiar full tone, expressive vibrato and traditional approach to musical phrasing had slimmed to something far lighter and more sharply attenuated. A little later on, I learnt that she is now ashamed of her earlier recording of the same piece, Bach's B minor Partita (both versions are released on the Philips label), claiming that some friends were so profoundly disturbed by the metamorphosis that they actually couldn't sleep.

It is now a dozen or so years since Viktoria Mullova won laurels at the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky Competitions. Thereafter, and pending a much-publicised escape from Soviet Russia, she pursued a successful career as a virtuoso. But is she now beginning to transcend her older self; and if so, why? An obvious prompt was the birth of her son Mischa, now three years old and phenomenally receptive to music. 'I am a much happier person now . . .' admits Mullova. 'More relaxed, maybe. But that's not just because of Mischa; there have been many influences - musicians, working with other people, listening to recordings.' And yet if you ask her whether emotional rifts influence her performances (her forthcoming recording of the Brahms Concerto was made at a low point in her relationship with conductor Claudio Abbado), she responds with a polite but definitive 'No'.

The early music movement has proved a profound source of inspiration, with pioneers like Jordi Savall, John Eliot Gardiner and Frans Bruggen as seminal influences. The 'logic' of their approach appeals to Mullova. 'The musical structure becomes so clear,' she says, appreciatively. 'Take, for example, Bach's Chaconne for unaccompanied violin, which even now is frequently subjected to extreme tempos. It's a fast dance, faster even than a Sarabande - so why play it double-slow, or double-fast? And when the structure is clear, it's easier to play]' Her Russian experience of Bach was strait-jacketed by duty and ossified tradition, but she now scoffs at her one- time use of vibrato and hotly denies that it ever signalled extra emotion. She cites Savall's interpretations of Marin Marais: 'Now that's great emotion, even though there's no vibrato and the music whispers: at times, there's hardly any sound at all' - unlike Schoenberg's hugely complex Concerto. 'That was the hardest work I've ever learnt,' she reveals, 'because it's so technically difficult. But if technique is not in the way, you can find many lyrical ideas in the score - that's if the conductor loves the piece and is able to balance its themes. Even if one orchestral violinist is out of tune, then everything is destroyed: what we so often hear is a mess of sound that doesn't make any sense.'

Mullova has a great deal of faith in this challenging and elusive work. She relates how a scientist friend of hers, who knew nothing about classical music, was bowled over by it. 'He was 17 or 18, and the intensity of the experience actually made him ill. He became almost obsessed, then went on to tackle the String Quartets and other 'difficult' works. Schoenberg is still his favourite composer]' And her son Mischa, too, is responsive: Schoenberg, like Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd, is part of a musical world shared between mother and son - 'and if a child likes the Beethoven Concerto, then why not?

The tunes are just as good as Old MacDonald]'

Recently, Mullova tested Mischa's musical responses. 'I looked through my CDs,' she says, 'then selected and played a number of different works by Prokofiev, Berg, Schoenberg, Schubert, and others. But it was the Schoenberg Concerto that attracted him most: it has more 'sounds' than the others; it is more complicated; and the harmonies are interesting to him - he recognises when the cellos answer some other instrument. In fact, he recognised everything - not after two notes, maybe; but certainly after four or five.' Mischa was just two years old when Mullova started to sing to him. 'My mother tells me that when I was small, I used to sing a great deal,' she says, 'and so when Mischa was two, I found that after singing to him two or three times, he would memorise the music . . .' Berg and Schoenberg included.

This proved an enormous help in combating the onset of jealousy, 'which is how he normally reacted when I practised. Now, though, he's involved: he knows the music, and if I play a favourite work, he'll say, 'No, Mamma - this place' and then sing the passage he wants me to play.' But will Mischa play the violin himself? Mullova shrugs, then gestures towards a quarter- size violin lying on a shelf. 'Mischa play?' She leans back and sighs. 'It's a major decision, and a big problem. I don't want him to be a violinist - and yet if he wants to play the violin, there's one over there: my first instrument. Mischa is always looking at it. I just don't know. If he were to practise, then I would suffer; I would want to get involved, and would probably disagree with whoever was teaching him. It would be very difficult for both of us.'

Mullova rejects many accepted principles of violin tuition, yet doubts her own abilities as a teacher. Which makes her own open-mindedness and susceptibility to influence even more paradoxical. Her venturing among period-performance theories has had an effect that reaches way beyond the baroque and early music fields: 'Logic, phrasing, articulation, all have helped. My Mozart and perhaps my Schubert have changed, although I still play Brahms the way I played him before.' And what about that most mercurial of Classical- Romantic concertos, the Mendelssohn Concerto? She thinks for a moment. 'The E minor? Have I re-thought it since my re-interpretation of the baroque? I haven't played it since then, so I don't really know. But I am curious - and a little scared - about returning to the Tchaikovsky Concerto, which will seem quite new again after working on all this other repertoire. I'm sure it will change. I'll just have to buy an urtext edition, work on it from the beginning and try to forget everything I learnt before.' It's seven years since she played the work; it was in some respects her calling-card, and yet she has ventured far since then. She's still publicity-shy and balks at the idea that she might make a music video: 'Carlos Kleiber's Beethoven, that I watched 30 times in three months,' she says. 'But me? That would be very boring]' Then there's her ensemble, seven players with planned repertory that stretches from Bach to Bartok. She's even agreed to direct Mozart concertos from the violin. 'So you'll be conducting?' I ask. And only then, for a brief but telling moment, does that one-time shyness re-surface. 'My god, I hope not]' she laughs, blushing: 'I'm quite embarrassed about being called a conductor.' OK, then how about 'director'? 'No, no] - leader, maybe, or even better . . .' She thinks for a moment, modestly re-assessing her role. 'What about violino principale.'

Mullova plays the Brahms Concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus / Kurt Masur: Thurs 7.30 Barbican Hall (071-638 8891), broadcast live on R3

(Photograph omitted)