Viktoria Mullova

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The Arts Desk 13 May 2019

May 2019

Visit Ainola, Sibelius’s woodland house by Lake Tuusula north of Helsinki, and you’ll be told the story of the green stove. It appears that the famously synaesthetic Finnish composer identified the shade of his heating installation with the key of F major. Asked to attach a colour to the lustrous performance of his D minor violin concerto given last night by Viktoria Mullova and Paavo Järvi with the Philharmonia, I’d plump for a rich autumnal red-brown, glinting with bright golden highlights at the top but grounded in earth tones of a sumptuous depth.

Mullova, of course, has played this piece for decades. She brings to it a masterful assurance – electrifying empathy, yes, but also profound understanding – that never slides into over-familiarity. This work remains, as for all violinists, the most challenging, and mysterious, of friends. From the silvery grace of the adagio to the primeval forest stomp of the finale, the Russian-born, London-based soloist filled the Royal Festival Hall with a spectacular palette of sounds that melded refinement and muscularity. She sounded, and looked, utterly poised even in Sibelius’s hair-raising, spine-tingling stretches of double-stopping, and applied just the right (modest) touches of rubato.

Järvi, meanwhile, built up his orchestral canvas in rich impasto layers. He slashed luminous streaks of wood and brass across the enveloping, storm-tossed forest of the Philharmonia strings – who, under concert-master Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, sound truly formidable these days. The Estonian maestro thinks big, stitching finely-wrought phrases into broad, coherent musical paragraphs with a wide but never melodramatic range of dynamics. But he can spotlight the instrumental trees as well the orchestral wood, whether the bird-call motifs that cluster around the soloist’s inner voyage in the adagio, or the snort and roar of brass (with the trombones on superb form) that accompanies the finale.

Mullova and Järvi together drove the closing movement into a whirlwind ride, always beautifully controlled and never without a sense of Nordic cool behind the full-throttle interactions of violin and orchestra. Both conductor and soloist inhabit this music with an exhilarating inwardness: a marriage made in a pine-dark, lake-fringed heaven. Mullova (pictured below by Henry Fair) has recently recorded their encore, Arvo Pärt’s Passacaglia for violin and orchestra. Her reading – delicately steered by Pärt’s compatriot and champion, Järvi – made the most of its neo-Baroque beat and weave, as Bachian figures entwine around a Shostakovich-like throbbing pulse.