Nature & Nurture

Double bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado is the son of violinist Viktoria Mullova and late conductor Claudio Abbado. Stephen Moss talks to mother and son about their new joint album, and their unique family dynamic

Viktoria Mullova, the great Russian-born violinist, has not allowed musical lockdown to depress her. Like every soloist, her carefully orchestrated concert schedule had to be abandoned, but she was determined to carry on practising and decided to work on the Beethoven Sonata in C minor, a piece she had always wanted to play. It went so well that she now intends to record it alongside two other Beethoven sonatas – a textbook example of how to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
Her son, jazz bassist and composer Misha Mullov-Abbado – his father was the revered Italian conductor Claudio Abbado – has found the enforced break more trying. ‘It was difficult,’ he says. ‘I had a lot of stuff cancelled. I had an album, Dream Circus, out in June and was supposed to be doing a tour. That was pretty grim. It’s daunting thinking what the future of the jazz scene in the UK is going to be like. I’ve been struggling with that.’

"We both have very different experiences and lack of experiences"

THE MUSICAL PERSPECTIVES and disciplines of mother and son could not
be more different – a globally recognised violinist trained in the Soviet school and a young, cutting-edge jazzer – but they have pulled down the barriers that often stand between classical music and jazz to make a disc called Music We Love, an eclectic collection of pieces ranging from Bach and Schumann to Brazilian folk songs, and including three of Mullov-Abbado’s own compositions, all happily recorded just before the pandemic threw the musical world into disarray.

‘We have very different experiences and lack of experiences,’ says Mullov-Abbado, ‘so we complement each other well. Vika [Misha’s pet name for his mother] has much more experience playing classical music to a very high standard, playing to a huge audience, being able to rehearse something and play it the same way in a concert – all things I know about but Vika really knows about. Then I have certain experiences around improvising, or
improvising within certain restrictions, or sticking to a structure that has some flexibility but is not entirely flexible. Jazz, basically. We learn a lot from each other.’

In that sense, he says, they interact as musical equals, bringing their very different skills to a disc on which they follow the score strictly in Bach and Schumann but improvise freely elsewhere. Mullov-Abbado admits, however, that in other respects they are far from equals. ‘Vika’s my mum and has had huge success in her career, which is something I’ve not had. At least not yet. So there’s this thing about whether we’re equals or not, which is a bit challenging sometimes.’

Mullov-Abbado, a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist, speaks slowly and at times a little haltingly, choosing his words carefully. But he is disarmingly honest about what it’s like to be the child of two of the world’s greatest classical musicians. His mother is wonderfully direct, too, in that Russian way. When I cynically question her line about classical musicians being interested only in making music and having no regard for money or
‘the career’, she blurts out ‘I don’t know why you don’t believe me?’ But not in a grand way – Mullova, despite her ‘Ice Queen’ reputation, does not come across as a musical diva. Just rather hurt and disappointed that I should be so dismissive of musical idealism.

The ease of mother and son is charmingly evident, and their improvised conversation – over Zoom from Mullov-Abbado’s home in Brixton, south London – is as invigorating and free-wheeling as their playing on the disc. Working together is an experience they clearly enjoyed, not least because, as Mullova said in an interview on a concert tour of New Zealand last year, when she plays this repertoire with her son ‘I don’t have to prove anything to anyone about how well I play the violin; it’s just pure music and the enjoyment of it.’ It is not something she is doing for ‘the career’. At 60, she really does have nothing left to prove.

Mullova is married to the cellist Matthew Barley and they, too, have worked extensively together. Indeed, his willingness to range far beyond the frontiers of the classical repertoire has been influential in her own boundary-breaking over the past 20 years. But she says you have to be careful playing alongside members of your family, and especially your husband.

‘You have to be very disciplined,’ she warns. ‘I had lots of problems with Matthew when we were rehearsing. Sometimes you can say something not in a nice tone of voice or you can be abrupt and it creates tension. It’s easy to forget that it’s supposed to be a calm exchange about music. It’s so easy to lose it. You take it for granted that you can say whatever comes into your head, but you have to think. We used to have enormous fights, but we are getting better.’ The solution, she says, is to try to forget you are married and treat each other as fellow professionals.

Playing alongside her son has been more harmonious, and Mullova says she didn’t worry about any imbalance in their respective standing in the musical world. ‘I was really happy to learn from Misha about improvising and rhythm. I was learning new techniques, new language also. For me, that’s the most important. I never thought at all: “I have more experience so I can be more tough or I could talk to Misha and put him down.” I think I was humble in that way. It’s not that easy for classical musicians to improvise and to play this type of music, and it’s a fantastic feeling that I’m playing with my son who knows how to do it.’

Who called the shots largely depended on the piece they were playing. ‘If we are playing Bach, there’s basically no point me really opening my mouth,’ says Mullov-Abbado with a laugh. ‘The only things I can say are things about playing a harpsichord part arranged for double bass, so I might say “that’s too hard to do on bass”. Other than that, I don’t really question, or if I do question it’s not for the sake of argument but because I want to learn why things are the way they are. But if we are playing Brazilian jazz, I’ll have a lot of stuff to say about the rhythmic feel and the improvised parts.’

The pair started giving concerts together last year, and from that grew the choice of music for the disc. What was the impulse to work together? ‘We’ve always been a very collaborative family,’ says Mullov-Abbado. ‘At home we sometimes play music together just for fun, including my sisters as well.’ Mullova has a daughter with Barley and an older daughter from a previous relationship with violinist Alan Brind: 25-year-old Katia is a DJ, plays the
guitar, writes songs and works for a music magazine; 22-year-old Nadia, a dancer with the Royal Ballet, also plays folk guitar.

‘What happened was that I heard Misha and Matthew play a song together, with Misha playing the bass line that is usually played on the guitar, and it was
mesmerising,’ says Mullova. ‘I thought“Wow, I would love to do that”.’ She saysshe enjoys playing jazz. ‘Somehow when we do the concerts together, it’s easier to play because this music comes from the heart. It’s not as complicated as playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto or a piece of Schoenberg, when you work so hard on the technical stuff. There are technical demands and I had to practice a lot, but the biggest challenge for me is improvising. You feel naked, especially if you are being recorded live.’

Mullov-Abbado, who was born in 1991 when Mullova and Abbado were in a six-year relationship, grew up surrounded by music of all kinds and was always going to be a musician. He learned to play thepiano and French horn before coming to the jazz bass via the bass guitar. Why not the violin? ‘That was completely out of the question,’ says Mullova. ‘I would have been very judgmental. I love everything Misha does on the bass; I adore his music-making and love his improvisation.’

"I was really happy to learn from Misha about rhythm and improvisation"

Becoming a jazz musician is less structured – and often less remunerative – than being a classical soloist, where there is an infrastructure of agents, venues and labels. Jazz has been marginalised since the rise of pop in the 1960s, and choosing a jazz career is brave. Mullov-Abbado recalls an old joke. What’s the difference between a pop musician and a jazz musician? One plays three chords to 1,000 people. The other plays 1,000 chords to three people. ‘If you want to be a jazz musician,’ he says, ‘you have to really like jazz.’

The upside is the variety and the freedom. ‘Musically it means I can do all the things I’m good at doing at once,’ he says. ‘It’s hard in the classical world to be a composer and performer. They tend to be separate careers.’ ‘I think he chose the right profession,’ chips in Mullova. ‘From what I see, you have lots of fun. There was one point where Misha didn’t know whether to be a horn player or to go into jazz, but the decision was absolutely right.’

Mullov-Abbado, who studied music at Cambridge before going on to the Royal Academy, is very open that he felt the pressure of growing up with two such famous parents. ‘I still feel it,’ he says, ‘though a hell of a lot less since I started going down the jazz road. The real peak of it was in the two years after Claudio died [in 2014].’ Mullov-Abbado was doing a lot of gigs in Italy, and says he was constantly being asked, sometimes in public, about his relationship with his father. ‘I’ve had a lot of weird moments when I’ve been asked about my family in a public situation,’ he says, ‘and I don’t really like it very much.’

In this more private setting, he is willing to explain why he finds it so awkward to talk about Abbado. ‘I have an insecurity that I’ve got to where I am because of my name,’ he says. ‘That would be true of anyone in a similar situation to me. One of the things I just have to accept is that it is always going to be the case. I’m not 100 per cent insecure. I do have a lot of faith in my musicality and abilities, but there are some situations when I wonder whether that
element is present.’

That makes the disc with his mother a courageous move, as he is all too aware. ‘This duo is shining a light on the whole thing,’ he says. ‘I get moments after some of our concerts when audience members, who I know will be Vika’s fans, come up to her afterwards, and I just think “Oh god, I hope I played well!”.’

Did he choose jazz because he wouldn’t be directly compared with his parents? ‘On some level I’m sure that was part of it,’ he says. ‘Being a stubborn kid, I’ve always wanted to do things by myself. I’m still like that. I started playing the piano when I was five, which wasn’t my choice. I started playing French horn at the age of seven at school, which also wasn’t my choice. The school picked it for me, whereas the bass guitar I found myself [he stumbled over one in his uncle’s apartment] and then I found jazz, and that was a huge satisfaction.’

His relationship with his father was complicated. Abbado already had three
children and didn’t want a fourth, so was largely absent during Mullov-Abbado’s early years. They only started meeting in his teens. ‘After he had
cancer [in 2000], a lot of things were changing,’ recalls Mullov-Abbado. ‘I got to know one of my half-brothers, and he helped a lot with arranging for me to go and meet [Abbado].’

From the age of 12, he started seeing his father occasionally. Mullov-Abbado still calls the relationship ‘distant’, but by the end there was ‘some sort of bond’. ‘In the couple of years before he died, I felt like I’d got a bit closer to him,’ he says. On the day Abbado died, his son wrote an elegy entitled Heal Me on This Cloudy Day, which was played at Abbado’s funeral. ‘I don’t hold anything against him now,’ says Mullov-Abbado. ‘There was a time when I did, but I feel like a lot of things have changed.’

Mullova says she learned a great deal from living and working with Abbado.
‘Just to be close to such a great musician was incredible,’ she says. After their relationship had ended, they played further concerts together, and Mullova says she was able to separate the personal from the professional. However, in 1993 Abbado asked her to record the Berg Violin Concerto with him conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. She said no because the recording was on Deutsche Grammophon, and she wanted to record the Berg and Schoenberg concertos together for Philips. ‘Maybe he was offended,’ she says. It was the end of their musical partnership.

But there was a coda to the relationship. ‘I saw him a couple of years before he died, and we had a very good time together,’ she says. ‘We made peace and became friends again. We talked a lot, and he was laughing about it – “You said no to the Vienna Philharmonic and me!”. We became good friends again at the end – more than even before, because we could actually talk.’

"Misha chose music because he loves it, not because we pushed him"

Turning down the chance to record with Abbado and the Vienna Phil is not something many violinists would do, but Mullova is not like most violinists. In contrast to her son’s free-wheeling musical journey, she was driven  relentlessly as a child growing up in the Soviet Union, but accepted the rigours because she had to. ‘I realised early on that it was the only way to survive,’ she says. ‘Misha chose music because he loves it, not because I pushed him or Matthew pushed him to be a musician. We never pushed him to practise. I had a disciplined upbringing and had to practise five hours a day – it seemed to me that if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t deserve love from my parents. I didn’t feel loved for myself, only for my success.’

Mullova had the strength of will to defect from the Soviet Union in her early 20s after winning the prestigious Sibelius and Tchaikovsky competitions, leaving her family behind. ‘I wanted to be free,’ she says. ‘It was as simple as that. I didn’t care about the career. I just wanted to be free.’ She did, though, quickly build a formidable career, helped initially by the fact that her cloak-and-dagger defection had made her front-page news, but sustained in the long term by the rock-solid technique nurtured by the Soviet system and all those hours of practice.

She is evidently fearless, personally as well as musically, and her foray into jazz encapsulates a musician who likes to do things her own way, doesn’t accept conventional wisdom and refuses to be pigeon-holed. ‘I just love music and for me it doesn’t matter if it’s pop or jazz, classical or Baroque,’ says Mullova. ‘I don’t feel restricted to only one genre.’

As she says, she has nothing left to prove, so what motivates her now after more than 40 years in the business? ‘I love making music and sharing my experience. Playing new repertoire with Misha is food for me. I get really excited about it.’ How long will she carry on? ‘Until I lose my excitement,’
she says. ‘If it becomes routine or is just about earning money, it’s not worth doing it.’ It is about the music and not the career.
I will believe her!

-BBC Music Magazine