There is a rare beauty to be found in the “normality” of human nature, in which the sense of just “being” transcends any degree of artificial decoration or finery. Viktoria Mullova’s performance of Johannn Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin in the Christuskirche, Freiburg was the embodiment of this sense, and her exquisite interpretation, therefore, was all the more startling and deeply moving.

Viktoria Mullova © Max Pucciarello
Viktoria Mullova
© Max Pucciarello

Mullova’s biography reads like a Who’s Who of classical music, and irrespective of continent, country, or concert hall, her reputation cannot fail to precede her. The sight, then, of her much-thumbed, patched and taped score flopping comfortably over the edges of a two-a-penny wire music stand was an intriguing first impression for a Mullova first-timer like myself. The scent of hearty home-cooked broth was in the air long before she herself arrived on stage, her unassuming gait and beautifully simple ensemble of browns and greys banishing any notion of the celebrity musician’s notorious quirks, airs and graces.

An unhurried bow without flourish, a short moment to collect her thoughts, and she began to play, drawing the opening spacious G minor triad out of her strings without fuss or fanfare. This wasn’t a “performance”, or a complex, conceptual artistic “thought”. This was Mullova being Mullova, playing Bach because she feels compelled to, and because it exists to be played. It was engaging, refreshing and, above all, stunningly beautiful.

The art of polyphonic composition for solo stringed instruments had already been established in Germany by the time Bach completed the Sonatas and Partitas, and the fugue which forms the second movement of the G minor Sonata is an excellent example of this tradition. The clarity in which Mullova presented each individual voice gave the music a stark three-dimensional quality, some phrases appearing to come from a far-distant plain, others astonishingly forthright and present.

Mullova’s performing career encompasses an extraordinarily wide range of musical genres, and it was fascinating to see how this influenced her interpretation of the Baroque masterworks with which she made her name. Her extensive work with the Matthew Barley Ensemble, whose musical roots stem from an eclectic mix of styles ranging from “Gypsy-music to Jazz” might have been responsible for stoking the exhilarating final Presto of the concert’s opening work, fiery accents evoking the flashing bowings of a foot-tapping folk fiddler.

She exhibited a broad spectrum of articulation at all times, a plush legato and dancing, transparent staccato both contrasting examples of her conscientious attention to the fine details of phrasing. It was this, in combination with a spontaneous sense of freedom, which made her performance so invigorating.

Such was Mullova’s technical command over her instrument, it was frighteningly easy to forget just what a technical challenge the Sonatas and Partitas present to the soloist, and it was only her hawk-like gaze of concentration that betrayed her as her fingers flew over the more virtuosic passages. Her utter engrossment provided some of the most enchanting moments of the concert, as during many of the final phrases she turned to embrace her audience, seeming to remember that she wasn’t alone with the music and her thoughts.

There has been trend throughout history to over-romanticise the music of Bach, initiated by musicologists and performers alike. The composer chose to describe himself as a craftsman rather than a musician, and the serenity of his music often lies in the simplicity of interpretation. Mullova’s carefully chosen rubati in the Preludio of the third Partita were never overstated, and never threatened to distract from the natural beauty of the musical line. She did allow herself the freedom to dress the stately opening chords of the first Menuet with a dignified nobility, the result suggestive of the lilting rhythmic phrasing of the Viennese Walz tradition.

The complex, rhapsodic Chaconne which closed the evening’s performance consumes both soloist and audience alike through its incredible intensity, and a communal stillness embraced the Christuskirche as it seemed to catch its breath. It was a fitting end to a moving celebration of human existence, through the humility of a performer who chose to let the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach speak for itself.