The most famous classical musicians to visit New Zealand this year perform together on Thursday. Richard Betts spoke to one of them, violinist Viktoria Mullova.

It's understandable that Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's next concert is prosaically titled Ashkenazy and Mullova. The legendary Russians are, after all, the biggest classical stars to visit New Zealand in 2019. But the show could as easily have been called Resonances. The gig is full of them.

The concert features the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Sibelius is the greatest hero of Finnish music; Vladimir Ashkenazy settled there many years ago, having married a Finn; Viktoria Mullova won the Sibelius Violin Competition. Tchaikovsky is also on the bill. Ashkenazy and Mullova both claimed gold in classical music's biggest prize, the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Resonances.

Ashkenazy is a household name, among the most fêted musicians of the age, but when she lived in the Soviet Union, Mullova had never heard of him.

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"He left and people didn't speak about people who left," she says. "When I was growing up, he never performed in Russia and he was never talked about. To me he started his career in the late 1980s."

In fact, Ashkenazy left the Soviet Union in 1963, the year after winning the Tchaikovsky competition, and 20 years before Mullova herself defected to the West. Her own tale is like something from a Cold War spy thriller.

Mullova was granted permission to perform in Finland – more resonances – with her much older partner, the conductor Vakhtang Jordania, who was acting as her accompanist. Aided by a Finnish journalist and, according to legend, wearing blonde wigs, the pair ditched the hapless KGB agent assigned to accompany them and slipped across the border into Sweden, where they were hidden in a safe house until the American embassy opened after the July 4 holiday weekend.

Within days they were whisked to Washington DC. Mullova left her Stradivarius violin – owned by the people of the Soviet Union – abandoned on the bed of her Finnish hotel. Her relationship to the country of her birth remains ambivalent.

"I've lived most of my life in the West," she says. "When I think about my days in Russia what comes to mind is the sense of fear I had all the time. Just to be there, to live in that country, full of fear, playing full of fear – fear of making mistakes, not being the best – the whole way of life was very difficult."

Despite the bad memories, Mullova performs in Russia occasionally, and played there earlier this year. But there is no Russian music in her three-centre tour for Chamber Music New Zealand, which begins after her APO appearance.

It is a more international affair, with the specially assembled Viktoria Mullova Trio playing Schubert's second piano trio and the wonderful Ravel Piano Trio in A minor. New Zealander Stephen de Pledge is the pianist for both works. Another Kiwi, Salina Fisher, has been commissioned to write a new piece for violin and cello, which Mullova will perform with her English husband, Matthew Barley.

The pair last year debuted a new double concerto, a commission by the French composer Pascal Dusapin ("Very challenging but very beautiful") but only occasionally play chamber music together. They have collaborated on several non-classical projects, however, including oddities like 2000's Through the Looking Glass album, where Mullova performs Barley's arrangements of music by The Bee Gees, Miles Davis and Alanis Morissette.

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Mullova's most recent disc, last year's CD of Arvo Part's works, may seem more familiar territory but the violinist admits she doesn't perform a lot of new music. From the evidence of her Part recording, that's a shame. It's a fabulous album, record-of-the-year stuff, with Mullova producing a dream-like crystalline sound, and making the connections between Part and Bach explicit.

There's a mystical quality to Part. He wears a prophet's beard, and images of him always appear a little blurred, as if his aura refuses to be captured on film; while his music is church-like and austere. The composer was present for the recording sessions.

"He's really nice, actually," says Mullova. "Religion is important to him, and so is the religious feeling in his music but he's very warm. Lots of laughing."

Lowdown
What: Mullova and Ashkenazy with the APO; The Viktoria Mullova Trio
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday; Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, September 14, 15 and 16.