A classical musician calmly said “I want to kill her” as he allegedly murdered his wife on their second wedding anniversary, Manchester crown court has been told.
World-renowned pianist Natalia Strelchenko, 38, who had secured a post at a prestigious French school and was planning to spend the summer in Spain, died after being assaulted in her home.
Strelchenko was born in Russia and became a child musical prodigy, starting to play the piano at the age of eight. She made her debut with the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12 and was inducted into a specialist musical college at 15 before playing in venues worldwide, including Wigmore Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York and the Französischer Dom in Berlin.
Polish violinist Justyna Zanko described Strelchenko’s last moments, saying that she was woken by her screams and pleas for help just before she was murdered.
Strelchenko’s Norwegian husband, John Martin, 48, a concert double-bass player, is accused of strangling and beating her to death on their second wedding anniversary after becoming jealous of her successful career.
Strelchenko, also known by her stage surname, Strelle, was found with head and neck injuries at their home in Newton Heath, Greater Manchester, last August.
Her friend and occasional music partner, Zanko, was staying in the couple’s marital home in the days before Strelchenko was murdered. Zanko said she heard the couple arguing on numerous occasions after her arrival on 27 August.
Zanko and the pianist spent the day before her death recording songs at Chetham’s School of Music before returning to her home to have dinner when they were confronted by a disgruntled Martin, the jury heard. That night, Zanko said Martin repeatedly lost his temper about various matters including what they were eating for dinner and the general cleanliness of the house, while drinking cider and wine. The court heard that he then disappeared from the house before returning just before midnight.
Zanko said she waswoken by Strelchenko’s screams and pleas for help. She said: “She woke me up as she was climbing the stairs and she called out to me: ‘Wake up.’ She was very scared. She said John Martin had come back and that he was drunk and she was afraid of him.”
Zanko claimed that Martin threw himself and Strelchenko down the stairs before he sat on top of her and began to repeatedly punch her in the face before strangling her. She said: “He was lying on her with his knees so that she could not move. She was on her back and he was punching her with both hands. I could hear the punches from the top of the stairs. I was screaming and then I saw him put his hands by her neck area and I asked him to stop, saying that he would kill her.”
The jury heard that Martin stopped and looked up at Zanko before saying: “I want to kill her.” Zanko fled from the house and called the emergency services with the attack continuing inside the house, the court heard.
Strelchenko had secured a post at the Belfort Conservatoire in France and was due to start in September. She died days before the appointment was to start.
Her former husband of 10 years, Vladimir Suzdalevich, an organist and conductor, who had a son with Strelchenko, was aware of the problems in her marriage, and alongside other concerned family and friends, pleaded with her to leave “violent” Martin. Just moments before her death, Strelchenko sent a text to Suzdalevich saying she was having “bad times” with Martin.
Strelchenko had moved to Manchester in 2009, following the breakdown of her first marriage three years earlier and met Martin a year later. The pair embarked on a romantic relationship but it was one “marked with tensions” and the defendant physically restrained her from leaving home on occasions, the court heard.
The couple married in August 2013, but it was without the blessing of Strelchenko’s family and her former husband and only four people attended the wedding in a campsite in Norway. Suzdalevich claimed she had confided in him about her turbulent relationship with Martin, who he described as unstable and prone to angry outbursts.
Strelchenko’s younger sister, Julia, said Martin had forced her sister into having an abortion. Julia told the jury how alarm bells had begun to ring as the pianist’s success had seemed to make her husband jealous, because her career had taken off in a way his had not. She said she had never given her blessing to the couple’s relationship as she was “wary of Martin’s controlling behaviour” towards her sister.
She claimed that Martin had forced Strelchenko to have an abortion before they married. Strelchenko wanted to keep the child, but allegedly Martin insisted she had the abortion, threatening to leave her unless she obeyed him.
The jury also heard that Strelchenko had complained of her husband’s controlling behaviour and jealousy. The couple had a tumultuous relationship, with arguments over their finances and the cleanliness of their home. On one occasion, Martin was said to have thrown his wife out of the house in anger because he did not want to carry on paying her mobile phone bill. The court heard that police had been called over previous arguments between the pair.
On the night of 30 August last year, after Strelchenko had returned home from Chetham’s School of Music, Martin went out, allegedly sending a text to a friend saying “hopeless”, then another text to another friend, saying “I’ve felt completely lonely all summer – Natalia’s kept me at a distance since November 2014”.
Officers found Strelchenko lying unconscious near the stairs. She had suffered horrific fractures to her face and skull as well as serious neck injuries and, despite efforts by paramedics, she was later pronounced dead.
Martin denies a charge of murder and told police he could not remember a single event from the evening. He also denies another charge of attempted murder of a boy under the age of 17 who cannot be named for legal reasons.
The trial continues.