A world-renowned pianist inspired those around her, a court has heard, and had secured a post at a prestigious French music school shortly before she was allegedly murdered by her husband.
Natalia 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. When she was 15 she was inducted into a specialist musical college and went on to play in venues worldwide, including the Wigmore Hall in London, the Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Französischer Dom in Berlin.
Her 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. He has gone on trial for her murder, the case being heard at Manchester crown court.
Strelchenko, 38, also known by her stage surname Strelle, was found with head and neck injuries at their home in Newton Heath, Manchester, last August.
On Thursday her former husband of 10 years, Vladimir Suzdalevich, told the jury that 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.
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 had pleaded with her to leave “violent” Martin. Just moments before her death Strelchenko sent a text to her Suzdalevich saying that she was having “bad times” with Martin.
Suzdalevich told the jury: “The text message, I remember it very well – she wrote ‘we are having bad times in Manchester, I’m looking forward to starting a new semester in Belfort in September’.” The text had been sent on 29 August, though Suzdalevich did not check his phone until the following day by which time she was dead.
Strelchenko had moved to Manchester in 2009, following the breakdown of her first marriage three years earlier, and met the defendant, Martin, a year later. The pair embarked on a romantic relationship but it was one “marked with tensions” and on occasions the defendant physically restrained her from leaving home, 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 camp ground in Norway.
Suzdalevich, describing his former wife as someone who was passionate about art and music, told how they had met as students at the Russian state conservatoire. They had married shortly afterwards and had a son together. He said: “She was the centre of my life for 10 years, she liked very much to play the concerts, to be the centre of the party, she loved the life and engaged many people around her to do something in music, inspire people around her.”
Although their marriage did not last they remained close friends, seeing each other regularly over the years. Suzdalevich claimed she had confided in him about her turbulent relationship with Martin, whom he described as unstable and prone to angry outbursts.
After an argument between Martin and Strelchenko in Norway, Suzdalevich told how he drove three hours to pick up his former wife and child after she had been allegedly physically assaulted by her husband. He said these occasions of violence against Strelchenko were numerous and he had been concerned and had asked her to leave her husband. But he said she feared the consequences of leaving Martin and was “afraid”.
The court previously heard evidence from Strelchenko’s younger sister, Julia, who claimed that Martin had forced her sister into having an abortion. Julia told the jury how alarm bells had begun to ring as the talented pianist’s success seemed to make her husband jealous, because her career had taken off in a way his had not. She alsosaid 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 prior to the pair’s marriage, Martin had forced Strelchenko to have an abortion when she became pregnant with their baby. Strelchenko wanted to keep the child, but allegedly Martin had insisted she had the abortion, threatening to leave her unless she obeyed him.
The court previously 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, jurors were told. 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 30 August last year, on the couple’s wedding anniversary, Strelchenko spent the afternoon recording songs with friends at Chetham’s School of Music, before returning home with them in the evening. The couple argued that night and Martin went to the garden shed and began drinking cider on his own, before Strelchenko and her friends persuaded him back into the house.
Later that night he went out, 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.”
He returned home and allegedly threw her down a flight of stairs before beginning to strangle her. A musician friend who was staying in the house fled in fear and police were called. 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.