The sister of a world-renowned pianist has spoken in court of her death, claiming that she was forced into having an abortion by a controlling husband who went on to murder her.
Natalia Strelchenko first took to the piano at the age of eight and made her debut at 12 with the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra.
Her younger sister, Julia, smiled as she recalled how the siblings grew up with their parents, Tatiana and Vladmir, in St Petersburg.
Strelchenko was a child musical prodigy, going to a specialist musical college at the age of 15 and going on to play in venues worldwide, including the Wigmore Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York and the Französischer Dom in Berlin.
But Julia told a jury at Manchester crown court how alarm bells had begun to ring as the talented pianist’s success seemed to make her husband – a Norwegian double bass player – jealous, because her career had taken off in a way his had not.
John Martin, 48, is accused of strangling and beating Strelchenko to death on their second wedding anniversary.
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.
Dressed all in black, her sister became visibly upset as she took to the stand during the murder trial, saying that 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 Strelchenko’s marriage to Martin, he had forced her to have an abortion when she became pregnant with their baby.
Strelchenko, who already had a son from a previous marriage, wanted to keep the child, but Martin had insisted she have an abortion, threatening to leave her unless she obeyed him, the jury was told.
Julia said: “Natalia became pregnant before they got married. I know that she told him and to my knowledge he was not excited by the idea and insisted that she should have an abortion.
“That was absolutely not her wish. He left her because she got pregnant and he did not want her to have this kid. They resumed their relationship after she had the abortion.”
The couple’s relationship was described as turbulent and Julia had repeatedly begged her sister to split with Martin, she said, as she thought he was causing the two sisters to drift apart.
The court heard that Martin would not let the Russian sisters meet on their own and if he was present he would demand that they conversed in Norwegian so that he could understand.
“After they got together we had less contact and after they got married I did not speak to her at all,” she said. “She said that John Martin was very jealous when she went out without him.
“Us meeting alone would cause unnecessary difficulties in her relationship.”
However, the disruptive relationship continued and Julia went on to claim that Martin had attacked her sister in a car in the spring of 2012, trying to strangle her and causing bruising to her arms and face.
Julia held back tears as she recalled meeting her bruised and bandaged sister in Cafe Justice in Oslo a few days after the alleged attack.
Julia said: “She said they had an argument in the car. He tried to hurt her and then she was terrified because it was all happening in the moving car and then they stopped and he threw her on to the pavement.”
At times during the hearing, as Julia recalled family dinners and other events in the couple’s relationship, Martin, dressed in a grey suit and pinstripe shirt, was seen to put his head in his hands and close his eyes.
The couple married in August 2013, but it was without the blessing of Strelchenko’s family and only four people attended the wedding, in a camp ground in Norway.
When asked to be maid of honour, Julia tried one last attempt to persuade her sister to leave Martin, but her sister said it was “none of her business”.
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 pay her mobile phone bill any longer.
Strelchenko moved to Manchester in 2009, following the breakdown of her first marriage three years earlier, and met the defendant a year later.
The pair soon embarked on a romantic relationship, but it was one that was “marked with tensions” and on occasions the defendant would physically restrain her from leaving their home.
The court heard that police had been called over previous arguments between the pair.
On 30 August last year – 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 couldn’t 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.