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Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt on Maxim Vengerov


Bach, Ysaye, Shchedrin, Maxim Vengerov(solo violin), Barbican Concert Hall, 10th October 2002 (H-TW)

In July 1990, I experienced a miracle, and one which had not been surpassed until 10th October of this year. In both cases it happened on the concert platform of the Barbican Hall and in both cases the genius who created those miracles has been the violinist Maxim Vengerov.

This 15 year old Russian boy of Jewish origin had been virtually unknown in the West until he entered the 1990 Carl Flesch International Violin Competition. During that evening’s final at the Guildhall, where each finalist had to play one of Mozart´s violin concertos, I was struck by the purity of his Mozart; I realized that I was listening to an artist of hitherto unknown quality and his playing made me wish that all the great violinists had been there to witness the honesty and clarity of this Mozart lesson.  

It is certainly of interest that Vengerov has up to now only recorded one Mozart Sonata and hardly ever plays a Mozart concerto in public - the very reason being that he regards Mozart as the ultimate composer for a violinist. The next day, in the Barbican Hall, he tackled the Tchaikowsky concerto. The performance proved riveting and I wondered if I was dreaming or facing reality. There stood this boy in front of the Philharmonia, under the late Bryden Thomson, not showing the slightest hint of stage fright. It was a performance of infectious enjoyment, the young soloist giving not even the slightest hint of ‘showing off’ in this virtuoso warhorse. Never had I heard this work played so spontaneously, or heard it delivered in such a heartfelt, temperamental and passionate performance - and heard it played with such impeccable technical sovereignity. Bryden Thomson quickly realized that Vengerov was the real conductor, while the orchestra surpassed itself and followed Vengerov´s breath. Of course, he not only won the competition, but also the audience prize and the prizes for the best interpretation of a Beethoven Sonata, a Mozart concerto, a Bach partita and the Paganini Caprices. All this is history and in itself relatively unimportant. Important was the fact that a violin genius was born, whose honesty, tonal beauty, deep surging musicality and natural virtuosity were soon and rightly compared with Jascha Heifetz.

At 15 he already knew and demonstrated that technique is only a means to an end. Ever since, Maxim Vengerov has enriched the musical awareness of millions of listeners all over the world. Only once have I felt that he was slightly nervous on stage and felt uncomfortable. It happened a year later during a concert in Haifa leading to his first commercial recording in the West with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. For the first time in his life he had to wear tails and he did not feel happy at all; nowadays, he is very conscious to dress stylishly.

More than 12 years have passed and I have followed his career as closely as possible. He has grown in stature and become the kind of complete musician one only experiences once in a lifetime, if at all.  His political awareness, giving encores for children in areas of political conflict, or being a musical ambassador for the United Nations and his very personal way of communicating, not only through his music, but also through talking to the audience and braking down conventional barriers, are by now well known.

And yet, despite this, his recent solo recital expressed new and unexpected dimensions. He came on stage carrying his violin and two bows. He left it all on a stool behind him and instead of playing he grasped a microphone and greeted the audience finishing with the words "and now let’s start with my new solo venture". Off he went playing Bach´s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, arranged for solo violin by Bruce Fox Lefriche. With the first note one realized that he had studied Baroque technique and played the piece with a Baroque bow – and without any vibrato and in the purest sense possible - heaven. Afterwards he apologized that he had not used his baroque violin, "but it has, unfortunately, the flu, so I played it on my Strad, also not a bad instrument". The audience laughed, while he changed the slightly deeper tuning back to normal and played without having left the platform Eugène Ysaye´s fiercely difficult Sonata for Solo Violin in A minor, op.27, No.2, a work full of Bach quotations and dedicated to Jacques Thibaud.

The audience went wild, but Vengerov stopped the applause and instead started talking about Ysaye and his admiration of Bach, his admiration of the great violinists of his time and about the echo-effect, Bach as well as Ysaye use, a subtle lead-in to the Echo Sonata, Op. 69 by Vengerov´s compatriot and friend Rodion Shchedrin.

Composed to mark the tercentenary of Bach´s birth, `this set of nine variations on a fragmentary theme, interwoven with traces of Bach´s work for unaccompanied violin´, has been part of Vengerov´s repertoire for some time and nobody plays this work with a deeper understanding for its contrasting levels and the tonal lightness than him.

After the interval followed three sonatas for solo violin by Ysaye: D minor, Op.27 No.3 (dedicated to George Enescu),  E minor, Op.27, No.4 (dedicated to Fritz Kreisler and one even got the feeling that it was Kreisler and not Vengerov, who played it) and E minor, op27, No.6 (dedicated to Manuel Quiroga). Any other artist would have left the stage between those technically, and musically, extremely demanding works - not so Vengerov. Instead he entertained the audience with jokes: one about a famous violinist, who had died. But instead of going to heaven he went to hell. There, all his great colleagues from the past were playing in an orchestra, conducted by the devil himself. He joined in immediately, but after some time he asked one colleague after the other if there would not be a break soon. Finally, Isaac Stern whispered, `never a break´. In another joke a violinist asks a fortune-teller about his future. She looks at his hand and tells him there is very good and a very bad news. "Which do you want to hear first?", she asks. "Of course, the good news" he answers. "The good news is, that as soon as your life on earth is over, you will go to heaven and be the leader of the best orchestra you can imagine, conducted by God." The violinist is over the moon. "But now tell me the bad news." "This, unfortunately, will happen tomorrow".

An encore, an Adagio by Bach, followed and before Maxim Vengerov finished his recital with the Balalaika Op.100 by Shchedrin, dedicated to him, he invited the audience to ask him questions. When the concert was finally over, he came into the foyer and signed copies of his latest CD - the same concert he had just played (EMI Classics 5 57384 2). A memorable evening with surely the greatest violinist of our time, and one who is also an incredibly relaxed communicator.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt

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