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
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
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
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.