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HT Wohlfahrt pleads for Maxim Vengerov to reinstate the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition and reviews recent Vengerov recitals.

Bach, Mozart, Brahms: Maxim Vengerov (vln), Fazil Say (pf)

Bach, Brahms, Beethoven: Maxim Vengerov (vln), Fazil Say (pf) Barbican Hall, February 2004


What a joy to experience two successive and, as usual, forever memorable recitals by Maxim Vengerov (the only danger being that we take this God given violin genius too much for granted). It was on the platform of the Barbican Hall that his first triumph in the West took place by winning the Carl Flesh International Violin Competition. This once famous competition died some years ago, principally because of lack of money. C.F. Flesch, the son of the Hungarian born Jewish virtuoso, whose treatises on the technique of playing the violin are still very much in use, lives in London and despite being well into his 90th year - and still active and in astonishingly good health - tried everything to revive this competition in honour of his father. He did not succeed. I firmly believe it is Vengerov’s duty to use both his prominence and influence to give the competition a new lease of life. As he is planning to buy a place in London it would seem logical that he could also be the artistic director of a competition, which has done London proud in the past and - connected with the name Maxim Vengerov - would do so in the future.

But, back to the recitals. I am afraid that, to a certain degree, I may not longer be that objective towards Vengerov. He has always exceeded my expectations and these by now countless experiences have shown that even if Vengerov goes slightly over the top he still keeps within the limits of the music. His musicianship and taste, the sheer beauty of his playing and his phenomenal technique, allied with his charming, as well as intense and simultaneously relaxed stage presence, are reasons enough to call him the unsurpassable violinist of our time.

He started the first evening by playing Bach’s Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1005. One has to accept his decision to interpret Bach historically, which means tuning down the instrument and playing without any vibrato, and hardy any rubato. On this occasion, he finally convinced me that this is genuinely right as long as a violinist masters his technique in the way Vengerov does. With eyes closed, the purity of his sound seemed to have travelled for centuries originating somewhere in a basilica. Only, this violinist needs also to be watched; his body language and the way he corresponds with his instrument, in this case the `Kreutzer´ Stradivarius and not his usual baroque violin (it had an ‘accident’, I had been told), are never artificial, but deeply honest and rooted in the music. The speed, with which he tackled the Gigue or the passion of the Ciaconna are the result of the unity between body and instrument.

Mozart and Brahms were to follow after the interval. In his already thirteen year long recording career Vengerov has only once played a Mozart sonata on disc and none of his concertos; even in public, other Mozart rarely features. Once, a young Andrei Gavrilov, being frightened of playing Mozart, said to me: "Each note Mozart wrote is like a pearl and there are endless strings of pearls. That is why he is the most difficult composer for me." Vengerov may think similarly; but with the Sonata no.32 in B flat major, K.454, one of Mozart’s

last violin sonatas, and the first of this genre to have an equal partnership between piano and violin, it seemed transparently clear that the time has come for Vengerov to confront us with the greatest composer of absolute music. The soulful Largo introduction leading into the Allegro, the expressive central Andante and the rhythmically – but unusually virtuosic - Rondo were played with such lightness, maturity, structural understanding and pearl like radiance that it was like hearing the work for the first time. That sadly counted for the violin alone for with this piece Vengerov introduced his newest accompanist, the Turkish pianist Fazil Say. His constant pianissimo, with a slightly romantic colouring, was difficult to digest.

Worse was to come with the Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, op.108 by Johannes Brahms, a work dear to Vengerov’s heart and which he has already recorded with Daniel Barenboim (October 1998). The musical and technical demands are no challenge for Vengerov - he interpreted the work with his usual brilliant vitality culminating in a full-blooded coda, while Fazil Say took to successfully bathing in extremes and, albeit with quite bad taste, outshone Vengerov as the centre of attention. This pianist makes a cult out of mannerism; from time to time his body disappears completely, while his feet jump all over the floor; his mouth seems to sing and when he only needs his left hand, he conducts Vengerov. The whole looked more like a monologue by Mime directed towards Siegfried from the first act of Wagner’s "Siegfried" facing Vengerov constantly and asking him as devotedly and diabolically as possible, as if he is his `little son´.

In Itamar Golan Vengerov used to have a quite temperamental, but well suited and outgoing pianist, who understood his needs and helped the performance to become even more exciting. As this relationship seems to have come to an end, Vengerov would be well advised to choose a partner who does not try in the worst and most unprofessional manner possible,to dominate - and to overshadow - Vengerov’s aesthetic stage presence. He plays quite fluidly, as far as I could Judge, except that he does not seem to know that there are more dynamics than pp and ff, and despite all his fussing he does not breath in unison with the violinist.

The second evening has been well documented by Marc Bridle's review, except for once I found myself in disagreement with some of what Vengerov did. For the opening work, Bach’s Sonata No 1 in B minor for violin and keyboard, BWV 1014, he should have chosen a harpsichord instead of a modern grand as accompaniment. As the piano could, of course, not be tuned down, Vengerov had to surrender to modern day tuning, albeit still in the historical style without vibrato. The reverberation of the piano and the delicately balanced baroque sound were at odds with each other. Otherwise, the highlight was again Vengerov’s supreme command and his musical understanding, be it in Brahms´ Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, op.100 (recorded in May 1991), the rarely played Scherzo in C minor, a youthful movement by Brahms composed in 1853, and Vengerov’s breathtaking account of Beethoven’s virtuoso `Kreutzer´ Sonata op.47, dedicated to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. He, of course, never played the work declaring it as "outrageously unintelligible" ; instead Maxim Vengerov played it posthumously on Kreutzer’s famous Stradivarius.

I could have done without the kitschy, and sometimes preposterous, piano accompaniment but maybe Fazil Say, also a jazz pianist and a composer, thought that by knocking the floor with his feet and jumping up from his chair he would give this work an even stronger Beethovenian touch. Sadly, the audience loved it, but they also adored one of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms Vengerov played as an encore in Joachim’s transcription full of the magic and the pyrotechnics only he is capable of.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt






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