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Seen and Heard Recital Review



Paganini in London: Maxim Vengerov Violin Masterclass, Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music London. 4.3.2006. (ED)

Why review a masterclass? I think that it’s a valid exercise from many points of view: to record the technical and interpretational insights of the eminent teacher, to observe up-and-coming talents in action, and capture something of the spirit of mutual discovery that can come into events of this type. Naturally this review will differ a little from most, and in terms of form I will look at each masterclass in turn giving my observations on the initial playthrough of the work, followed by a summary of Vengerov’s own extensive comments that accompanied passages receiving in-depth attention.

Maxim Vengerov’s reputation as ‘the modern-day Paganini’ ensured that it was standing room only for this, his first masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music since his appointment as Professor of Violin. Naturally the reception for him was a warm, but of greater importance was the welcome he gave each of the students and the enthusiasm he showed for their playing. At 31, and fresh from a sabbatical year studying improvisation and tango dancing, Vengerov is still very much in touch with the mindset of a student hungry for knowledge and support.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) – Violin sonata no.3 in D minor (1st movement)Hasmik Avdalyan, violin; Sten Lassmann, piano

Hasmik Avdalyan and Sten Lassmann launched into the movement fearlessly – perhaps the tension was increased by being the first in front of Vengerov – but I felt the forward drive overcooked in the movement from the beginning. Vibrato was mixed with a purity of tone to shape the work in an excessive way, and the evident tonal roughness that also came through displayed a passion on the edge. Although certain of the notes, there was some uncertainty in the high register, where subtlety of phrasing also played a subordinate role to merely keeping the solo line on track.

Vengerov seized on the players not appearing wholly together as an integrated unit: making music together as friends, but where mistakes are made then they also are made in partnership. In bringing these two musical halves together Vengerov sought support for each player from the other (through conscious and sub-conscious generosity in their playing) to add colours to the tone rather than extend the use of solely one tonal impression.

In getting Avdalyan and Lassmann to “speak the same language” Vengerov urged simplicity of playing – as a single line, and demonstrated this using his resonant baritone voice rather than his violin. The piano part also came in for attention, showing the total musicality of Vengerov as a performer too. Perhaps the greatest points made, focussed on Brahms as a strategic composer, that is to say indentifying which themes are of most importance in the writing, and realising too that there is much of importance that remains unplayed by either part.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) – Violin concerto (1st movement) Thomas Gould, violin; John Reid, piano

Tenseness came into Gould’s playing of the Mendelssohn, to the point that it often became rushed and emotionally all on the same level. With covered notes in the mid-range and a little lacking in internal shading, his playing seemed lacking in pliancy of expression. When pushed into forte there appeared little left in reserve to give the impression that still more was possible, and this music needs that. The cadenza was a self-conscious affair in part, and there were intonation problems momentarily after the piano’s re-entry. From where I sat, it seemed reasonable that with some attention to stance and the feet in general some of these problems might be improved upon.

Vengerov sought to increase the flexibility of playing and to make the harmony have greater colour and texture, drawing the analogy with the brushwork of a painter. The point being that the contrast between themes in D major and D minor should be noticeable: in the initial performance the D major theme had carried a sense of suffering that was needless. The sense of timelessness within the music was also addressed, along with the soloist having to create the impression of playing before actually doing so, at the very start of the movement. Later on, entries were looked at and a gentler view was encouraged – the soloist must not scare the audience, yet he must get under the skin of the music to be at the service of the composer. To this end, even bow distribution is required, thus allowing the last notes in a phrase to also vibrate fully.

Parallels were drawn with the opening movement of the Sibelius concerto, which is cast in one mood like the Mendelssohn, making changes of mood in mid-movement unnecessary. At times, Vengerov felt the passagework to be played as if in an examination, and he encouraged a more obvious externalisation of feeling about the passages in order to increase their communicative strength. Likewise, transitions might be played down so as not to detract from the more interesting themes within the work – in this respect transitions were likened to taking a car, a bus or a plane; whatever the chosen transport it only serves to get one from a to b.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Violin concerto (1st movement) Anthony Sabberton, violin; Daniel Swain, piano

Temporary unevenness of phrasing marred Sabberon’s otherwise confident opening, but things soon settled into a clean performance that steered clear of excessive vibrato in the main. A slight tendency to rush was evident, but this was compensated by a highly coloured solo line that displayed both evenness and lightness of touch against statements of some strength. On the whole it seemed to me a polished performance technically, both  tonally and with regard to many facets of interpretation.

Beethoven for Vengerov is a composer of intertwining personalities, and as a result there were many ways he could envisage exploring this movement; but he felt that the most effective was through knowing the composer and cooperating with the orchestra. In this respect one should almost let the entry go for nothing   (being just a dominant) and note that in thinking of nothing here, the more beautiful music later would have greater effect as a result. As in the earlier Mendelssohn masterclass he questioned the placing of emphasis upon transitions, rather than exploring the conflicts that the music contains. For example, the second subject shows an awareness of time, indicated by the timpani at the very start, alongside wanting to put a stop to its progression.

Nuances and feelings play their parts too. As the music progresses it sometimes feels as if it wants to give up, and that even Beethoven, a man of irrepressible energy, grows tired. To get the feeling here, Vengerov suggested that when learning the part, a violinist might play the accompaniment while singing the solo part, and then attempt transferring that feeling into playing afterwards.

The development section saw attention focus on the music's suggestion of plans being made, but not yet realised. Here, taking time with phrasing is of great assistance in bringing out the strengths and weaknesses, the desire to give up yet also not wanting to. The soloist takes on the quality of a philosopher, questing within himself, as opposed to a magician at the movement's beginning.

Henri Wieniawski (1835-1880) – Polonaise in D Naoko Miyamoto, violin; John Reid, piano

If the opening was overly snatched by Miyamoto, with passagework throughout also showing signs of attention slightly lacking, this was offset by a first subject delivered with some strength, effectively utilising the smoky mid range quality of her instrument to contrast with the hard metallic sound of its upper register. An increase in confidence as the piece progressed, was noticeable. From the audience’s viewpoint, the benefit of finally hearing a complete work (rather than wishing as I did that the preceding sonata and concertos could have been continued through their remaining movements) was considerable.

With this Wieniawski, Vengerov encouraged Miyamoto initially to loosen up both hands and bring a sense of fun into the playing: happiness, pride and bourgeois feeling all play a part here. In painting the scene of a grand ball where the violinist is a guest introduced to the Royal hostess, Vengerov imagined the doors to the salon flung open with a flourish at the start. He praised Miyamoto’s “wonderful tone” yet urged her to take more time - thus establishing the mood for the audience whilst allowing herself to be a part of the action. How does one greet a queen? With forward momentum and a spring in the step, yet slightly reserved in demeanour. This music must describe this.

As the music progresses another individual is introduced, and the violinist describes this character: a rotund arrogant man with a pipe (Vengerov here acted the part whilst Miyamoto played the passage) and in seeking to make this character believable the tone should be round like the gentleman himself. Next come a squabbling couple - the wife though somewhat tired attends the ball out of duty, the husband full of beans and excited about meeting the hostess – and here the soloist observes the psychology of their interactions: at first the wife gets no response to her pleas to go home, then grudging acknowledgement, then rage from her infuriated husband.

The main theme returns and the social round continues. Coaches arrive to begin taking the quests home (evident in the rhythm of the accompaniment), yet inside the dancing carries on, with the violinist providing a participatory role in this; to reflect this, the music should float and flow. At the close, thoughts are taken suddenly back to Poland in the character of the music.

In drawing the afternoon to a close Vengerov urged all present to look at music with different eyes (and presumably, listen to it with open ears too) so that whether we were players or audience, we remained open to “new messages from the composer”. “Music,” he said “is a sharing experience when we gather together to take pleasure in it.” His belief in this idea is, I feel, immutable – and his attitude towards the masterclass experience reflected this. Only later was I fully aware as to how selfless his approach had been: the events on stage remained personal between the musicians and Vengerov, yet witnessing them had extended my appreciation of the practicing violinists’ world.

Evan Dickerson




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