Maxim Vengerov may still be a young artist but that does not
prevent him from being a great artist. What is particularly satisfying
about this solo (not duo) recital is that his playing is under the microscope
for more than an hour, yet neither in technique nor imagination does the
standard fall for one moment from the highest standard imaginable.
The programme is challenging but supremely rewarding.
The dominant figure is Eugène Ysäye, whose Opus 24 solo
sonatas take no prisoners technically speaking. Vengerov is absolutely
commanding, with clear articulation and perfect intonation at every
stage. Each sonata emerges as a masterpiece in its own terms, and there
can be no doubt that the music is served with distinction.
Like any leading artist Vengerov has developed friendships
with leading composers of the day. Rodion Shchedrin's Echo Sonata is
a tour de force, a fifteen minute piece which uses contrasts of dynamic
with special imaginative touches, whose starting point was taking up
where the Bach solo violin works left off, using a 20th century idiom.
It is one of those pieces in which it is easy to suggest that virtuosity
comes first and music second. However, Vengerov's performance sustains
the musical line and therefore the concentration of a composition which
seems extraordinarily difficult to bring off.
Inspired by his playing of the Echo Sonata and other
music besides, Schedrin composed a short encore item, Balalaika, with
Vengerov in mind, dedicating it to the violinist. Its performance here
is the exception among the collection, since it was taken from a live
performance at the Barbican Hall, rather than recorded in the studio
conditions of Potton Hall. If anything, the live audience inspired playing
of even greater fire and commitment. An option in a solo encore is to
astonish, and that option is featured here.
The Bach item is a transcription for solo violin, by
Bruce Fox-Letriche, of the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ.
There is no need to worry about transcriptions of Bach if they are skilfully
done. After all, the great man himself was never averse to giving either
his own music or that of others (Vivaldi for example) a set of new clothes.
Besides, that, there is a school of thought that this most famous of
Bach's organ works is not by the master in any case, though no-one has
gone so far as to suggest an alternative composer. Among recent theories
is that the music originated as a violin piece in A minor.
Vengerov lends his support to this idea, and opts to
play with 'a Baroque instrument and bow': that is, with gut strings
and a less tense bow. The performance is certainly interesting, but
somehow it doesn't quite seem natural. Admittedly the fact that the
music is known in an alternative identity hardly helps in this respect,
but the expressive intensity of the playing sits a little uneasily in
the context of baroque style.
However, the performance is as compelling and interesting
as one would expect. What is not compelling about this otherwise splendid
issue is the booklet design, in which all the listings of the music
are printed in a spidery and tiny font against a background of 'folded
brown cloth'. What possible purpose does this serve? The only result
is that it makes the listings extraordinarily difficult to read.