Concert Review

Maxim Vengerov (unaccompanied violin): Bach, Ysaÿe & Shchedrin, Barbican, 24 May 2000

The sheer brilliance of this recital was breathtaking. The inspirational music making, the vortex of seamless virtuosity, the beauty of tone were all exceptional, even by today's standards. That Maxim Vengerov is also an artist who mesmerises his public with a larger-than-life personality, and a genuine warmth and charm, is all the more gratifying. The sheer expressive pleasure he gives to his artistry - for that it what it clearly is - made this an unforgettable recital. I don't think I have ever heard a single performer give so much of himself to others - this was music being made for the love of music, and nothing else mattered. It was a triumph - and even more so when considers how taxing was the programme.

I had initially thought the performance of the Bach Sonata 1 (BMV 1001) somewhat cool. In retrospect, however, it was a deeply rhetorical and expressive performance. The tone was bell-like in its clarity and was played largely vibrato-less, the polyphony rolling gorgeously ever outwards. The opening adagio was improvised beautifully, with the great chords and coloratura writing generating the requisite continuity, which it is so easy to miss in this opening movement. The glory of the fugue was in part due to Mr Vengerov's uncanny ability to alternate the polyphonic textures and the single-line figuration so convincingly. This was not mere virtuosity, but a real unmasking of the hidden textures. Here, as in the siciliana, with its dotted rhythms and melodic lyricism, Mr Vengerov got beneath the implied voices to develop the aspiring arioso qualities of this work. The presto shimmered and bustled - the lower and upper voices alternating like a chorus of tenors and sopranos. Throughout, the multiple stopping was fabulously assured, the near-impossible three and four string chords supremely mastered (no doubt helped by holding the bow a third of the way up).

Shchedrin's Echo Sonata is a staggering work and Mr Vengerov's performance of it was monumental. From the lampblack sonority he produced on the G string to the fiendish harmonics on the E string, which were almost whispered in their purity, Mr Vengerov wove a performance that captured the imagination. Simultaneous bowing and pizzicato, bowing that ricocheted like an uncontrollable spinning wheel, and a stream of guitar-like plucking littered a performance that dovetailed effortless virtuosity with an imposing and haunting expressiveness. A quite blistering display of pure artistry.

The Ysaÿe sonatas can often sound a bit repetitive if played so closely together. Not here. Mr Vengerov's achievement was to make each one sound an individual masterpiece. The Second Sonata merged mysticism with mourning most convincingly, the 'Shadow Dance' and the 'Dance of the Furies' invested with a knife-edged talent for hypnotic spiccato. In the Fourth, the honeyed sweetness of a Kreisler was placed alongside a surging pyrotechnia. The final Sixth , with a Habanera that was at once as lazy as it was sultry, was distilled with an effervescent, bubbling virtuosity which frothed with brinkmanship. Octave jumps and chromatic thirds were mapped out with spellbinding ease, and the end was sheer bravura.

Not surprisingly the audience went wild. Mr Vengerov's response was Paganini's Caprice, No.24. The brilliance of this was simply unforgettable - so brilliant that after the pizzicato figuration many cheered and burst into instant applause. He continued to the work's close. More cheering and more applause. Mr Vengerov duly reappeared, this time carrying just a chair and his violin (no bow). The final encore was Shchedrin's Balalaika which he played masterfully - and not without a little humour. I have never before been compelled to join in a standing ovation but in this instance I felt obliged to do so (and noticed other critics doing likewise). This was simply a fabulous recital.

The excellent booklet, lavishly annotated and full of pictures, came free - a growing, and welcome trend, particularly at Barbican concerts. And in case you feel you did miss an extraordinary event, this concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday 28 May at 1pm. I urge everyone to hear it.

Marc Bridle

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