Mellow, Burnished Tone from Vengerov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Franck, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky: Maxim Vengerov (violin), Marios Papadopoulos (piano). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 1.12.2013  (CR)

Franck: Violin Sonata in A major
Saint-Saëns:  Havanaise in E major, Op. 83
Tchaikovsky: Valse-Scherzo in C major, Op. 34

In the programme for Maxim Vengerov’s relatively brief afternoon recital it was not so much virtuosity for its own sake that came to the fore, as a glowing lyricism, particularly in the mellow, burnished tone he coaxed from his 1727 Stradivarius. It was surely no coincidence that in performance he was relatively undemonstrative and unshowy in deportment, and there appeared to be a complete rapport between him and his instrument, such that musical lines emerged more or less spontaneously.

The opening of Franck’s Violin Sonata was deliberately dreamy and vague, though as an interpretation it took until the first climax before the music seemed to settle and establish a more definite sense of purpose. Thereafter the melodies in Franck’s cyclical conception flowed seamlessly, as though welling up from the subconscious. In this way the elusiveness of Vengerov’s performance seemed appropriately to set the Sonata as a precursor to the late chamber works of Fauré rather than as an expression of Germanic, developmental rigour. Even the shifts between agitation and tenderness in the third movement had more of an internally divided, schizophrenic quality instead of an outward battle between opposing forces.

Vengerov struck a contrast in the finale with a sweeter, lighter tone – even as the music turned more melancholic – as though to clear away the lingering, heady atmosphere of the foregoing ruminations, which had been characterised by a rich timbre and occasional portamento. Sometimes phrases ended a little limply or there was a slight roughness of tone. But in general this was a very personal performance where technical and expressive control was used to realise the music with due eloquence, rather than stifling it.

Charming though they are, the pieces by Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky which followed are nothing like as complex as Franck’s Sonata. They do require some greater displays of overt virtuosity, which Vengerov handled with no difficulty at all, but his status as a truly great violinist was evident in the fact that they were integrated into the prevailing mood of the piece, rather than audibly detached as a vehicle for emotionally empty histrionics. Some may have welcomed an even more dazzling rendition of the musical fireworks, but nonetheless these were clearly performances from a mature and thoughtful musical mind.

After a threatening introduction on the piano, Vengerov brought a shaft of light and ease into Saint-Saëns’s Havanaise with the carefree lilt of its principal melody, though he still kept in fairly strict time rather than indulging in too loose a rhythmical abandon. Similarly, even while rhapsodising high up on the G string in the opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo, he maintained an essentially insouciant, light-footed musical character, while his playing in the higher reaches of the E string later on elicited palpable, but unforced wistfulness. However, where there had been clear unity of purpose between him and Marios Papadopolous in the Franck, the performers seemed to sustain less of a musical connection in these shorter pieces, where the accompaniments sounded merely dutiful – perhaps an inevitable result of their being arrangements from orchestral scorings.

For an encore, Vengerov played Ysaÿe’s solo Sonata No. 3. In this forging of a fiendish Paganini-style technique with musical substance reminiscent of Bach’s solo violin compositions, Vengerov despatched the fast, double-stopped cascades as cleanly as though they were single, monodic lines, whilst establishing a probing, urgent spirit from the outset. Here again virtuosity was only the means to greater, and more truthfully expressive ends.

Curtis Rogers

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