Day 21 of the George Enescu Festival: Maxim Vengerov and Polina Osetinskaya

RomaniaRomania George Enescu Festival 2021 [4]: Maxim Vengerov (violin), Polina Osetinskaya (piano). Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest, 17.9.2021. (SS)

Maxim Vengerov (violin) and Polina Osetinskaya (piano) (c) Andrada Pavel

Mozart – Violin Sonata No.32 in B flat major K.454
Enescu – Violin Sonata No.2 in F minor Op.6
R. Strauss – Violin Sonata in E flat major, Op.18

This concert was the first time Maxim Vengerov came onto my radar in 20 years. Back then, he was a young superstar violinist and I was a kid caught up in the Vengerov fever that then gripped the UK (and probably a few other countries). Now, he is a middle-aged veteran of the concert circuit who has been back performing already for ten years since his injury-related hiatus, and I am inching towards middle age myself. After all these years, it felt good to catch up.

Some things haven’t changed. Vengerov always played with a smile, literally and figuratively, which makes his playing very easy to like. He was and still is promoted as the great virtuoso of his generation, with this program certainly burnishing his credentials on that front, but the likability and sunny nature of the playing remains just as vital a part of the Vengerov brand. What has developed with age and experience is that he now plays with more style – not in the generic sense of ‘stylish’, but composer-specific style. This could be heard throughout Mozart’s Violin Sonata No.32, a work written in the year the composer first met Haydn. Here, Vengerov indulged us in some impeccably tasteful Mozart playing that was perhaps even too well behaved. There was more interest in Polina Osetinskaya’s sparkling pianism, which was equally Mozartian but not at the expense of self-expression.

If the Mozart had seemed like a polite warm-up, Vengerov was ready to shift a gear higher for Enescu’s Violin Sonata No.2. The finger-breaking difficulties of the outer movements – Enescu clearly wrote this for a violinist of his own phenomenal skill – barely fazed him, just as Osetinskaya effortlessly dispatched the densely woven intricacies of the piano part. The windingly lyrical slow movement sounded like a wistful continuation of (reflection on?) the first. The darkly sinewy opening to the sonata, with the violinist crossing all four strings just as the pianist’s figuration roams the entire length of the keyboard, really does set the tone for the entire piece. This is one long chromatic labyrinth of a sonata and Vengerov was an exemplary Theseus, guiding us through its twists and turns with a single unbroken thread.

Still, as with the Mozart, it felt like there could have been a touch more panache – and this finally arrived in the second half thanks to the heady gateway drug of early Richard Strauss. His Violin Sonata demands virtuosity and lyricism in equal measure, with soloist and pianist giving generously of both. There was even a decent stab at Straussian style – the slow movement wasn’t far away from the bittersweet ending of Der Rosenkavalier, and the ebullient final movement evoked Don Juan.

At the end, Ravel’s Tzigane – the weirdest showstopper in the violin repertoire? It seemed like it in Vengerov’s interpretation, at any rate. Going beyond rhapsody, the unaccompanied opening half was played as an experimental improvisation, only taking a more conventional turn with the entry of the piano. With Osetinskaya’s virtuosity every bit a match for Vengerov’s, the fireworks at the end were incandescent indeed.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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