Maxim Vengerov brings an elegant program and insightful playing to his violin recital in Berkeley

United StatesUnited States Various: Maxim Vengerov (violin), Polina Osetinskaya (piano). Presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 14.10.2022. (HS)

Violinist Maxim Vengerov © Diago Mariotta Mendez

J. S. Bach – Violin Sonata in B minor
Beethoven – Violin Sonata in A major ‘Kreutzer’
Shostakovich (arr. Tsyganov) – Ten Preludes from Op.34
TchaikovskySouvenir d’un lieu cher; Valse-Scherzo in C major

In the 15 years since Maxim Vengerov last played his trusty 1727 ‘Kreutzer’ Stradivari violin in the San Francisco Bay Area, he has carved out a second career as an accomplished conductor. Always a standout for capturing the essence of works from Bach to Ysaÿe to Shostakovich, he showed more evidence of this ability in this beautiful recital at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

There was a palpable sense of security and intent in the music of J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. It all unfolded with a delicious flow.

That included a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A major, nicknamed ‘Kreutzer’ because Beethoven dedicated the piece to the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. In the atmospheric opening measures, Vengerov and pianist Polina Osetinskaya traded tender renderings of the gently questioning phrases and then launched into the meat of the furious Presto.

Their communication here, and throughout the concert, was mesmerizingly intuitive. Osetinskaya never once turned her head to look at the violinist, but through ESP or some divine connection they knew exactly where the other was going and when to coordinate their entrances or changes in tempo. Her eyes were glued to the score. He played without sheet music, which emphasized a naturalness in his approach to every measure.

The second movement’s variations moved along at a pace with just enough urgency to avoid dragging, which too often happens when musicians aim to contrast the movement with the previous frenetics. This felt exactly right as each variation blossomed with Beethoven’s subtle colors. The virtuosic finale danced its tarantella with abandon, taking a breath for the reminder of the first movement’s introduction before crashing to a crisp finish.

A finely tuned balance in this piece between violin and piano was especially welcome after the opening foray through Bach’s Violin Sonata in B minor, balanced strongly toward the piano. Vengerov’s subtle playing often receded into the background. Though Osetinskaya’s rhythmic choices felt spot-on, her softer touch was ideal for the moody opening of the Beethoven but would have benefited from more crispness in the Bach.

The second half of the program, which featured Russian music, mirrored the structure of the first. It began with ten of Shostakovich’s pungently witty preludes. Originally a full set of 24 preludes – short pieces for solo piano (written in 1932-33) that followed the every-key format of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, this version compiled later arrangements for violin and piano by violinist Dmitri Tsyganov of the Beethoven Quartet.

The set of ten brief preludes began with three of the minor-key preludes. No.2, a toccata, bounced along, peppered with Shostakovich’s spiky ‘wrong notes’, followed by No.6, the dotted rhythms of a sort of French overture striding along in the bass line of the piano, and finished with No.12, a passacaglia that the composer also used in the slow movement of the Violin Concerto No.1.

Especially fine was the way both musicians deftly switched moods from one short piece (barely a minute in most cases) to the next. The sweetness of the major-key Largo of No.13 lilted nicely in a pastoral 6/8, and No.17 kept the atmosphere with lovely harmonies in a sweet Largo, only to darken in the F minor of No.18 and take off at a gallop in the lightly tripping No.21.

The highlight, though, came with the very last prelude, No.22 in G minor, Vengerov intoning a somber melody over Osetinskaya’s softly treading chords to a wistful finish.

A couple of Tchaikovsky rarities concluded the program. Vengerov’s uncanny ability to coax voice-like beauty in every heart-on-sleeve melody made Souvenir d’un lieu cher sing. It began with the original slow movement of the composer’s violin concerto, which had been replaced before the concerto’s debut. If less colorful than the orchestral version, the lovely piece of nostalgia found the violinist exploring everything from lowest to highest notes on the instrument with a deft touch.

The even lighter second movement contrasted with the fast-paced tarantella, usually played second but shifted here to a finale, perhaps to parallel the Beethoven sonata’s tarantella-infused finale. Without a break, the program finished with the Valse-Scherzo in C major, played with consummate gentility.

For encores, the duo offered a juicy rendition of the third movement (another scherzo) of Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata and finished with the emotionally taut third movement of Franck’s Violin Sonata, sending the audience out into the cool night smiling.

Harvey Steiman

1 thought on “Maxim Vengerov brings an elegant program and insightful playing to his violin recital in Berkeley”

  1. I am a undergrad at Cal and I was there. This article reminds me a lot of good stuff in the concert! It’s my first read of commentary on classical music and I really like how the writer uses many good words to capture the emotions in the performance!


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