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Maxim Vengerov, Itamar Golan, Barbican, London


Little by little Maxim Vengerov is easing himself back into the mainstream, after injury and burn-out. His last Barbican foray - with a concerto - was marred by a loss of nerve at critical moments: this time he was going for broke with a chamber recital where, if anything went wrong, he would have nowhere to hide.

Between Beethoven’s fiery ninth violin sonata, the ‘Kreutzer’, and his tenth, in G major Opus 96, lay a nine-year gap during which the composer had weathered the worst storm of his life. Since Vengerov, for whom the ‘Kreutzer’ used to be a calling card, has now weathered his own great storm, the serene tenth was an appropriate choice.

Swapping its delicate opening phrases with pianist Itamar Golan, he established an atmosphere of leisurely grace which went on to pervade the entire first movement: Golan’s velvet touch became the ideal foil for Vengerov’s intimate and confiding sound. For the Adagio, which prefigures the visionary slow movements of the late piano sonatas, he found a sweetly veiled tone which allowed him to make a brilliant contrast in the Scherzo which followed; the improvisatory variations of the finale were beautifully characterised. The whole work had exquisite poise.

For Schubert’s ‘Grand Duo in A major D 574’, Vengerov used a bigger and more expansive tone. The challenge of this deceptively demanding work lies in its switchback changes of mood and texture, and here one could tell what a perfect duo these musicians are. Moving on to Franck’s ‘Sonata in A major’, they took risks with tempi – a very slow opening movement, and a crazily fast second – but by doing so they turned in a refreshingly different interpretation of this over-familiar piece. Saint-Saens’s ‘Havanaise’ and ‘Introduction and Rondo capriccioso’ – written for that god of the violin, Pablo de Sarasate – set the seal on things, as Vengerov brought out the most dazzling effects with the serenest of smiles.

So finally he’s back, with all his elegance of line and purity of tone. The authority is still there, but now leavened by diffidence, and by a sort of humility in place of the old look-at-me egotism. And it was a privilege to hear these great show-stoppers back-to-back in a live performance, delivered with such consummate panache. Few other fiddlers could have pulled it off.