After a long absence following an injury plus psychological burn-out, Maxim Vengerov has spent this year making his come-back: he’s given scores of concerts abroad, but his re-entry into the London scene has been very carefully managed.
First he stood in at short notice to play a concerto, then he took the plunge with a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall, and that proved his Bach was back up to scratch. Joining Robin Ticciati and the London Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was the really big test, but on this showing he’s not yet quite out of the wood.
With the Queen in attendance to mark the Barbican’s first thirty years, the event opened with a fanfare by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. This was designed to be played by seventy young musicians in tandem with wind, brass, and percussion from the LSO, and it had real substance and bite.
It was based on a skewed, wrong-note melody passed from one instrumental group to another, and we might have been in Thirties Berlin: the roughness suggested Kurt Weill, and the atmosphere of parody made a welcome antidote to the usual royal-occasion blandness. It was typical of this doughty political campaigner that, as Master of the Queen’s Music, he should then preside over the award of the Queen’s Medal for Music to the National Youth Orchestra.
Then Vengerov got down to business, with an upward opening sweep followed by a statement of Tchaikovsky’s first theme which seemed to have all his old eloquence and authority. But as the Allegro developed, cracks appeared in the edifice.
The passage-work was sometimes smudged, and there were three ghastly moments when he lost his intonation completely: each came at a point of maximum tension, at the beginning of an upward flight, and each indicated painfully over-wrought nerves.
But if he was ill at ease in the first movement, the lyrical Canzonetta was magical. Here his playing was muted from start to finish, and - with Robin Ticciati and the LSO strings providing the gentlest of pizzicato accompaniments - he created a ravishing sound-world in soft shades of grey. Back up to speed for the closing Allegro, he seemed once more in too much of an anxious hurry to enjoy – or let us enjoy - what he was playing. He redeemed himself with a Bach encore of exquisite beauty.