Maxim Vengerov, Itamar Golan - classical review: 'The encores to the encores could have gone on all night'

Barbican, London

The progress of Maxim Vengerov speaks volumes about the splendours and miseries of a virtuoso career.

Born and raised in Novosibirsk, he was destined by his musical parents for a life in music, and initially chose the violin simply because he fancied himself in a prominent position in the orchestra.

At seven, practising seven hours a day, he entered the tutelage of the hard-driving teacher with whom he would stay until he was in his twenties; his rise to fame as a teenage virtuoso was meteoric.

His combination of charisma, authority, and the most perfect tone allowed him to charge higher fees than any other player in the game, and he expanded his activities in many directions, into jazz, and as a conductor, professor at the Royal Academy, and globe-trotting Unicef envoy for music.

It all seemed too good to be true - and it was. At a recital in Lisbon on 2002 I watched him play a brilliant first half and then announce, disconsolately, that he had had an accident to his shoulder that day, and could no longer play.

News filtered out that weight-training was the cause, followed by the information, which he later confirmed, that psychological burn-out was the real problem. He stopped playing completely, and it looked doubtful if he would ever make a come-back.

Two years ago, very gingerly, he did, with a Wigmore recital which showed that his Bach was both intact and in more forceful shape than ever. But he wasn’t out of the wood: in a Barbican performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto there were three ghastly moments when he completely lost his intonation, and clearly through stress.

A year later he was back with his accompanist Itamar Golan for a recital where he displayed all his old elegance of line and purity of tone.  

Last weekend’s recital set the seal on his recovery. He began in sober seriousness with Elgar’s rarely-performed Violin Sonata in E minor, described by the composer as ‘full of golden sounds’, and that was very much how Vengerov presented it.

The virtuosity of the first movement was refined, and its impassioned lyricism restrained, while its tentative and labyrinthine Romance had a lovely suggestiveness.

 Following this work with Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in F minor, which was written for David Oistrakh, Vengerov proved himself a worthy successor to that great artist. He delivered its ghostly pianissimo scales with relaxed ease and astonishing rapidity, and in the Andante let the most beguiling of melodies unfurl over the piano’s rippling figurations.

Then it was wall-to-wall encores, interlarded with the commentary of a born showman. A Brahms Scherzo, all fire and fury, was followed by the swoops and slides of a Hungarian Dance, then Vengerov treated us to a dazzling medley of party-pieces, playing unashamedly to the gallery but without sacrificing an iota of his control and beauty of sound.

The encores to the encores could have gone on all night. How nice to report that among fiddlers Maxim Vengerov, now 39, once again reigns supreme.