MUSIC / Growing up is hard to do The boy wonder comes of age: Still a whiz-kid, no longer just a copycat, Maxim Vengerov has made the transition from boy wonder to mature artist. Edward Seckerson reports

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Paganini, they said, was the Devil's disciple. How else could his mesmerising sleight of bow be explained? And where were those sounds coming from? Not the tiny body of his violin, surely? I imagine some punters will have been asking the same questions during Maxim Vengerov's recital at this year's Edinburgh Festival. For his final encore (or was it his next trick?), he saw off Antonio Bazzini's Dance of the Elves. His fingers effectively disappeared in the shower of pizzicati crackling around the instrument like so much atmospheric static. And then the Vengerov bow came into play and it was as if he were taking sound from the air. Actually he plays with Jascha Heifetz's bow, bequeathed by the great man on the understanding that it be given 'to the right guy'. So we may be talking some kind of possession here, if not demonic. Vengerov vividly remembers the first time he used the bow in concert: a performance of the Brahms Concerto in Amsterdam. Something was different, he says; some of the bowings were definitely different.

But no bow, and no instrument - even Vengerov's 1727 'Reynier' Stradivarius (on loan from the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy company) - plays itself. There is the story of Heifetz and the violin collector. 'Now this is the most incredible instrument, the most unbelievable sound]' enthuses the collector. 'Really,' says Heifetz. 'But I don't hear anything.'

Vengerov likes that story. At 20, he has already mastered the instrument. Now comes the music. He has the instincts, the sixth sense that cannot be taught. He is that rare phenomenon in these days of precocious super-virtuosi: an inquiring musician whose astonishing technique really is at the service of a deeper purpose. Listen to his Teldec recording of the Mendelssohn Concerto. Not one phrase smacks of over-familiarity. I doubt even Andrew Lloyd Webber would recognise the slow movement, so airborne is the melody. Nor does Vengerov power-play the finale into a headlong perpetuum mobile. There is wit and wisdom in the articulation, an overriding strength of character and individuality in the phrasing. Vengerov grew up listening to many great players; he can recognise most by their sound and style. But then he has to forget what he's heard. Even good ideas mean nothing when they're borrowed or imitated.

After winning the 1990 Carl Flesch competition in London, doors opened to him. Daniel Barenboim's was one. Vengerov auditioned for him with Tchaikovsky and Bach (he always carries the Six Partitas in his violin case: 'I play them every day instead of scales. So good for my musical health'). Barenboim was impressed: he especially commended the Bach, it seems. He offered Vengerov a Chicago Symphony date. They agreed on the Sibelius Concerto. Vengerov could play the hell out of that. No problem. At their first piano rehearsal, Barenboim simply listened. It was brilliant; note perfect. At the close, all he said was: 'Fine, if that's the way you want to play it. Everybody else does. So what?' Vengerov was in shock. 'But maestro, tell me what I'm doing wrong.' 'That's for you to find out. Try looking at the score - the whole score, not just your own part. And by the way, the non-vibrato at the beginning doesn't work for you. Because it's not your idea.' Or words to that effect.

So much for his mastery of the Sibelius. The boy wonder grew up fast that night. He put away his violin and explored the score into the small hours: colouring, tempo relationships. He'd learnt a valuable lesson: don't do anything you don't feel and cannot prove. Music must be personal. 'A good idea is one that works for you. We are all so different - the length of our hands, the shape of the fingers, and so on. That's where you can run into problems with modern teaching methods.'

Next time around, Barenboim's reaction was very different: 'I knew from the Bach you played at your audition that you were a real musician. You just needed to find your own way to the Sibelius.' Vengerov tells the story with relish, happy to relive the moment he finally buried the show-off and found the musician.

Vengerov was born in Novosibirsk, the capital of Western Siberia. Apparently some of Russia's best teachers served penance here for their misdemeanours. Which is how this snowy backwater became a hot spring of musical talent. Or so the story goes. Vengerov was one of the lucky beneficiaries. His parents were musical: his mother a singer, his father an oboist. Singing was the key. From as far back as he can remember, he wanted to play the instrument closest of all to the human voice. He swears he can recall exactly when that was. He was cold, he was hungry, he was barely four months old. His grandmother put on her favourite David Oistrakh record to quieten him down. Instant recognition.

So much of Vengerov's potency as a player emanates from the sound he makes. And so much of that sound is created in the vibrato. He's not a great fan of the fat, immodest vibrato, but even that has its place. Equally, he's learnt that non-vibrato (so useful for evoking stillness and solitude) can become a mannerism; that portamento can be tasteless and sentimental; that the most difficult thing in the world to achieve is a seamless legato. He cites one of his party-pieces - Paganini's Cantabile. Just the sound of the word invokes the whole Italian bel canto tradition. 'That's what is so special about Paganini for violinists. Playing the violin is all about understanding the art of singing. I know when I am below my best - the instrument doesn't sing, whatever I do.'

Earlier this year, in London, Vengerov drew a rare standing ovation for a quite sensational performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto. It was only the second time he'd played it in public. But in the feverish final minutes of the piece, with bars going by at the speed of light, his E- string broke. Writing about the incident in these pages, I jested: 'If he'd had to stand on one leg and whistle the remaining bars, he'd have done so.' I wasn't so very far from the truth. 'The music was continuing in my head. I was singing my part when I grabbed the leader's violin and bow. If not, I'd have lost it. My own bow had lost half of its hair, my finger was bleeding from all the pressure of the bowing.'

Mstislav Rostropovich was the conductor. He was also Vengerov's hot line to the composer. They spent many hours together with the piece: 'lessons in life, more than lessons in music'. Youth was not on his side, he says. 'Rostropovich taught me to feel responsible for the music. He told me I had to sacrifice beauty for the spirit. In the great Passacaglia, he said, 'listen only to the theme in the basses: their sound will help you to understand how you must sound.' And so I concentrated on the basses and began to feel the emotional development of the music. I grew up some more during those days.'

And, in the days following, Vengerov was in the studio, recording the Shostakovich (and Prokofiev's First Concerto) with Rostropovich. Watching him adapt to the unforgiving scrutiny of the microphone was interesting. 'The microphone is a most demanding audience. He listens to every note - and I hate him for it. But after correcting the details, we always try for one complete take. And we always choose spirit above perfection.' Tomorrow Vengerov should be named 'Young Artist of the Year' in the annual Gramophone Awards. So what? Just you wait.

Vengerov's new recording of Shostakovich and Prokofiev is released on Teldec on 17 Oct

(Photograph omitted)

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