MUSIC / Something else: Edward Seckerson on Maxim Vengerov with the LSO at the Barbican

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The Independent Culture
Barbican Hall was the place to be last Thursday night. Maxim Vengerov played Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto and the rest was a little piece of musical history in the making. The London Symphony Orchestra knew it, the conductor Mstislav Rostropovich knew it, the audience certainly knew it. David Oistrakh gave the first performance of this concerto back in 1955. This felt and sounded like the second.

Vengerov is that rare phenomenon in these days of precocious super-virtuosi: a complete individual, an original, 'unschooled' player whose astonishing technique really is at the service of a deeper purpose. Pure instinct, no show, no affectation. In the opening Nocturne of the Concerto, it was as if he were taking music from the air: some of his sounds and phrasings didn't appear to come from the fabric of the instrument at all. I'm thinking particularly of those moments where Shostakovich achieves a kind of out-of-body experience, pitching his soloist way into the stratosphere whilst eliciting dark forbodings from his orchestra in the hostile world below. Vengerov can achieve extraordinary intensity barely grazing the topmost positions of his E-string. In the true manner of soliloquy, he makes us all feel like eavesdroppers.

And then comes one of those sardonic Shostakovich scherzos where the gypsies dance on our graves and suddenly its Vengerov, the grim fiddler, making whoopee with his ugliest, most trenchant sounds. He plays with Jascha Heifetz's bow - or does the bow play him? That's how it sometimes seemed. From the great Passacaglia, with its richly elaborated cantilena, through the long, distracted cadenza (a kind of musical nervous breakdown), and beyond, to the Burlesque finale, Vengerov was unstoppable. Well, almost. In the last minute or so of the performance, as he was going like a train through the furious figurations of the final pages, the tension snapped - and so did one of his strings. The orchestra hurtled on without him. But in a split second he'd deposited his violin, grabbed the leader's, and was back on board. If he'd had to stand on one leg and whistle the remaining bars, he'd have done so. And he's still only 20. Audiences love a bit of theatre - but this was something else. Maxim Vengerov is something else.

So follow that. Rostropovich did - with yet more Shostakovich: the war-torn Eighth Symphony. And credit to him, he re-engaged a spent audience. The conducting technique may be wild and woolly, the beat awkward and precarious at best - frantic gesticulations and a prayer often standing between order and chaos - but few communicate the inner torment, the solitude, the outrage of this music as he does. Suddenly, through him, it's first-hand. No longer is this somebody else's war. He insists that we identify with those long, dispossessed woodwind plaints (searching cor anglais solos from the LSO's Christine Pendrill), he intimidates us with the brassy advances, the seismic percussion upheavals of an internal war machine re-mobilised. The LSO continue their domination of the London orchestral scene. Two weeks ago they played as fine a Mahler 6 as I've heard in the capital. Shostakovich has rarely sounded more a part of that inheritance.