MUSIC / The boy wonder: Adrian Jack on Maxim Vengerov in recital in London

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The Independent Culture
About to confront his audience, Heifetz once confided to someone backstage, 'There is no final guarantee.' Several violinists have been compared to the most flawless of them all since recording made comparison possible. After 19-year-old Maxim Vengerov's Barbican recital on Sunday afternoon, I'm tempted not just to invoke Heifetz, but to say that, if you're as good as he was, you'll probably show it as young. After all, Vengerov won the Carl Flesch Competition in 1990.

Almost exactly a year ago, in the same hall, a similar prodigy, the pianist Evgeny Kissin (now an old man of 21), had me unpacking those cliched superlatives too often quoted in unlikely limbo in artists' brochures. Well, they can quote me now: Vengerov was born to bring his (borrowed) 1727 Stradivarius to life. If the instrument hadn't been throbbing with ecstasy, one might have feared for its preservation, or expected it to fall to pieces under the onslaught of pizzicati and arpeggios.

But being a shrewd showman, Vengerov made us wait for the pyrotechnics. To begin, we had a Mozart sonata, which his excellent pianist, Itamar Golan, endowed with lavish chiaroscuro and a great deal of vigour to fill the Barbican's large and lonely platform. Still, the piano lid might have been raised fully without endangering the balance, though at least in the finale, Vengerov had to listen while his partner had a whole variation to himself.

Not that rapport was for a moment in question - the two men gelled wonderfully. It's just that a false notion of chivalry persists among duo recitalists, so that in the slow movement of Brahms's G major Sonata Golan underplayed the weight and sonority of the piano part in deference to his partner, who had such an abundant supply of sonorous tone himself that he needed no help.

Despite a performance full of subtlety and grace and, on Vengerov's part, the most luscious lyrical warmth, the audience were oddly parsimonious with applause. It took the colourful effects and percussive vigour of Prokofiev's F minor Sonata to arouse them at last. Not even here were there any rough edges or sounds that seemed against the violin's nature, and Golan, for all the impediment of his coat-sleeves, went for it like a terrier.

By the time he launched Wieniawski's Polonaise in D major with a battery of octaves, the pitch of the piano was beginning to sound uncertain and clangy. Which only added a pleasurable sense of danger to a real firecracker of a performance. Then three reckless encores: Fritz Kreisler may rest in peace, for by the witty, utterly surprising way in which Vengerov pointed the opening twitterings of Caprice viennois, and the not quite lubricious affection he bestowed on its main tune, he seemed to reinvent this musty old sweetmeat according to his own special recipe.

But Vengerov knew he could trump that, and just as we were reconciled to plodding home, he pulled from his jacket the music of Bazzini's La Ronde des lutins and ordered Golan back to the keyboard. As he skittered through it with insolent ease, I could have sworn the lad gave us a wink.

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