Fiddlers four: The world's greatest violinists

What makes a great violinist? Michael Church meets four of the great virtuosi, who are all about to participate in a festival celebrating the genius of the instrument
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The Independent Culture

With four strings stretched over a small wooden box, the violin may be a sophisticated advance on the one-string fiddle, but it remains a simple tool. Yet mastery of it can confer the aura of a magician, an angel, or - as in the case of Niccolo Paganini - the devil incarnate. This is how one critic depicted the scene in Berlin when that Genoese master performed: "The public began to join in. The sighing and breathing of the bow was accompanied by a muffled murmur from a thousand throats. The ladies leaned across the balustrade to show they were applauding, the men climbed on their chairs."

The violin is the instrument wielded by the leader of the orchestra: its pre-eminence is perennial, as is the status of those who play it. And its symbolic power is commensurately great: as village shamans in Central Asia exert their power with horse-hair fiddles, so violinists have metaphorically conquered worlds, like Isaac Stern in China, or sought to heal historic rifts, like Yehudi Menuhin in Israel and Germany. The violin is the noblest of instruments, and it attracts music's noblest spirits.

The Genius of the Violin festival, which starts in London later this month, is designed to display the instrument's extraordinary versatility in everything from Bach to bluegrass. It is a tribute to the impresario Joji Hattori's powers of persuasion that three of the world's top fiddlers should be participants. All in their thirties, Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin and Roby Lakatos are a strikingly contrasting trio, although the first two came from the same town and studied with the same teacher.

Since his emergence 15 years ago, Vengerov has held the stage with immense, charismatic authority. Even when he divides the critics - as he did with a Bach sonata last week - he still mesmerises them. Repin's style is less mannered, but his bravura performances of virtuoso classics are universally agreed to be dazzling. Lakatos is a Gypsy who has put his classical training to the service of his inherited style: he has irresistible swing, a huge range of colour and an intonation that stays rock steady, no matter how high or fast he plays.

Moreover, Vengerov and Lakatos admire and have learnt from each other. "Maxim plays like a god," says Lakatos humbly. "Roby is the perfect role-model of a violinist," counters Vengerov, who for years visited the Brussels restaurant where Lakatos performs, learning how he did his tricks. "What he can do with the violin is a miracle - in his hands it's like a toy. Watching Roby, I think of those wonderful paintings of Chagall where the violinist is flying like an angel with his violin, which is part of his body and his soul." And that is their meeting point: when they play together - as they will in this festival - we shall see how, at the highest level, their two traditions become one.

Once virtuosi have been launched, their stories are the same - aeroplanes, concert halls, hotels and not much else. But their techniques remain secret, because such things are beyond words; the body's posture - and the positioning of the left hand - is as important as anything done by the fingers. Generations have sought to replicate Paganini's glissandos, harmonics, pizzicato and octave trills; debate has focused on the mysteries of legato and the varieties of vibrato. But what can be told are the stories of how each career began. I have interviewed these three great players and the early 20th century's most astonishing child prodigy, Ida Haendel, who is also playing at the festival, and led the jury that gave Vengerov his first big prize.

Genius of the Violin, various London venues, 25 March to 4 April (www.geniusoftheviolin.org)

MAXIM VENGEROV: 'Every time I go on stage, I feel newborn'

Maxim Vengerov looks back on his musical beginnings - in a tiny basement flat in Novosibirsk, Siberia - with affectionate amusement. "Music", he says, "was my replacement for food. I'm told that when I cried as a baby, my mother would quieten me by putting a tape recorder by my ear." His father was an oboist and his mother conducted a choir, but at the age of four he settled on the violin. "I chose it because it seemed desirable to sit in front of the orchestra and show off. My mother gave me a 16th-size instrument and said, 'Play it.' So I did - entirely by instinct."

They gatecrashed their way into a lesson with the best teacher in town. "First she asked me to sing. Then she asked if I was powerful, and I started to hit her so hard that she finally said, 'I believe you!'" But Vengerov didn't want to practise - just to perform. "That made my teacher angry, and only when my mother started to cry did I finally do what I was told. In the next lesson, I played 80 songs by heart, and my teacher said, 'We have a genius.'"

He gave his first concert - of some Paganini variations, which he found "very easy" - aged five years and three months. "When I first went on stage, I bowed so much and so long - before I'd even begun to play - that the audience laughed. But I knew that this was what great artists always did. I felt it was a privilege for the audience to see me.

"It's incredible that a teacher could have achieved such things with someone so young. I didn't have the technique I have now, but across the years the intuition is the same. Musically speaking, I was the same person I am today: I'm just a bit larger now. But I still feel, every time I go on stage, as though I'm newborn. Even if I've played a piece a hundred times, it still feels new."

When he was seven, he entered the Moscow Conservatoire. At 15 he won the Carl Flesch competition, since when he's been in ceaseless orbit, not only as a fiddler but as a conductor. Now the possessor of dual Israeli and German nationality, he was for some years reluctant to visit Israel (where his father got a job as an oboist) in case he was called up for military service. "At last they have accepted that I'm more useful as a musician than as a general," he says.

Vengerov wants to repair what he sees as a piece of inadvertent tutorial damage. "I began to improvise when I was five, but my teacher forbade it as a waste of time. I am going to take a sabbatical in 2005 to try to acquire the art. My friend Benjamin Yusupov has just written a viola concerto for me, which will require me to improvise in a rock style, and will finally demand that I abandon my violin and join a dancer on stage in a tango."

For the past few years Vengerov has jetted round the world as an envoy for Unicef. On a visit to Opus 118, a free music school in Harlem, New York, he met a woman getting five-year-olds to play the violin. "That reminded me of the orphanage my mother ran in Siberia, 500 kids - some of them already criminals - playing and singing, and me singing along with them."

ROBY LAKATOS: 'Classical training hurt my back, my fingers, my arms...'

I meet Roby Lakatos at the Ateliers de la Grande Ile in Brussels, where this flamboyantly mustachioed Hungarian established the residency to which the world's greatest fiddlers have been drawn like moths to a flame. And - over a vast plate of blinis washed down with vodka - he is happy to tell his story, which started in the 18th century with his direct ancestor Janos Bihari, the man Liszt and Beethoven christened the "King of the Gypsy Violinists", and from whom Brahms cribbed his Hungarian Dances. Seven generations separate the 39-year-old Lakatos from this great precursor, but the musical secrets were passed directly down.

"It was automatically assumed that I would play the violin, because everyone in my family was a violinist," Lakatos says. "I was given my first instrument at three, and I found the notes on it myself. My father was usually away on tour, so I just absorbed everything I could from our record collection of Gypsy music, and learnt to reproduce it myself." He also had the example of his brother, who was seven years older and also played the violin, but who didn't really like it and moved to the saxophone. "And the sounds that came out of his bedroom - Stan Getz, Charlie Parker - got into my bloodstream, and remain there still."

But Lakatos's most important musical memory dates from a Gypsy violinists' gala concert in Budapest, when he was six. "I was invited as the youngest Gypsy violinist - I had been playing for just a year - and the event was in memory of a Gypsy composer whose instrument was normally in a museum, but which they'd brought out that evening for the youngest violinist to play. And that violinist was me."

By the time he was nine, he was touring with his father's Gypsy band in the Middle East. "Those were good times for people like us: the government was proud of us, and treated us as an elite." When he entered the Liszt Academy at 15, the classical training came as a shock. "It was difficult because, having been self-taught, I had to retrain, and it hurt - in my back, my fingers, arms, everywhere. But once I got my playing position sorted out, everything went fine again."

What he really wants to do is set up a school. He's got scores of young imitators back home in Hungary, and he intends to do something to help them. "I want them to have the chance to learn with the best players, as I did. When I was young, there were hundreds of Gypsy bands playing in Hungary - one for every restaurant and hotel. There are still plenty of first-rate Gypsy musicians in Hungary, but there's not enough work."

VADIM REPIN: 'There is always a dream in the mind of the performer'

The urbane, cigar-chomping Vadim Repin may be three years older than his friend Maxim Vengerov, and their early paths may have run close, but Repin's emergence as a musician was far less orthodox. "I must have been three years old when I asked my mother for musical toys - xylophones, drums, a harmonica and a flute with a piano keyboard," he says. "I had enormous fun getting melodies out of them: lullabies and things I'd heard on television." His father's job was designing and painting giant film-posters, and his mother was a nurse, but once she decided her son had talent, she gave up her job to concentrate on him. "She borrowed money to buy a record player and a piano, and she took out a subscription for us to attend concerts by the Novosibirsk Symphony Orchestra. When I was five, she sent me to a music school. It was actually called School Number One."

But it wasn't her plan that Repin should study the violin. "It just happened that the school's one free place was for a violin student, with the option of switching to the accordion after a year. I was curious about the violin - it just seemed like another toy for me to experiment with. But after three or four days, I no longer thought about any other instrument. I was hooked."

Six months later, he made his first stage appearance, in a competition for music pupils. "I remember announcing from the stage that as I could not yet tune my violin, my teacher would do that for me, and then I had to play a little piece. To me that was a joy - hearing the applause, seeing all the faces looking at me with such interest - I wasn't nervous." At six, he was accepted as a pupil by Zakhar Bron, at which point the real work started, and by the time he was eight, he was practising five hours a day, as he often does now. Menuhin and David Oistrakh became his heroes. He gave his first concert in Moscow at 10; a year later he won the Wieniawski competition in Poland - and went on winning it, year after year.

"Virtuosity is a language to me," he says. "There is always a dream in the mind of the performer, and virtuosity helps to realise that dream. No physical problems should stand in its way." And in his case, they never do.

IDA HAENDEL: 'My advice to young players is: practise as little as you can'

"I believe in reincarnation," Haendel says, as a prelude to telling her story. It begins in a small Polish village called Molodiatycze. It concerns a seven-year-old boy whose violin his father had just broken in a rage. The boy's job was to study the Talmud and become a rabbi; music was for the lower orders who played at weddings. "That boy was my father, and he eventually became a painter," Haendel says. "But he vowed that if he had a musical child, he would do everything in his power to encourage it."

When she was three, she says, she picked up her elder sister's violin and announced that she was going to play. "And I played it without any instruction." None at all? "No, I simply played it, and properly. From that moment on, I looked with contempt at the other children, who were playing with dolls, because I knew I was a violinist.

"My father took me to a teacher, who looked at me and said, 'Are you coming for lessons as well?' - he had assumed it was my father who wanted to be taught. And when he heard me play, he refused to teach me, because he said he didn't know how to handle such a person." Nathan Haendel's response was to take his daughter to Warsaw, where she was put to study at the Chopin School of Music, and her progress was phenomenal. At seven, she won seventh prize in the Wieniawski competition (the great David Oistrakh, then 27, managed only second place); at 10, she took the conservatory gold medal with Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

She spent her teens on tour, chaperoned by her father, and like many Jewish musicians fled the Nazis and settled in London, where she carved out a career as an entertainer for the troops, for refugees and for the wounded in hospitals. "The music I was most often asked to play was 'Ave Maria' or Brahms's Hungarian Dances. I can't describe the emotions those concerts aroused in me."

A jury veteran, she has played a big role in bringing on new talent: she insisted that the 15-year-old Maxim Vengerov should be given the prize that propelled him to stardom. So what is her advice to young players now? "Practise as little as you can." She laughs, but she means it. "People can destroy themselves through practice."

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