Last tango in Siberia

When Maxim Vengerov, the world's greatest violinist, took a sabbatical to learn the tango, Sue Fox went with him

Vengerov met Lockwood five years ago at a music festival in France. He immediately fell under the spell of the legendary, charismatic jazz violinist who most famously collaborated with Stéphane Grappelli, and asked if he could work with him. As if he hadn't set himself enough to do, Vengerov also planned to spend time at his parents' home in Israel to work on the music and learn to ride a Harley-Davidson.

It is rare to have unlimited access to great artists but Vengerov, widely regarded as the finest violinist in the world, didn't flinch when I asked if, together with the award-winning television director Ken Howard, we could film his sabbatical. We wanted to follow him wherever he went. All credit to him for saying yes.

Vengerov had one final goal for his sabbatical. This was to prepare for the premiere of Benjamin Yusupov's innovative and brilliant Viola, Tango Rock Concerto (written for him) in May this year, with the NDR Philharmonie in Hanover, conducted by Eiji Oue.

In north London, a year ago, I accompany Vengerov for his first tango lesson in a space above a pub. Customers at the Boston Arms have no idea that in the room with the glitterball that doubles as a dance venue, one of the world's greatest musicians is strutting his stuff. His teacher thinks the stocky, handsome Vengerov has a natural talent for tango. She adds - optimistically - that he has a lot of work to do before he is ready to dance in front of a paying audience.

Tango lessons have to wait. Before Vengerov can really give himself permission to put away his Stradivarius Kreutzer and the bow that once belonged to Jascha Heifetz, and head for Paris, he has an important journey to make. He wants to go back with his parents, Larissa and Alex, to Novosibirsk in Siberia where was born. He will perform in Moscow and Novosibirsk, give master classes and see old friends. Vengerov was l3 when the family left. Although he has been to Moscow often, he has never been back to Siberia.

Novosibirsk, a big industrial town in the centre of Russia, has a 5,000-seat opera house and an important cultural tradition. During World War II some of Russia's greatest artists - including the violinist David Oistrakh - were evacuated to Novosibirsk.

Life is hard. We are filming in temperatures of minus 25. Our anoraks freeze, so does the tripod. Vengerov could not be happier. He has long been a citizen of the world, but part of him will always be in Novosibirsk. The hero who returned home with his parents hasn't changed. He is still the focused little boy who, after hours of practising, took out his tricycle at 4am. "It made a terrible noise. The old people in the flats where we lived used to open their windows, shouting, 'There you are. Poor little guy!' They felt sorry for me."

Vengerov, eyes shining, rolls in the Siberian snow and enjoys the traditional banya - a bizarre male ritual of frolicking in the snow, sitting in a fiercely hot wooden hut and hitting other participants with birch twigs. I'm still not entirely sure which way round they do it. But he is having a wonderful time.

One night, friends throw a party outside Novosibirsk. It is a modest house with no electricity, but the women have worked for days. Tables are laden with food. Everybody here has grown up with Larissa, Alex and Maxim. There are speeches, toasts and songs. Watching Vengerov in this setting reveals his profound feeling of Russianness. At 2am, he takes out a sled and starts a snowball fight with friends. The child prodigy has truly come home.

The next day we go back to the apartment block where the family used to live. Scooping up a pile of snow, Vengerov crunches it in his hand. "This is the sound which reminds me of Russia. The sound which stays in my soul and reminds me of freedom."

At the end of December, Vengerov hangs up his performance suit in Ken Howard's wardrobe. He won't be needing it for a while. Ken and I breathe a sigh of relief. We are planning to auction it for charity. The suit, with its unflattering long jacket, Sylvester Stallone shoulder pads and lapels, should have been binned. We groan every time he wears it. It's so unflattering. I even suggest to Ken that we call in Trinny and Susannah to dress Maxim. No need. Nina Toradze from the fashion house Zegna has already stepped in as Vengerov's fashion fairy godmother. He will no longer want for anything. Between Nina and Antonio, the tailor at Zegna in Bond Street, London, Vengerov will be transformed.

In January 2005, looking chunky in sweatshirt and jeans, Vengerov takes his place in an improvisation class at the Didier Lockwood Music Centre in Paris. The other students are gobsmacked that he has come to learn with them - that he is having to go back to basics. In a way, he has to unlearn everything. I've rarely seen him look so happy. Being on the "other side of the stage" for a change suits him. Perhaps as audiences we don't give much thought to how much performers have constantly to give of themselves.

We meet the dance teachers Sebastien and Andrea for tango lessons at their studio. There are some hilarious moments. Vengerov asks, "Do I always have to lead?" Sebastien explains, "The woman always follows - it's a macho, macho dance."

We leave Vengerov in Paris to practise. At the end of February we catch up with him in Israel at his parents' home in Migdal, near Tiberias. Something has happened - he is disappearing before our eyes. Looking fit and relaxed, he has lost weight - no mean feat for a man who loves cake and is staying in a household where Larissa, his wonderful Jewish mother, utters the immortal words, "Please, eat something," the moment you step over the threshold.

Vengerov has been working out, meditating and following the blood-type diet (based on eating only foods prescribed for your particular blood group). It is a pleasure to see him relaxing with his family and pets and playing "house" music with his father and friends. But the relaxed image is fake. He is working hard on getting to grips with Benjamin Yusupov's score. He is also teaching two of his students from Saarbrucken, who are staying in the house. And he has disappointing news for us. There's no way he has time to learn to ride a Harley-Davidson. He is crestfallen. As if to make up for the bike ride, he takes us out on a speedboat across Lake Galilee. Someone is about to do a bungee jump from the top of a crane. "I'd love to do that," Maxim shouts. Larissa throws up her hands in horror.

In London there are fittings for a new, fabulously stylish and understated performance suit. Nina and Antonio tell him he is in fantastic shape. We leave him to stock up his wardrobe. Next stop is Amsterdam, where Maxim will meet the Brazilian-born tango dancer Christiane Pahle, a former member of the Nederlands Ballet. She is going to work with him on the choreography for the tango they will dance.

Pahle is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. There is instant chemistry between them. Vengerov has learnt his steps and made tremendous progress. Pahle is impressed. Suddenly the idea of his dancing tango on stage is full of possibility.

It is May, and we are in Hanover to film the rehearsal for the premiere of Yusupov's concerto. Everything is going wrong with the lighting. For a while, there is noise and hammering and general mayhem. On stage, oblivious, Vengerov and Pahle are draped around each other, practising. They have created a hugely emotional story about a man who is torn between his love for his music and his love for the girl. Maxim has a new short haircut with subtle highlights. A total transformation.

The performance is astonishing. Vengerov has described the music as "a concerto for the 21st century which speaks to all of us". He may not have ridden a Harley-Davidson but when he plays a cadenza on the viola, he makes it sound like one. The tango with Christiane is amazing. The NDR audience, who are not young, had no idea what they were in for. They go wild with excitement.

The day after the concert, Vengerov takes Pahle to Moscow, where Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich - his musical "grandfather" and mentor, and his wife, Galina, are celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. Maxim and Christiane dance a surprise tango at the party. They bring the house down.

I'm happy to report that Maxim and Christiane are still dancing. Vengerov has often spoken about the difficulty of relationships when you live a nomadic life. "My beautiful Stradivarius violin is my musical soulmate. But I dream of finding my love soulmate too."

When Maxim Vengerov was barely five years old, his teacher, the formidable Galina Turtschaninova told Larissa Vengerov, "Maxim's talent is something you see maybe once in a hundred years. He will be the best in the world."

It has been a huge privilege to see him, close up - the total focus, commitment and sheer dogged determination with which he has mastered a whole new world of music and dance.

The 'South Bank Show' on Maxim Vengerov is at 11.10pm, Sunday, ITV

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