The whole hall in his hands

Going solo at the Proms: violinist Maxim Vengerov talks to Jenny Gilbert, and three musicians relive an experience like no other
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The Independent Culture
When a 24-year-old Russian steps out into the vast, expectant dome of the Royal Albert Hall next month, Stradivarius tucked under his arm to give his first solo recital at the Proms, he will be, yes, a little nervous. Not overly nervous. Not fearful. Just energised, charged up. "Awaiting the process of making music," he explains, "energies are coming to you, and if the energy comes too much, you must control it. Once I start, once I hear the melodies and produce the sounds, the powers are playing with me, and then I can give everything I have." After the applause, he will not be partying. He will go home to sleep. And if sleep eludes him, as it usually does, then he will meditate. Those powers take time to subdue.

As I press the buzzer of Maxim Vengerov's chic, rented duplex a few blocks from Harley Street in central London, my pre-interview prejudices persist. His ego must be the size of a Georgian terrace. Just look at the CV: played Paganini at five, Moscow Conservatoire at seven, started touring the world at 12, won the Karl Fleisch competition at 15. Still eligible for a Young Person's Railcard, and he has already spent a decade at the pinnacle of his profession. Surely a candidate for burn-out or, worse, a conceited brat.

The reality of Vengerov comes as a reprimand, for this is a young man with the manner of someone 20, even 30, years older. Gracious, quietly dapper, he enters the room with the hushed and kindly air of one of the expensive psychiatrists a few streets away, offers cold drinks, then waits amiably for the kerfuffle of arrival and cameras and tape recorders to sort itself out. "Please don't hurry," he says. "Just relax." (This despite the BBC's insistence that he had one small window for this interview, and time was tight.)

He sits with palms loosely pressed together, and at once you notice the nails and cuticles: perfect, and very pink. Violinists often suffer splitting skin on their finger-ends where the skin hardens under pressure. Does he have to take special care of his hands? "No. I am lucky," he says. "They just stay soft." And what of moisture on the hands in performance, the bane of every fiddler's life? "With me, if I'm balanced, I have no sweat." Even if he plays outdoors in Russia and the temperature is minus 40, he says, his hands are warm. It can be plus 40 inside the concert hall, and they will stay dry. "You have to overcome these physical obstacles," he insists. "You have to master them. It's more a spiritual art, perhaps."

So he works at that air of calm? He laughs. "Yes, yes. I have worked on it very hard." You expect him to reel off the name of his guru, some branch of transcendental whatnot, at least mention Zen - but he doesn't. "I have some techniques of relaxation," is all he will say. "It's necessary to get this balance, this peace of mind. I was blessed with energies, and I've learnt to control them."

Early age, with Maxim Vengerov, starts earlier than most. He was four and a half when he picked up his first violin. He was, by any measure, a natural. In less than a year he was giving his first recital: Mozart, Tchai-kovsky, and some Paganini variations which were "really quite difficult". What the adult Maxim remembers about that debut was that he played for half an hour and didn't leave the stage for another 20 minutes. "I kept bowing and bowing, and giving more encores. There was always this applause, and I didn't want it to stop."

Yet his was hardly a favoured beginning in every other sense. The family lived in Novosibirsk, the capital of Western Siberia, in a three-room basement flat with hardly any natural light. The Vengerovs' prize possession, a grand piano, didn't quite fit in the living room, so they gouged out part of the kitchen wall and the tail of the piano poked through into the kitchen, Maxim says, "and we used it as a kitchen table, for chopping things". Mama had a job in an orphanage, looking after the 500 children and training the choir. Papa was an orchestral oboist, who would come home in the evening and sit for 20 minutes with his small son, doing his fiddle exercises. But 20 minutes was enough, in his opinion.

It was when Mrs Vengerov arrived home, often exhausted, that the work really began. Practice sessions of six or seven hours a night were not uncommon. They worked together in the kitchen, mother and infant, with Mrs V preparing supper and singing from the score to show Maxim how it should go. When, at the age of seven, the boy auditioned at the Moscow Conservatoire, he was stumped by the sight-reading they gave him. "So how did you learn to play violin?" asked the professors. "From my mother's voice," answered Maxim. He still thinks of violin sound in terms of the human voice, he says.

Most gifted musicians can pinpoint the moment they realised they were not ordinary. With Vengerov, it happened before he was five. "I was a good goalkeeper in ice hockey, and my friends came knocking at my door. I said, I can't come out, I've got to practise. They came back two hours later. Can you come out now?, they asked. I had to say, no, I can't. Late in the evening I ran outside to find my friends. There was nobody. They were all in bed. And sure, I did mind. I minded like crazy. But there were two people inside me, even then. One wanted to be like everyone else. The other was telling me, `It's a fantastic life you have, always playing for people, enjoying yourself on stage....' I listened to that voice."

The move to Moscow to live with his grandparents was untraumatic. Maxim was in his element at the Conservatoire. And when he suffered an ocular complaint at the age of 10, requiring his eyes to be covered with bandages just as he was meant to be learning a major contemporary score for a big competition in Poland, his mother was brought in from Siberia to teach him the piece aurally. He memorised it within a week, and won the competition.

Vengerov loved the travelling: Japan and the Far East at 12, London at 15, where he came for several months to be with his second teacher, Professor Bron, who gave masterclasses at the Royal Academy. London, he says, is still the home of his heart. His "luggage base" is Amsterdam, where he has an apartment on the Amstel waterfront and has installed his mother in a house with lots of windows. New York ... "New York is very noisy. I go there to do concerts but I never want to stay," he says.

He doesn't listen to other violinists (he prefers rap or Alanis Morissette when off duty) and has no musical mentor as such, though his mother still attends many of his concerts "and she knows me best". A meeting with the cellist and conductor Rostropovich a few years ago was a watershed experience. The pair have great chemistry on stage and Vengerov prizes the direct connection with his compatriots Shostakovich and Prokofiev. He considers his recording of the Shostakovich concerto No 1 with Rostropovich to be "a historical monument" and the standard he wants to be judged by.

Another character - or rather two characters - have recently joined the Vengerov entourage. Mrs Yoko Ceschina, a wealthy Japanese, convinced that his playing is "healing", follows him wherever he performs. But she is no ordinary groupie. Last year she helped him buy the instrument of his dreams: the Kreutzer Stradivarius. The sale was at Christie's, and the fiddle is believed to be the very one that premiered Beethoven's great sonata. "With a violin such as this," he confides, "the wood holds memories; the music remains in the instrument. There's not one sound that the wood does not remember."

It is apt that the forthcoming Prom - only the second solo recital the season has attempted in that vast, impersonal space - is also one of the concerts specially earmarked for children. Vengerov loves children. He prizes his own childhood, strange and short as it was, and two years ago was appointed Envoy for Music by the United Nations Children's Fund. As well as giving the usual fund-raising concerts, he has visited young war victims in Bosnia, and recently the soldier-children of Uganda, some so traumatised they had lost the power of speech.

The idea of giving help and encouragement through music appeals to his sense of mission. "These kids had never heard of me. But I told them about my childhood, how it was not easy for me also. And I played them little African songs, simple things, and it touched a chord in them. Music delivers a message to every human soul. And to give joy... that's a major responsibility for me."

Maxim Vengerov plays Brahms, Prokofiev, Ravel, Sarasate, Rachmaninov and Waxman on Sunday 15 August. Half-price seats are available to under- 14s. Royal Albert Hall Ticket Shop: 0171 589 8212


My first line in a Prom was `Music, hark' in Ralph Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music. It was 1984. There were 16 of us, singing in four parts, and we each had a line. It was so frightening - the Albert Hall is such a huge place, and it's in the round, which you're not used to. In fact, it's no different from if you're singing in a cathedral. You can't really turn around and sing, and you have your choir behind you.

There's a slope up to the stage, which they call "the runs", and as you walk up there before you start, it feels a bit like being one of the Christians fed to the lions. It's not very far to go, actually, and it gets shorter the more you sing there.

When I sing there now, I feel very comfortable. Starting out, you don't know the pitfalls: I sang things at college that I wouldn't sing now, and the more you sing, the more you realise how to perfect things.

I think the Proms is one of the most wonderful places to perform. It's so essentially British. It feels wonderful because you've got everybody standing there, although they're no closer than they would be at lots of concerts. There's a fantastic atmosphere - it's like nowhere else.

Jean Rigby sings Ravel's Sheherazade with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 22 July


I'd played in a few big halls around the world, but nothing prepared me for the Albert Hall. Most halls are square: the Albert Hall is big and round, and because you don't get a reflection of sound it's hard to hear what you are doing and gauge your projection. And rather than that sense of being slightly remote from the audience, you have this sea of faces, staring at you from a few feet away. That makes it more intimate, but you also feel very small in there. It's an interesting combination.

I played at the Proms for the first time in 1993 with the National Youth Chamber Orchestra. I was about 19, and I played Strauss's Horn Concerto. I've played in the hall with orchestras since, and I always try and get someone to sit in the stalls to signal to me. That first time, it was my dad: he used thumbs up and thumbs down, though I couldn't work out which was which.

Afterwards, I went and bought a set of lightweight tails. It's extraordinarily hot on stage. But you come out with a real buzz - that first time, I sat in the artists' bar for an hour, feeling the shock. It was an absolutely fantastic experience and I can't wait to repeat it.

David Pyatt plays Oliver Knussen's Horn Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 25 July


Whenever I had played to such a large crowd before it had been outdoors, where you do not feel such a closeness to the audience. It is impressive to look out at the heads of all these people. They make it feel intimate, despite the big hall. The sound is very good on stage, very full and wonderful. There is more of a feeling of an event than anywhere else, an expectation of something special about to happen.

My first Prom was in 1992, and walking out into that vast space was overwheIming. I played the Britten Piano Concerto. As a Norwegian it was special to be performing a British piece that people did not know very well. I was 22 years old and not a very experienced performer, and I had only played the piece three or four times before, so I was very nervous about it. You can feel very isolated as a soloist; it depends on your relationship with the conductor and the orchestra. As for the audience I normally can't look at them because I'm sitting sideways, and concentrating on the playing. But I can feel their presence all the time.

Leif Ove Andsnes plays the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 11 August

Interviews by Cole Moreton and Rachelle Thackray