Music: The right guy

Maxim Vengerov plays the violin with preposterous ease. But it is the quality of ecstasy he brings to music that might just make him the greatest virtuoso of them all.
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aganini, they said, was the devil's disciple. It's too early to know where that leaves Maxim Vengerov, but right now there's a growing consensus in the music world that nobody - nobody - plays the violin better. We've heard it all before, of course. In an age of digitalised definitives, of hard and fast sells, we've come to expect it: the hottest, the most brilliant, the most accomplished since... since the last one we marketed.

But Vengerov - and this is no soundbite - is the exception that disproves the rule. It's almost as if nobody needs convincing any more. Since winning the prestigious Carl Flesch competition in 1990 (he's still only 23), he has been among us. He didn't "arrive", he was just there. Or seemed to be. Word of mouth, not word of media, made the difference for him. He made connoisseurs of everyone. You heard him and you knew. Call it premonition, call it recognition, it was something about the reach of his playing, the way sound used to relate to phrasing in another time, another place, another era - some would say the golden era - of violin playing. Phrases were somehow longer and freer then. Style was assumed, not worn.

Vengerov plays with Jascha Heifetz's bow, bequeathed by the great man on condition that it be given "to the right guy". So it's fanciful to think that maybe he bequeathed, and Vengerov inherited, more than just a bow. It's faster than the speed of light, that's for sure, though not so fast as the fingers of Vengerov's left hand. Anyone who has ever seen him toss off Antonio Bazzini's Dance of the Elves - one of his regular party tricks - will recall the moment where his fingers effectively disappear in a shower of pizzicati crackling around the instrument like so much atmospheric static. Half the fun, of course, is making light of these Paganinian callisthenics. At this year's Proms, Vengerov came out of the long, dark tunnel that is Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto to tease and amuse us with a preposterously difficult set of variations on that old Irish favourite, The Last Rose of Summer. He made mockery of the difficulties, shrugging his shoulders, shuffling his feet - one half-expected him to check his watch for confirmation that the impossible takes a little longer.

But that's technique for you. Vengerov calls it his "means of transportation", adding quickly, "but if I don't know where I'm going, then not even Concorde will take me there!" Or, to put it another way, if you've got nothing to say, then saying it superbly is little better than not saying it at all. Which already says a lot about his priorities. The Concorde metaphor is well-chosen: top of the range, state of the art, and fast. Right now, the pace of Vengerov's career is giving some cause for concern. He is resolved, he says, to bringing an end to a schedule which slips in a round- trip to Los Angeles (for a two-minute spot at the annual Grammy ceremony) between concerts in New York and Milan. It's a visibly weary Maxim Vengerov who greets me backstage during rehearsals for a royal charity concert at London's Festival Hall. There are photographs to be taken, there is protocol to be discussed, and, in between, the little matter of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat. His greatest professional fear is that the future will provide less not more time for personal growth, that if he's not terribly careful, he could find himself hiding behind the technique that has already brought him such wide recognition. Engagements currently stretch into 2001.

So it's tough at the top, tougher still where Vengerov now finds himself. But he deals with pressure. He has been practising since he was five years old. That's when he picked up his first violin. His mother was a singer, his father an oboist, his grandmother played David Oistrakh records. When Maxim was a baby, she discovered that it was the one sure way to stop him crying. He likes to think that, even then, he knew a good thing when he heard it.

Home was Novosibirsk, the capital of Western Siberia, and therein lies an irony worthy of Gogol. It would seem, you see, that some of the Soviet Union's best (and subsequently non-conformist) music teachers were requisitioned to this snowy backwater on the assumption that their "subversive" influence would be minimised. Thus Novosibirsk grew into a kind of outpost for musical excellence. It was here that the foundations for Vengerov's prodigious technique were laid down. The objective was simple: to build a fail-safe technique, but to build it in such a way that as he grew there would always be room for redevelopment. Even now, different repertories involve different ways of playing. New techniques evolve. The trick, says Vengerov, is never having to think about how to achieve something, but rather to be able to call it up at the precise moment you need it. It's the difference between calculation and what musicians of his calibre like to call "a controlled spontaneity". And when everything is in place, when technique, musicality, imagination come together, then it should be hard, if not impossible, to separate the composer from the performer in what you hear and feel.

Much has been written about "the Vengerov sound", as distinctive, as individual in character as the Stradivarius(c1723) he currently plays. You might say it's defined by a quality of ecstasy - particularly in the higher positions where he'll sometimes lean infinitesimally towards the sharper edge of the note so as to intensify the brightness. It is extraordinary, and mysterious, this alchemy between player and instrument - almost as mysterious to the player as to the listener: "The most difficult thing for me to achieve is bringing out the sound I hear inside my head. Sometimes, I am conscious of my disappointment at what comes out. But it's always different. I'll hear differently every day because I'll be different every day and every performance. No two are alike. Of course I plan certain details, certain colours, when I prepare a piece. Maybe my intonation will be a little lower for a darker effect, maybe sharper, brighter, to convey the feeling you describe. Or maybe my bow position or vibrato will alter. But in performance, many of these techniques will be unconscious, instinctive. While I am playing, I am conscious only of the music."

As those of us fortunate enough to be present at his now almost legendary 1994 London performance of the Shostakovich First Concerto (the basis for his award-winning Teldec recording) can testify. Put yourself in that audience. We're in the closing two minutes of the finale, Vengerov, Mstislav Rostropovich and the London Symphony Orchestra are breaking for the border, hurtling like the trans-Siberian express to that final double barline, when Vengerov's E-string snaps. Everything goes into slow motion - everything, that is, except the music, which forges on regardless, dragging the solo line silently with it. Vengerov's Strad is quickly discarded like so much dead wood and, in a matter of seconds, he has seized the leader's violin and Heifetz's bow - minus half its horsehair - is digging in for the finish. Vengerov's finger is bleeding from all the bow pressure. But the music in his head has a voice once more and he's home free. The audience, as much a part of the drama now as he is, are on their feet.

That's what being inside the composer's head is all about, and when your conductor is also your hotline to the composer - as Rostropovich was (he knew Shostakovich as well as anyone knew this most private of men) - then your responsibility is all the greater. Vengerov tells how Rostropovich lectured him about sacrificing beauty for spirit, how he urged him, in the great slow movement Passacaglia, to be aware only of the theme in the string basses: "Their sound," he said, "would help me to understand how I must sound."

And thereby hangs another tale. When Vengerov was but a fledgling on the international scene, one of the doors which opened for him was Daniel Barenboim's. Vengerov auditioned, Barenboim was impressed, and they agreed the Sibelius Concerto for his debut in Chicago. Come the first piano rehearsal, the boy wonder played with scintillating brilliance - note perfect. But Barenboim's reaction betrayed disappointment. Vengerov can't remember his words, but the inference was "So what?". And that was enough. He really thought he'd played the hell out of the piece. "Maestro, please tell me what I'm doing wrong." "That's for you to find out," said Barenboim. "Try looking at the score - the whole score, not just your own part. And by the way, that non-vibrato at the beginning doesn't work for you, because it's not your own idea, is it?"

Vengerov grew up fast that night. He put away his violin and explored the score long into the night. Hour by hour, page by page, it became more than just the sum of its notes. Barenboim had sensed that Vengerov, the musician, was succumbing to Vengerov, the virtuoso. He needed to find his own way to the Sibelius. He needed an alarm-call. Fast.

These days, Vengerov puts away his violin more and more. The latest big piece in his repertoire - arguably the most testing in the entire repertoire - is the Beethoven Concerto, and he has learned it entirely at the piano. The piano? Correct. It took him two whole weeks, which in Vengerov time is an eternity. But this is a very particular piece requiring a very particular sound. Again, a whole different way of fingering and bowing. And yet, it's not such a technical piece - the difficulty lies in the understanding of it. It's a very centred piece, a very spacious, serene piece. Beethoven's quiet revolution. Which is why Vengerov has deliberately held off playing it until now. It's "a dream" he has kept locked away in his "musical closet" until such time as he felt centred enough to tackle it. Which is now (he unveils it in London in February). "When you first look at the Beethoven, it seems so pure and simple, not so hard at all. But when you actually play it, it must sound as it looks. You can add nothing and take nothing away. Believe me, nothing is harder."

But why the piano rather than the violin? Because Barenboim was right, because that way he can feel the whole piece under his fingers, he knows where he is in the harmony, in each and every chord: "In the slow movement, it's the way the harmonies are sustained, the way you flow with them. The harmonies in this piece show you the way. And if you can see the whole picture then you can work out the route of your interpretation clearly." Vengerov insists that even his choice of tempi is influenced by going first to the piano and then to the violin: "Because again you establish them in relation to the whole piece. You even take special colours with you to the violin..."

So are we to understand that he no longer practises as religiously as he once did? His response is waspish: "I would say that I practise more atheistically now!" Which in turn is some indication of how Maxim Vengerov is maturing well in advance of his 23 years. Since I met him three years ago, his English is transformed, his perceptions sharper and more searching, his attitude mellower. He doesn't need to practise, he needs to play. And how he plays, and what he has to say when he does play, will absolutely depend upon the time he spends alone with his thoughts, his scores and, yes, his piano. He talks a lot about "internal hearing". He talks a lot about the Beethoven miracle - a deaf man transferring imagined sounds to the page - not hearing clearer than he could ever have heard. He wants to hear like that.

So if Paganini was indeed the devil's disciple, what does that make Vengerov? His advocate, his envoy, his ambassador? Or his usurper

Maxim Vengerov gives a recital at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 on 2 December; on 12 December he plays the Brahms concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra, also at the RFH

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