Maxim Vengerov: The showman

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The Independent Online

If you wanted to get a musician to walk through the grim buildings of Auschwitz playing violin music by the German Christian composer Bach in order to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of this extermination camp for Jews, it would have to be Maxim Vengerov. It's not only that, at 30, he's the world's favourite violinist and arguably its best, nor that he is Jewish, a Russian who carries with him that whole great tradition of violinists like Heifetz and Oistrakh. It's that he plays with such sincerity and inner intensity. Who else could make the music sound as if it were for the ghosts of those who died rather than the memory of the Strauss Waltzes and classical melodies played by the camp orchestra to march the slave labourers out in the morning and then back again at night?

Vengerov is a fine musician. No one would dispute that. He reads the music and thinks hard about it. But he is also a great performer, one of classical music's natural showmen. Watching him in concert is a constant reminder of the old truth that performance for a violinist lies as much in the body as the fingers. Dressed in a short silk frock coat, designed by his mother after the dress of the era of Beethoven, he has an athlete's sprung energy, stretching up and over his instrument on the balls of his feet and constantly moving his hips. The technique gives him an air of effortless facility through the most demanding passages, but the hunch and movement give him that most fragile of all qualities, the rapport with the audience, a rapport he eagerly laps up as he amuses them with encores of humorous and virtuosic lollipops.

It's a talent and a showmanship that has found the sniffier of critics sparing in their praise and dismissive of his popularity. He's not the greatest, they complain. There are several others around who could lay claim to as much musicianship and even more depth. True, perhaps, in strict musical terms. But tell that to the audience who rose as one in loud "bravos" as he finished that daunting finale of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, conducted by his old friend and mentor, Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich, at the Barbican six years ago - a finale that David Oistrakh, for whom it was originally composed, would not tackle. And tell that to those who stayed on after his last concert there in December and queued in their hundreds to get him to sign his latest CD.

"My goal on stage," he says, "isn't to have people say it was an interesting interpretation. I want instead to make the audience feel better for a day, feel that they have had an experience of the soul." And it isn't just the sort of pretentious musing that classical artists are all too fond of. He really does achieve it.

Like so many of the biggest performers of the moment, he is a member of that talented musical generation that emerged from Russia straight on to the concert halls of the West after the collapse of Communism. And, like so many of them, he is the product of a precocious talent, hot-housed by the Russian musical system and then controlled and fiercely protected by a close family and strong women.

Born on 20 August 1974 in Novosibirsk, the capital of Western Siberia, he still bridles at the view that his background was provincial. In fact, thanks to the Second World War, there had been a sizeable outflow of artists to Siberia which had a thriving musical life. His father, Aleksandr, was the first oboist in the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra there. His mother, Larissa, was the director of a children's orphanage. A singer, she was a strong believer in music for children and ran a large choir for the orphans.

It is undoubtedly his mother who has been the strongest influence on Maxim, pushing him from the start to become something exceptional but also, through the orphanage and the choir, giving him the belief that music was the language of universal communication.

On his own account he chose the instrument as much to be the centre of attention as for any other reason. Attending some concerts at a very young age to see his father perform, he was disconcerted to find the wind players hidden behind the strings and his father quite invisible. That, and the fact that the instrument came nearest in his mind to catching his mother's voice, convinced him to take up the violin where he would be firmly at the front of the stage.

Most child prodigies have stories about how, listening to the radio or playing with a box and string, they showed their talent in infancy and Vengerov, too, has such tales. But to hear him tell it the whole thing was more accidental and almost passive on his part. At the age of four he was taken to see if he could have lessons with the redoubtable Galina Turtschaninova. He was shown in under the mistaken impression that he was someone else who had made an appointment. Even then he held back, refusing to play until his mother burst into tears and he suddenly leapt to with a series of pieces that he had been practising at home."We have a genius," Turtschaninova is supposed to have exclaimed.

"You have enormous talent," said his teacher, "and therefore you have to work twice as hard as normal." The regime was hard, as much as seven hours of practising in addition to school. Disciplined by his mother's pressure and encouraged by a tricycle, on which he could only play after he finished practising, his early memories were of a squeaking bike in the night and the sight of legs walking by as he practised in the basement flat during the day

The regime was not that unusual in the former Soviet Union, where musical prodigies are hot-housed very young on the grounds that this is when they learn best - a view Vengerov agrees with. But on the other side in Russia has tended to be extremely close families that support, and drive on, their prodigies. Certainly Vengerov expresses only a passing regret for lost childhood play, preferring to dwell on his parental and grandparental ties. Both his mother and his grandmother still regularly tour with him and his father, who became an Israeli citizen (as did Vengerov), also attends many of his concerts.

Fond of the humorous anecdote, often when they reflect on himself, Vengerov told The Independent's Michael Church that at his first concert, given when he was five, "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."

When he was seven he moved to Moscow to live with his grandparents and study at the Central Special Music School, associated with the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Three years later he had to move back to Novosibirsk when his grandfather fell ill. He returned to study with Zakhar Bron, one of the finest teachers of his day who counted Vadim Repin among his pupils.

At 10, Vengerov (like Repin before him) won the junior Wieniawski Competition in Poland, at 11 he was playing in the opening concert of the Eighth Tchaikovsky competition. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the old restrictions on travel. When Bron left Russia to become a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1987, the 13-year-old Vengerov and his family moved with him, following him to Lübeck in Germany when he moved there.

From the age of 15, when he gave a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and won the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition in London, Vengerov's international career was set. It became a gruelling round of 120 to 135 concerts a year, with several dozen orchestras, under as many conductors, in all the major music centres of the world. He has lived for a time in Israel (where he was partly forced out by the threat of military service), Germany and Italy, but most of his time has been spent on planes and in hotels and concert halls.

"Going through security in American airports," he told one interviewer, "is hell but understandable. I'm the suspicious-looking guy with the violin case, so they always stop me. Once, I was told my violin was dangerous because I might break off a string and strangle the pilot."

During that decade and a half on the road, and helped on by the support and patronage of his two great idols, Daniel Barenboim and Slava Rostropovich, he has done much to broaden his repertoire from the Russians and Romantics to include the contemporary and the baroque (a relatively recent excursion made more difficult when he left his modified instrument by an open window before a rain storm). He has taken up the viola to make remarkable recordings of Britten and Walton, studied conducting under the Armenian Vag Papian, and become Professor of Violin at Saarbrücken University in Germany.

He has proved an energetic and committed honorary envoy for music for Unicef since 1997, travelling widely and trying to bring the gift of music to poor and battle-wearied lands. To hear him talk of what he has leaned from children in poor countries is to sense a genuine humility and desire to share what he regards as a God-given talent.

And for the future? After 25 years devoted to performance he has decided to take a sabbatical this year from touring. It's partly to gain the space and time to find himself as a man, "to ride across America on a Harley Davidson". But it's also to try to explore new avenues of musicianship. He's studying jazz and improvisation with Didier Lockwood and learning the tango as part of a viola concerto composed especially for him by Benjamin Yusupov, which includes both improvisation and dance. His family lives in Lugano, but he's looking for a flat in either London or Paris. He has taken time off just to sit in the cafes in Moscow and plans to do the same in other parts of the world where his performance schedule has previously kept him tied to the hotel and concert hall.

With some performers, as sportsmen, you sense that a pause could become a break. It's unlikely with Vengerov. He is too passionate about music and what he can learn from it. He's also, in his own humorous way, too conscious of what he can do in his position as a star. But there is in Vengerov something of the showman fiddler, the gypsy, with an urge for pastures new.

Critics may fear that, after all his startling performances as a young man, he is settling into being one of several top violinists repeating a core repertoire for an adoring audience, but they may be in for a surprise. At the end of this year, we could well see a bolder, more experimental performer pursuing avenues that the more conservative may look down on but the paying public will embrace, even in his mistakes and excesses.


Born: 20 August 1974 near Novosibirsk, Western Siberia, the only child of Aleksandr and Larissa Vengerov.

Family: Father was first oboist in the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of Novosibirsk, mother was a singer and the director of an orphanage with 500 pupils.

Education: Studied under Galina Turtschaninova (1978-81), Central Special Music School, Moscow (1981-1984) and under Zakhar Bron (1984-89).

Career: Winner of the junior Wieniawski Competition in Poland (1984) and the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition (London).

Recorded 30 CDs, 4 LPs, and appeared on 4 DVDs.

Instrument: Kreutzer Stradivarius violin, acquired in 1998 for a record £947,500 at Christies.

Positions: Honorary envoy for music for Unicef; Professor of Violin at Saarbrücken University, Germany.

He says...: "I think there are no limits to what I can learn from music, and if someday I discover there are limits, maybe that's when I'll stop playing violin."

They say...: "Maxim plays like a god." Roby Lakatos, gypsy violinist "A violinist like Maxim is born only once in a hundred years," Galina Turtschaninova, his first teacher, on hearing him first play