Maxim Vengerov’s Wigmore comeback

Michael Church
MaximREX 300x225 Maxim Vengerovs Wigmore comeback

Vengerov in 2006 (REX FEATURES)

I vividly remember the beginning of Maxim Vengerov’s period in the wilderness. He was performing at the Sintra Festival, and at breakfast on the day of his recital he was in ebullient form. But when he came on stage he seemed diffident, and, after a less than scintillating first half, announced that he had fallen in his hotel room: his arm now hurt too much to go on, and he had to bid us adieu. That was six years ago: he went on playing fitfully afterwards, but gradually withdrew from the scene. But I doubt if that fall was the real reason. If, as seems probable, he was suffering from a severe case of burn-out, that would have been all too understandable, after the relentless pressure he’d been under as his star rose ever higher in the firmament. One thinks of Solomon, and of Horowitz: human nature has its own defence against inhuman pressure, and there’s no gainsaying the dictates of the body, when it mounts its life-preserving rebellion against the will.

Two weeks ago Vengerov stood in for a sick Martha Argerich and played Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, but that was just toe-dipping before the total immersion of his come-back at the Wigmore Hall. There, accompanied by the excellent Itamar Golan, he would play Handel’s first violin sonata and Beethoven’s Kreutzer, and though his solo performance of Bach’s second Partita was scheduled to come after the Handel, he wisely placed it first: as the fons et origo of violin virtuosity, it had to be the evening’s beginning.

He swung into the Allemande with a muscular power behind his portamento which made it seamlessly persuasive; the whole movement seemed to pass like one single uninterrupted thought, as did the Corrente which followed. There was nothing histrionic about the Sarabande, just cool and deliberate authority; the Giga raced along with a bright and forceful tone. But the Ciaconna, which was what we had been waiting for, emerged as fastidiously-shaped as I have ever heard it: Vengerov’s emotional restraint in the opening stages allowed him to turn the gathering denouement into the most heart-warming of homecomings. This edifice had marmoreal beauty.

If you’d been listening blind, you’d have said it was a different violinist – and a different violin – in the Handel sonata which followed: here his sound had a light, elegant, sweetly-singing charm. But it was still restrained: only in the genial closing Allegro did his playing – and his face – break into a smile. Then came the Kreutzer. With Golan upping the ante as a very equal protagonist, Vengerov delivered the opening movement with the flash of bright steel; if its central drama was blisteringly intense, the lulls between the storms had an intensity of their own. The variations of the slow movement unfolded with lovely assurance, by turns elfin, grave, and warmly caressing; the tarantella hurtled to its close. First encore: Vengerov in Gypsy mode, reminding us of his luxuriant command of colour and mood. Second encore: the toughest tarantella in the book, tossed off with nonchalant ease. The packed hall – with a big Russian contingent – acclaimed him like the returning hero he was.

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