mon 17/06/2024

Maxim Vengerov, Polina Osetinskaya, Barbican review - masterclass in technique with a thrilling rage of emotions | reviews, news & interviews

Maxim Vengerov, Polina Osetinskaya, Barbican review - masterclass in technique with a thrilling rage of emotions

Maxim Vengerov, Polina Osetinskaya, Barbican review - masterclass in technique with a thrilling rage of emotions

Complete mastery from the violinist, fire and vigour from his pianist

Understanding his instrument's landscape: Maxim VengerovDiago Mariotta Mendez

For the first half of this spellbinding recital, Maxim Vengerov chose three works framed by one of Romantic music’s most infamous and turbulent stories.

In 1853 the violinist Joseph Joachim became close friends with Robert and Clara Schumann – and as a result introduced them to the then unknown 20-year-old Johannes Brahms. The precise dynamics of what precisely happened then has been subject to much speculation. Yet Vengerov’s repertoire bore vivid testament to the fact that it proved as stirring a time creatively as it did personally for all three composers.

He opened with Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano, which were written in 1853 and dedicated to Joachim. From the very first notes, to witness Vengerov’s mastery of his instrument’s landscape was like watching a snow leopard effortlessly navigating Everest. His astonishing technique – honed over more than four decades of live performance – enabled him to convey the full poised anguish of a composer whose world was on the brink of momentous change.

In the opening Andante molto movement, he brought a simultaneous sense of searching and yearning, the impassioned vibrato of the lower notes offset by the sense of transcendence as he soared into the higher registers. For the Allegretto, which – after a mournful start – tilts into a more playful, pastoral mode, his nimble ornamentation provided a richly coloured evocation of the German countryside. Then, in the final Leidenschaftlich schnell, the swooping start built in richness and intensity to provide a darkly lyrical finish.

Vengerov’s accompanist, Polina Osetinskaya (pictured below by Alexandra Muravyeva), was a fiery, dynamic presence throughout. Like Vengerov she comes from Russia, like Vengerov she has made clear her opposition to the war in Ukraine; as a result neither of these phenomenal talents can perform in the country of their birth. The fact that Vengerov is also Jewish and founded a school for musicians in the north of Israel in 2006 – Musicians of the Future – brought yet another frisson to an evening filled with poignant subtexts.

The already tangible chemistry between the two musicians became more heightened in the second piece, Johannes Brahms’ Scherzo from the F-A-E Violin Sonata composed in the same year in collaboration with Robert Schumann and his pupil Albert Dietrich. From the angry opening triplets through the swirling storm of the movement’s development, this was a taut, vigorous execution that alternated with more elegiac passages to convey the 20-year-old composer’s full-blooded vision.Both the Schumanns were stirred by Brahms’ work but in different ways. For Clara it marked the beginning of an intense association with Brahms, for Robert it clearly came as a challenge that was intensified by the mental health struggles he had experienced for many years. The third work in the programme, Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, was his response, in which he took his own two movements from the collaborative sonata and added two more to create a composition that was entirely his own. Clara would eventually come to associate this with the illness that led him to attempt suicide in February 1854 and tried to destroy what he had written; a full edition would not be published till 1956.

Vengerov performed what would prove to be Schumann’s last major work with simultaneous daring and finesse. In the first movement he alternated fiery double stopping with the acrobatic leaps that marked the dramatic melody, in the second, he intertwined effortlessly fluid arpeggiated sequences with bittersweet lyricism. In the Scherzo – which notably was utterly different to the Brahms version in the original – he seemed to make the violin weep with yearning in a ravishing performance that left the Barbican Hall in complete, rapt silence. For the strong, elegant finale, yet again there was the sense that for Vengerov and Osetinskaya this music was a perfect conversation between equals.

Thanks to Covid, Vengerov only managed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his first stage performance earlier this year, three years after the anniversary actually happened. He knows that along with the accolades for his exemplary technique and wide-ranging emotional palette he faces accusations of being old-fashioned. Yet in this concert – in which Braimah Kanneh-Mason was among the audience members watching with fascination from the front row – what was most evident was the rigour, depth and indisputable quality of what he does. There were moments at which it felt as if the entire audience was being conveyed through the programme in a state-of-the-art limousine.

For the second half of the evening, he and Osetinskaya abandoned the 19th century love triangle to perform Prokofiev. Strikingly the first work, Five Melodies, was written at a point when the composer – like Vengerov and Osetinskaya – found himself exiled from Russia, in this case because of the October Revolution. Originally the melodies were written for Nina Koshetz, a Russian mezzo-soprano, and were in part inspired by the Californian landscape. Yet in Vengerov’s performance of the opening Andante, it seemed you could sense the sinister undertones of the political landscape Prokofiev had left behind. Among the other movements, the Animato, ma non allegro was particularly ravishing with its sinuous upper register melodies, while the Andante non troppo was notable for its haunting harmonic finish.The evening ended with Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2, which was initially written as a flute sonata after he had returned to the Soviet Union. It was the violinist David Oistrakh – a musician whose recordings Vengerov listened to as he grew up – who persuaded Prokofiev to make this a work for violin. The decision was inspired – and Vengerov used his rich vibrato technique to extract the full plaintive beauty from the opening of the Moderato movement. The Scherzo: Presto movement was so vigorous that he lost hairs from his violin bow while the final Allegro con brio movement combined snowstorms of notes with shivering melancholy.

The elated audience didn’t want it to end, and Vengerov and Osetinskaya were happy to feed the enthusiasm with three encores; Rachmaninov’s "Vocalise", Prokofiev’s March from The Love for Three Oranges, and more Rachmaninoff in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, 18th variation. It was a stylishly compelling end to an evening whose deceptively conventional façade concealed a thrilling range of emotions.  

What was most evident was the rigour, depth and indisputable quality of what Vengerov does

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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