Maxim Vengerov is one of today’s greatest violinists. Born in 1974, he began his solo career at age 5, making his first recording at age 10. In 2007, he turned his attention to conducting, studying with Vag Papian and Yuri Simonov, making his conducting debut at Carnegie Hall. In 2010, he became first chief conductor of the Gstaad Festival Orchestra. Maestro Vengerov divides his time between violin performance, conducting and teaching; he also serves on competition juries. He is visiting professor of the Swiss Menuhin Academy and Menuhin Professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Maxim Vengerov’s plans include the launch of his own recording label VMV (Vengerov Music Vision). He plays on an ex-Kreutzer Stradivarius (1727) violin.
In March of 1878, recovering from his failed marriage and a botched suicide attempt, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1843-1893) living temporarily in Clarens, Switzerland, sketched his Violin Concerto in D major within eleven days. Visiting him there, his student and friend Yosif Kotek offered him advice on violin matters. On April 1st, the composer and Yosif played through the concerto for Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest. Both Modest and Yosif thought the slow movement to be weak. Four days later, the composer wrote a new slow movement. By April 11th the concerto, dedicated to the great violinist Leopold Auer, was complete. Auer, however, dismissed the piece as unplayable and Tchaikovsky, deeply hurt, feared the work would end up in “the limbo of the hopelessly forgotten”. When the work was finally premiered in 1881 by violinist Hans Richter in an under-rehearsed performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that he now realized there was music “whose stink one can hear”, claiming that the violin was “no longer played”, rather “pulled about, torn, beaten black and blue”. Auer was later to change his mind, considering the concerto “difficult” but not unplayable and the work’s innate lyricism and popularity has pushed Hanslick’s offensive remarks into obscurity.
We heard Maxim Vengerov as solo violinist in Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D major for violin and orchestra, Op.35, with Vag Papian conducting the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion in a performance which was both exciting and tasteful, a performance presenting the heart of the music rather than a show of violin acrobatics. Vengerov’s palette of color, technique and emotion was drawn on strategically, each musical gesture articulate and paced well as he presented the work’s lyricism, playfulness, intensity and its big heart. Vengerov’s technical ease and virtuosity is never exhibitionistic, never standing in the way of musicality and eloquence. The performance’s strength was the sensitive collaboration between Papian, orchestra and Vengerov, a balance between the concerto’s sheer melodiousness, the composer’s fragility of soul in the Canzonetta:Andante movement, for example, and the devil-may-care, folk-like joy of the final Allegro vivacissimo. Vag Papian wields magical control, creating fine balance between soloist and orchestra, between tutti, solo passages and orchestral “asides”, as he presents a musical canvas to delight the senses. The Rishon LeZion Orchestra boasts a collection of very fine players, as heard in several poignant wind solos interspersed throughout the work.
Then to a very different realm of Russian music with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) “Scheherazade” Symphonic Suite Op.35, composed in the summer of 1888 and premiered in November of that year in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting. The score calls for two flutes, two piccolos, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, tympani, triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, tam-tam, harp and strings. Consisting of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures, the work was inspired by “The Arabian Nights”, a collection of Arabic, Persian and Indian tales. This choice reflects the composer’s attraction to faraway places, to fantasy and the exotic. On a holiday in Bakchisaray in central Crimea in 1874, Rimsky-Korsakov was intoxicated by the sounds he heard. “It was while hearing the gypsy musicians of Bakchisaray” he wrote “that I first became acquainted with oriental music in its natural state, and I believe I caught the main features of its character”. He prefaced the “Scheherazade” score with a reminder of the story behind the collection of stories: to sabotage Sultan Shahahriar’s vow to kill each of his wives after the wedding night, the Sultana Scheherazade spins an intricate web of tales, one each night for 1001 nights, ultimately fascinating the sultan and winning him over. Later, in his autobiography “My Musical Life”, the composer denied the work’s programmatic content, claiming that the music depicted no actual characters or episodes and that “all these seeming leitmotifs are nothing but pure musical material…to direct only slightly the listener’s path that my own fancy had traveled…that the hearer…should carry away the impression that it is undoubtedly an oriental narrative…” The work quickly became a favorite Romantic concert piece and a prominent work of descriptive symphonic repertoire.
Following intermission at the Tel Aviv concert, one noticed an unusual prop placed adjacent to the conductor’s podium - a table. This served the purpose of conductor and soloist, both roles to be performed by Maxim Vengerov as he alternated each role deftly, his mellifluous solo parts (perhaps as the story-teller) reappearing to introduce or “comment” on each movement. From the fierce and commanding opening theme, Vengerov had the audience listening actively as the work unfolded in its mysterious and magical moments, its urgency and its yearning. Vengerov shaped the music with passion and affection, his conducting language as expressive and precise as his playing, bringing the score to life and leading the orchestra into some powerful climaxes. Rimsky-Korsakov’s score abounds in virtuoso opportunities for principal players in the orchestra and these, together with the percussion section’s many gestures, were a handsome-sounding treat for the audience to hear and to view. Going for crisp textures and transparency of sound, Vengerov invited his orchestra and listeners to step into the world of fairy tales, fantasy, drama and caprice and to savor the brilliance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s marvelous orchestration.
For the encore, we heard “Meditation”, a symphonic intermezzo from Jules Massenet’s lyric opera “Thaïs” (1893), with Maxim Vengerov rendering its honeyed melodies suggestive of sweet and poignant tenderness, sorrow, tenderness and drama. This ended a festive concert of works both popular and familiar to audiences, a program of concert-hall favorites, played, however, with the freshness and discovery that lodge a safe distance from pedestrianism.