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January 14, 2014 5:09 pm
In the 19th century travelling violinists such as Paganini and Sarasate were hugely popular in virtuoso recitals. The top violinists these days are more often to be heard in serious repertoire – especially the familiar concertos by Beethoven and Brahms, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky – but the old solo showpieces are still around for those who want to find them.
In this recital Maxim Vengerov gave us the best of both worlds. It was a long programme, adding up to more than two hours of playing: one half featured a pair of substantial sonatas, the other a glittering selection of display pieces – a very generous introduction to the 2014 events in Vengerov’s “Artist Spotlight” series at the Barbican, which will also see him as chamber musician, concert soloist and player-conductor.
Unlike many international violinists, Vengerov seems open to exploring the English violin repertoire. Early next month he will join the London Symphony Orchestra as soloist in Britten’s Violin Concerto (a work to which he was originally lured by Mstislav Rostropovich) and this recital opened with Elgar’s Violin Sonata, inspired by the Sussex woodlands. Cool, precise, concentrated, Vengerov brought to it a technical elegance that the sonata can rarely enjoy. Others may play Elgar with warmer affection, but this performance made every note matter, even in the discursive finale.
Prokofiev inhabits a different world. His Violin Sonata No.1, composed either side of the second world war, is trenchant and hard-edged, its intensity only lightened when it dissipates into glinting, spectral shadows. Vengerov has the native Russian attack and brilliance for this music at his fingertips and the decisive accompaniment by pianist Itamar Golan (a touch heavy-handed in the Elgar) drove the sonata urgently forwards.
Vengerov’s succession of “lollipops” in the second half never allowed interest to dwindle. The earthy heat of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 2 contrasted with the limpid melodiousness of Wieniawski’s Légende. Paganini’s devilish Caprice No.24 (one piece everybody knows) sizzled and Saint-Saëns’ Etude en forme de valse, arranged for violin by Ysaÿe, glittered with a firework display of rapid pizzicatos.
The chamber music recital follows on Friday, the concertos next month. But the audience at this recital could be contented that they have already heard Vengerov in the round.
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