It is an unfamiliar sight to see Maxim Vengerov alongside a London orchestra as a violinist. In 2005 he took a sabbatical which was uncomfortably extended when he injured his shoulder during weightlifting and, four years ago, he virtually gave up playing to concentrate on a career as a conductor. His return to regular performances has been eagerly awaited.
Vengerov’s was not the only re-appearance of note at Wednesday’s concert. Having formally opened the Barbican concert hall and theatre in 1982, the Queen was also making a return visit for a ceremony in which she presented this year’s Queen’s Medal for Music.
To mark the occasion the London Symphony Orchestra commissioned Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, to compose a fanfare. This looked celebratory – the LSO members were joined by a horde of young wind and brass players – without quite sounding it. Fanfare: Her Majesty’s Welcome is a work of some length and substance, not the usual quick blast of noise, but its rhythms are three-legged, its harmonies dour, and the overall effect was of a nocturnal army of revellers careering tipsily along the road.
Vengerov chose to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. His tone sounded deeper than before and, even if he does not equal the mesmerising colours that Anne Sophie-Mutter brings to this work, he knows how to find his way inside its Russian melodies and make them breathe and sing. There were some unexpected squeaks and bumps along the way, though, despite conductor Robin Ticciati giving his soloist all the space he needed, before the pair of them raced off through the finale as if in a competition for a medal of their own.
The award ceremony was held on stage. Maxwell Davies made the speech and the Queen presented the 2012 Queen’s Award for Music to the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, a less predictable choice than some in the past. Then Ticciati rounded off the evening with a remarkably affectionate and soulful performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The composer was Elgar when the Queen opened the Barbican (the only time Claudio Abbado has conducted Elgar’s Cello Concerto or even any Elgar?), so maybe the programme was by royal request.