At his lunch with the FT last year Maxim Vengerov described his four-year break from solo performing as “not a pleasant time”. His comeback after injury, starting from 2011, was far from easy and Vengerov has rebuilt his career incrementally, which in London meant starting in the intimate surroundings of the Wigmore Hall and with occasional concerto appearances.
A solo recital at the Barbican is another matter. This is not an easy venue for a solo violinist and, apart from Vengerov, only Anne-Sophie Mutter has shown a longstanding commitment by making regular return visits for recitals. It is amazing to think that her cycle of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas took place 15 years ago.
The two performers have very contrasting personalities. Compared with Mutter’s rich, Germanic sound, with its overtones that cast a glow across the auditorium, Vengerov’s smaller and wiry sound only lights up the immediate area – although his spitfire spontaneity has made up for it in the past.
In this long and generous recital Vengerov also started with Beethoven. The Violin Sonata No 10 in G Major, Beethoven’s last, is an inward-looking piece. Vengerov treated it with respect, refusing to overplay its gentle lyricism to make an effect, and his carefully contained playing was no less suited to the music than the rather suffocating air of Mutter’s lofty manner – yet his performance never really came to life. Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A Major, D574, then followed in the same vein. This was just too similar a choice to the Beethoven to make much of a contrast, though Vengerov’s sweetly soaring lyricism was appreciated.
The second half had more élan. Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major is one of the great warhorses of the Romantic violin repertory, and Vengerov and his pianist, Itamar Golan, kept the pace pulsing along, though even here a sense of dryness lingered, Golan’s accompaniments not having much juice to their sound. It was only with the quicksilver virtuosity of Saint-Saëns – his Havanaise, followed by the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso – that this recital fully burst into life. Vengerov’s skill in those and his elegance in Fauré’s “Après un rêve”, his sole encore, meant the old magic was back.