The Britten centenary is giving us all sorts of opportunity to reassess music that is either little known or underestimated, and his Violin Concerto of 1938-39 qualifies on both counts. In fact, listening to it in the light of his subsequent output, you could be forgiven for wondering whether it is by Britten at all, such is its introspective Romanticism – a rebound from the impact of Berg’s concerto on the 25-year-old English composer. Despite his pride in it, Britten’s concerto has languished near the bottom of the pile of his large-scale works and when a violinist of Maxim Vengerov’s stature tackles it, we have to ask why. He learnt and recorded it with his mentor Mstislav Rostropovich more than 10 years ago, and now – revitalised after a period in the wilderness – he has returned to it.
It’s tempting to say this is just the advocacy the Britten Violin Concerto needs – although that seemed less the case after Vengerov’s performance with the Oxford Philomusica under Marios Papadopoulos. The Russian virtuoso brought his phenomenal technique to the work, so much so that he made it sound easy – an approach that softened and subdued its gritty central European character.
His ultra-Russian interpretation had no sharp edges; rather it emphasised the sweetness and seamlessness of each phrase, every bow melting and blending into the next. Despite his fluency and commitment, Vengerov failed to divine the crucial contrasts in dynamics or tempo, resulting in too many longueurs in the opening movement and a sense of stagnation in the finale.
But the very un-Brittenesque warmth he lavished on the slow movement came into its own in the Dvorák Violin Concerto after the interval. Here Vengerov was in his element, underscoring the music’s extravert character, indulging its lilting lyricism and giving the folk melodies all the feverish brilliance they need. Yet there was not a moment when you could have accused him of hamming it up. The Philomusica gamely tried to follow the quicksilver dispatch of its star soloist, but would have benefited from much more focused direction.