There’s always a level of apprehension when going to see an artist frequently described as the world’s greatest. Can they really live up to the praise that gets lavished upon them? In the case of Maxim Vengerov, playing at the Barbican last night with Simon Trpčeski, no slouch himself, the answer was an unqualified yes. Vengerov didn’t merely give a great concert; some of his playing left me open-mouthed in wonder.

Maxim Vengerov and Simon Trpčeski
© Mark Allan | Barbican

None more so than the close of the first movement of Prokofiev's Violin Sonata in F minor: pizzicato interludes interspersed with 18 bars of dizzying semiquaver sextuplet scales and trills, muted and marked pianissimo and freddo (cold). With the gentlest of chords from Trpčeski setting the pace, Vengerov reached the limits of introspection. Technically, it was an astounding combination of balance, poise and shaping of each phrase in music that is so fast and so quiet. Emotionally, it drew me deep inside myself to places I hadn’t expected to go.

Vengerov was also able to provide surprise in a very familiar piece, César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major. The risk here is of over-egging the pudding. Franck’s long-breathed melodies are so warm and seductive that it’s all too easy to put in too much vibrato, too much lilt and end up in a puddle of overblown romanticism. Vengerov and Trpčeski achieved the antithesis of this, allowing the melodies to disarm you with sublime beauty without ever making you wallow in the lushness of it all. The beauty is never there just for its own sake, it's always present in service of an emotional purpose. 

This happens because Vengerov has consummate control over the shape of a note. He seems able to calibrate the dynamics and amount of vibrato or bowing effects so that they’re just enough to impart the intended emotion but never enough that he's tricking you or overselling. That control over the calibration was as unerring in fast, spikier passages like the Allegro brusco of the Prokofiev’s second movement or the close of Ravel’s Tzigane as it was in contemplative slower ones like the third movement of the Franck, which was some of the most sumptuously persuasive violin playing that I have ever heard. On the violinist’s range from courtly purity of tone at one end to the harmonic richness and excitement of the village fiddler at the other, Vengerov seems to inhabit a golden middle point from which he can achieve either effect at will.

Maxim Vengerov and Simon Trpčeski
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The pleasure that these two musicians derive from playing together was evident. Although it’s inevitable that the violin was at the front of one’s mind, it could not have had such a powerful effect without the propulsive drive provided by Trpčeski’s piano, the subtlety of interplay between the two instruments or the energy generated as one handed over to the other. In the opening piece, Mozart's E minor sonata, their playing was so together as to make one feel one was listening to a single instrument.

The evening’s one disappointment was the encores. The “Blues” second movement of Ravel’s G major sonata made me think “Why would you want to be a second-rate Gershwin when you can be a first-rate Ravel?”, and Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid and Liebesfreud seemed rather insubstantial after the fireworks of the end of Tzigane – itself a piece often played as an encore.

But that’s to cavil. The Prokofiev and Franck will stay long in my memory as exceptional pieces of musicianship which amply justify Vengerov's place in the roster of great violinists.

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