What’s in a name? The Bard might posit that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but the music business world begs to differ. Particularly if that name happens to be Maxim Vengerov. Even if Vengerov had chosen a programme of Stockhausen and Schnittke the adoring crowds would still have rolled up, the seats selling with all the alacrity of a case of bootlegger’s gin in Prohibition America. Despite starting a whopping twelve minutes late (one wonders what panic the radio producers were in) the applause when this star rocked on to the stage reminded me somewhat of the descriptions of audience’s reception of Franz Liszt in his heyday – without the fainting and glove-throwing granted, but it was exceptionally generous and prolonged. It was a moot point whether a standing ovation wasn’t on the cards, something that did indeed happen at the end of both halves.

Maxim Vengerov © Benjamin Ealovega
Maxim Vengerov
© Benjamin Ealovega

The programme was as simple as it was crowd-pleasing. Consisting of just two pieces from the late romantic period, both concerto and symphony played to the strengths of this violinist turned conductor. The Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony brim with soulful melodies, intense brooding passion, mercurial mood changes and the requisite pyrotechnics, all things for which Vengerov has an obvious and special affinity.

Curiously he elected to perform the original 1904 version of the concerto, something that only came public in 1990s in strictly limited performances granted by the Sibelius Estate. The 150th celebration of Sibelius’s birthday in 2015 saw the general publication of the full, original score and Vengerov has been an enthusiastic pioneer of this work. So how does the original differ from the familiar revised version? It’s longer for a start, clocking in at around three quarters of an hour and it’s even more technically fiendish to play with the composer challenging the soloist to perform eye-poppingly difficult passages particularly in the extra cadenzas. This latter point is one possible explanation why Vengerov is championing the original version.

Vengerov shaped the forlorn melody on the solo violin that opens that concerto with great sensitivity laying bare its stark beauty almost senza vibrato. This contrasted with the rich, sonorous and vibrato-laden section high on the G-string while the double-stops were full and intense, though not always pinpoint in their intonation. Gavin Maloney, who was conducting the NSO for the first half, provided a calm accompaniment whose sound was consistently subservient to the violinist’s. The cadenzas thrilled with passion while there was elegiac quality to some of the more meditative moments. Simplicity was the hallmark of the second movement where Vengerov unfurled the delicate tendrils of his melody with exquisite effect. He also pared back his vibrato, often briefly warming the note at the end with a little quiver. This created stillness in the lyrical lines of the violin allowing the music to speak for itself.

If Vengerov does have technical limits, then the third movement must have inched him towards them. It certainly didn’t feel like this was the case as his line flowed on effortlessly over the chugging orchestral accompaniment. Rejoicing in the offbeat accents and cross rhythms, Vengerov dispatched tenths, glissando octaves and ascending scales with charming ease.

Vengerov, the violinist of the first half was well known to me: Vengerov, the conductor of the second half I had no experience of at all. Standing straight up on the podium and with minimum of movement, Vengerov proved to be a convincing presence directing the orchestra. The lugubrious mood of the opening Adagio was very well caught though the intonation of the horn wavered at times. He imbued the delectable second subject with a vernal freshness on its first iteration and allowed it to expand nobly on subsequent hearings.

The delicate charm and confidence of the second movement was well captured while the trio section was imbued with a certain wistfulness. The Allegro molto vivace did what it said on the tin delivering crisp rhythms and terrifically exciting march tune. Vengerov took this at breakneck speed and the NSO gallantly followed suit though at times the playing risked sounding breathless.

Leaping almost straight into the famous opening chords of the Adagio lamentoso made complete sense so as to preclude any thought of applause at the end of movement three. The NSO imbued the opening cry of pain with sorrow and despair while the subsequent hushed melody was otherworldly. Vengerov garnished the expressive intensity of the rests and quite wonderfully portrayed the anguish of a soul facing imminent death. The final pizzicato represented the journey into the next life – one of music’s sublime moments.