I still remember the first time I heard Maxim Vengerov live. Even at the age of seven, I was blown away by the warmth of his sound and the fearlessness of his artistry as he performed a fiendishly difficult programme of Bach and Ysayë. What I hadn’t realised was that he was only 28 at the time, despite already being nearly 20 years into an international career. Twenty years later, Vengerov is celebrating his 40th anniversary onstage with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall this September.

Maxim Vengerov
© IDAGIO | Diago Mariotta Mendez

“It’s funny, having started with my first concert onstage at the age of five,” he reminisces, “and more than 40 years later I’m still here onstage. But I still consider myself a young person!”

Originally scheduled two years ago, getting this concert onstage has not been an easy task. “We announced the concert for April 2020,” Vengerov explains. “But then came the pandemic and we had to postpone this concert three times. But at last, we hope to be onstage in September.”

The rescheduling has also required some logistical gymnastics given the number of people involved. “My dear friend Martha Argerich was originally supposed to join me onstage, but unfortunately she cannot make the rescheduled date. She’ll be playing for Zubin Mehta’s anniversary celebration – how could I possibly compete with that? Actually, Zubin was the first conductor I ever performed with in the West, and we’ve had a wonderful series of collaborations ever since.”

Taking Argerich’s place will be Simon Trpčeski, who shot to international fame after being selected as a BBC New Generation Artist in 2001. “We are so lucky to have Simon with us, especially since he started his career in this city. We have collaborated on various projects including recitals at the Barbican, and what’s fantastic about him is that he is both a soloist and a fantastic chamber musician.”

Also joining them onstage will be Mischa Maisky, with whom Vengerov shares a long professional history. “I have known Mischa for more than 25 years, and we’ve played concertos and chamber music together – it’s like we are family.”

The three soloists will join forces for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. “It has a tendency to be treated as a party piece: let’s get together to make music and have fun,” Vengerov explains. “And of course, this is part of it. But beyond that, it’s an incredibly profound, serious work. What is particularly amazing is the subtleties between the instruments: the conversations between soloists and orchestra, the blending of colours – every note is gold.”

How does he anticipate performing such a chamber-like piece in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall? “I first performed there when I was 17, and since then I’ve done all sorts of experiments, including a recital where I played on a baroque violin. I was never afraid that the hall would be too big for that – it has phenomenal acoustics.”

Vengerov will also be joined onstage by Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he has a long-standing relationship. “I’ve been doing residencies with this orchestra for a number of years, and at this point, they are all good friends. I’ve performed a number of concertos with them – Brahms, Bruch, Britten... all the B’s! And now, for this concert, we will be playing Shostakovich together for the very first time.”

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto holds special meaning for Vengerov, who performed the concerto in London for the first time at the age of 19, conducted by none other than Mstislav Rostropovich. “The Shostakovich is a very special composition in my life because of Rostropovich. I met him for the first time when I was 16, and since then he has been an inspiration and source of knowledge. What’s amazing is that he was a direct link to Shostakovich – he studied instrumentation with him at the Moscow Conservatory.”

Does he have any memories of his London debut? “I remember that in the last movement of the Shostakovich, I broke a string! I had to switch my violin with the leader, and all I could remember was trying not to interrupt the flow of the movement. Bringing back this concerto is a fun sense of déjà vu. I have great memories of this time, and hopefully, some in the audience will have seen me perform it all these years ago.”

Those performances also coincided with a recording of the Shostakovich concerto with Rostropovich, which won two Gramophone awards. Vengerov has fond memories of the recording process, particularly of the intense passacaglia that forms the emotional heart of the work. “I remember playing the concerto for him for the first time, and we worked through the first, second and fourth movements. He didn’t say anything about the third, and when I pushed him on this, he said: ‘Maxim, you are too young to understand what I want to tell you. Someday, we’ll talk about it and you will understand more as you get older. But when we record the movement, just look at me.’ When we recorded that movement, I looked at him and understood everything. And when I heard the recording, I couldn’t recognise myself. Slava was an amazing conductor in that respect: if you really paid attention, if you bothered to look at his facial expression, then you would really understand and your inner world would change. How he did that, I don’t know.”

Maxim Vengerov
© IDAGIO | Diago Mariotta Mendez
The concert finishes with Sarasate’s dazzling Navarra, a lively showpiece for two violins. But in typical Vengerov fashion, the more the merrier. “We’ve arranged it for eight violins, dividing ourselves into two groups – five against five! I’ll be violin number ten, and onstage with me will be a selection of excellent students from the Royal College of Music.”

Vengerov has been a visiting professor there since 2016 and has set up one of the most popular masterclass series there for both students and audiences. “We’ve started something very unique called the orchestral masterclass. We pick a concerto, we pick a student for each movement, and we go through a multi-day workshop with piano and orchestra. Many of the students will never have played these concertos with an orchestra before, and we have a chance to work on balance, projection and how they interact with the orchestra and conductor. When they give their evening performance, the audience – both in the hall and online – appreciate all of the hard work that goes into it. It’s a lot of fun and I discover new things about these concertos every time.”

For Vengerov, this concert is as much a celebration of his career as it is a celebration of London. “This programme summarises my career in London,” he explains. “It brings back memories of Slava, friendships with my valued colleagues in the orchestra and in chamber music, and all of my warmth towards London and its great concert halls and audiences who have been with me for so many years.”

And what of the next 40 years? “There’s always something to look forward to. I’ve always taken the time to experiment and, over the past two years, I started teaching online. I was very restless and craved contact with my colleagues, so together with my technically savvy friends, we created an online teaching platform, directly on my website, with excellent sound quality. We had hundreds of students from every continent, free of charge and selected by lottery, and tens of thousands of audience members watching as well. I’m very grateful for this project because it allowed me to give back and kept music alive during this period." During the early phases of the pandemic, Vengerov also kept himself busy playing a series of online concerts, including one for Classic FM which has been viewed a quarter of a million times. Releases and radio broadcasts of recordings made in the past eight years are now in the pipeline.

And what of his musical ambitions for the future? “I would like to record Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. It’s a must for every violinist, but I don’t think I’m quite ready yet.” How does one prepare to record them? “I want to learn composition first. When you perform a fugue on the violin, it’s incomplete, and you need to imagine all of the voices that are not there. It’s not that I have any ambitions of becoming a full-time composer, but I think this would reinforce my knowledge and my playing. Once again, it was Slava who gave me the best advice: only record Bach after you turn 50.”

Click here to see Maxim Vengerov's upcoming performances.

This article was sponsored by Berin Art