After his sell-out concert with the Oxford Philomusica at the Sheldonian Theatre in April of this year, Maxim Vengerov announced “To Oxford, I would always come back”. Eight months later and he is already back as the Philomusica’s first Artist in Residence. “There could not be a better way to mark our 15th anniversary”, observed the orchestra’s artistic director and conductor-pianist, Marios Papadopoulos, “than to anticipate three years of outstanding music-making in collaboration with Maxim Vengerov”. To launch his tenure, Vengerov gave a short, inaugural recital, accompanied by Papadopoulos in a performance of Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major, Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise, and Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo. Dedicated Vengerov fans would already have heard him perform the Havanaise and the Valse with the Polish Chamber Orchestra earlier this month in London or in Birmingham, but it was thrilling to experience these pieces again in the intimate surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre.

Maxim Vengerov
Maxim Vengerov

Those surroundings were ideally suited to the performance of the Franck sonata, a work which tenders to the salon. Composed in 1886 as a wedding present for the Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, Vengerov played it with the warm lyricism for which Ysaÿe’s playing was renowned and to which Franck had purposely tailored the work. The opening bars of the Allegro ben moderato have been thought to have been described by Marcel Proust in his first volume of Remembrance of Things Past – “At first, the piano complained alone, like a bird deserted by its mate; the violin heard and answered it, as from a neighbouring tree. It was as at the first beginning of the world, as if there were not yet but these twain upon the earth […]” – and Vengerov and Papadopoulos, in their perceived empathy, held the audience spellbound in their evocation of just such a feeling of primordial innocence and pastoral serenity.

A restless energy marked the turbulent second movement (the Allegro) with biting attacks by Vengerov that saw his heels leave the ground on more than one occasion. The virtuoso piano part, with its swirling arpeggios, was performed with an equal measure of visible energy. After the long, meandering “recitative” of the Recitativo-Fantasia, improvisatory in nature and full of self-reflection, Vengerov and Papadopoulos demonstrated their shared musical understanding in the beautifully moving Fantasia. It was the inclusion of songlike melodies such as this which guaranteed the broad appeal of Franck’s violin sonata and sealed its reputation as one of the great warhorses of the Romantic repertoire. Indeed, the romantic elements of the movement were clearly in evidence in Vengerov’s use of explosive fortissimos alternating with astonishing pianissimos and melting portamentos. The final movement, the Allegretto poco mosso, was driven forward with an ever-mounting excitement. In a cyclic echoing of the “deserted bird” motif – which dominates in various forms the whole organism of the work – piano and violin, starting in canon, spiral ever upwards to zealous heights of passionate dialogue. Papadopoulos’ hands flew over the chords stretching a tenth, with which Franck littered the piano part (blissfully forgetful of the fact that not every musician’s hands were as big as his own!), and the two players seemed fearless and impetuous, but always in control. It was a full-blooded take which breathed conviction.

Passion was still high on the agenda with Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise (“habanera” in Spanish) but of a slower, more sultry kind. The languid, Latin-sounding main theme is punctuated with some sizzling fingerboard action which Vengerov tossed off with ease. One or two portamentos were slightly overdone here, but never did four identical notes, repeated as part of the habanera rhythm, produce so much music, and the sustained harmonic note with which the piece closes was sublime. Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo makes huge technical demands in the bravura section too, but they were delivered with panache and a smile.

The good humour and the swing of the waltz left the audience wanting more, and they got it in the form of Sonata no. 3 in D minor, “Ballade” for unaccompanied violin by the aforementioned Ysaÿe. If we thought that by now we had seen all of Vengerov in showman mode, we were mistaken. Ysaÿe’s modern, dissonant-sounding writing demands that great dexterity and strength are matched with enormous musical maturity. We got all of these in equal abundance. In Vengerov’s speech made prior to his encore, he thanked, among others, the audience for providing him with “the joy of making music in the legendary Sheldonian”. The standing ovation confirmed that the joy was all ours.

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