There was something for everyone in Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan’s recital programme at the Barbican last night. The music of nine different nations was represented in a multicultural extravaganza of shifting horizons, moods and styles. Familiar and well-loved classics, like Kreisler’s Liebesfreud, stood alongside Slavonic dance music and Paganinian pyrotechnics; and a sonata by Elgar, reportedly depicting the music of the woods around his Sussex home, rubbed shoulders with another, dark and brooding, by Prokofiev, composed in Russia at the height of the Stalinist regime.

Maxim Vengerov
Maxim Vengerov
The evening’s journey started with Elgar’s Violin Sonata in E minor. The highlight of the work was its emotional centrepiece – the lovely Romance: Andante – where Vengerov and Golan moved through a spectral landscape of quick-moving figures, sudden dynamic changes, and tempos that switched from accelerando to molto largamente. In the two lively movements which frame the Romance, Vengerov played with colour and energy and accentuated Elgar’s propensity for contrast, particularly in the alternation of the heroic, initial theme, marked risoluto, and the tranquillo section which Lady Elgar likened to “wood music”. Throughout the whole of the Elgar, Vengerov and Golan reacted with each other rather than to each other, which was totally appropriate for this piece where violin and piano are treated as equal voices, creating a dramatic monologue.

“Equal voices” is not a term that could be applied to much of the Prokofiev which followed. The second movement, the Allegro brusco, seems to have been conceived of as a savage conflict between warring forces, represented by the piano and violin, both engaged in cross-fire from the start. The audible and physical impression of vigour created by Vengerov and, in particular, by Golan, was riveting, and if they didn’t quite have us “jumping in [our] seats” (as Prokofiev claimed this movement should), the piano’s hammered chords and the bullet shots on the violin, fired aggressively as if from a rifle, created an unmistakably troubling effect. Compare this to the passage at the end of the first movement where the muted violin has will-o’-the-wisp scales racing up and down the fingerboard, creating, in the words of the composer, the effect of “wind in the graveyard”, and the soft-hued French effects of the third movement followed by the complex cross-rhythms of the finale, and the result was an exhilarating emotional rollercoaster.

After the interval, Vengerov appeared on stage with a microphone and introduced, one by one, all of the pieces which followed, which he (rather loosely) defined as “short, romantic encores”, starting with the Brahms Scherzo. The opening was gutsy, with Golan now a powerful ally. The trio, normally played with a bright, round tone, was rendered with a more softly lyrical touch, but it still contrasted well with the determined staccato and marcato bows of the scherzo theme.

The performance of the Hungarian and Slavonic dances was characterised by a wonderful sense of improvisatory freedom, and one could sense Vengerov’s relish for this gypsy music full of zesty melodic and harmonic languages.

After the virtuosic showmanship of the bohemian dances, it was the perfect moment for the earnest expressiveness of Wieniawski’s Légende. What made this performance particularly memorable was not just the ease with which Vengerov executed difficult moments, such as when passages involving scales have to be executed whilst making a decrescendo, but the manner in which he varied the speed and amplitude of his vibrato to reflect the mood of the phrase. The result was a tone which moved between tender intimacy and fervent passion. The Kreisler pieces were very tonally attractive too.

For the last three programmed items, the indefatigable Vengerov escalated the difficulty of his repertoire, with Paganini’s last Caprice, Ysaÿe’s Ballade, and the arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ Étude en forme du valse (the latter, preceded by what he called “an encore before an encore”: Fauré’s Après un rêve). When Paganini performed, it was said that his virtuosic wizardry was “enough to make the greater part of the fiddling tribe commit suicide”. After the mesmerizing left-hand pizzicato variation of the 24th Caprice, where one got the distinct impression that Vengerov’s diabolic violin was playing itself, the jaw-dropping technical demands of Ysaÿe’s modernistic style, and the barnstorming effects of the en forme du valse, I suspected that the fiddling tribe in the Barbican audience was feeling equally down in the mouth. And just when you thought it was not humanly possible to prolong the marathon, Vengerov and Golan gave us “the real encore” – Bazzini’s La ronde des lutins – bringing this varied, spirited and impressively challenging recital to an end. At the stage door, the queue for autographs was a long one, many wanting to see with their own eyes whether these two great forces of nature were really made of flesh and blood.