Putting three star names together to play Beethoven's Triple Concerto could beget a problem or two. Many believed that to be the case when in 1969 Richter, Oistrakh and Rostropovich recorded the piece with Karajan conducting. The result was controversial: some regarded the recording as a definitive benchmark; others only heard four megalithic egos trying to trump each other and steal the show. Thankfully, there was no battle for the limelight in Friday night’s Barbican concert. It too featured three fearsomely talented soloists, but they teamed together to create an intelligent, balanced performance where individual prowess could still be enjoyed in those moments when Beethoven gives each instrument a specifically bravura function.

Maxim Vengerov © B. Ealovega
Maxim Vengerov
© B. Ealovega

There was a sense of architecture from the beginning, with Andrew Litton skilfully steering the BBC Symphony Orchestra from a spectacularly quiet opening into a series of crescendos and diminuendos which culminated in the cello’s solo entry, followed in succession by violin and piano. The three soloists then proceeded, with effortless grace, to interweave the various stately themes with all of their repetitions, extensions and ornamentations. They exhorted, teased and lured each other in the call-and-response passages, the decorative solo passage-work cleanly executed with a meticulous attention to detail.

The cello is allowed to shine in the rapt Largo, and shine Antonio Meneses did, with his rich, honey-toned Gagliano cello excelling in the upper registers. Igor Levit’s backdrop of cascading arpeggios was performed with an exquisitely delicate touch. There was just the right amount of ‘scrubbing’ from the cello on all of those hemi-demi-semi-quavers that lead directly into the Rondo alla Polacca where Beethoven is at his most grandly festive and politely playful. Here, the soloists revelled in the multiplicity of the composer’s ideas, and their very deliberate upstaging of each other in the “anything you can do, I can do better” sections was thrilling. This was exciting, physical playing, delivered with a sense of enjoyment and fun. The marvellous romp to the finishing line was a sheer delight and was met by thunderous applause when the players had crossed the finishing line. As an encore, we were treated to poised and elegant playing in the Adagio from Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B flat major, Op.11 in its version for violin (the original being scored for piano, cello and clarinet). 

Maxim Vengerov then took to the podium in the Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, whilst also playing the short violin solos which represent Scheherazade’s narration, as she spins her sinuously seductive tales for the sultan in order to avoid being beheaded the following morning. Dexterously grabbing his strategically-placed Kreutzer Stradivarius and twirling around to face the audience, he weaved melodic lines effortlessly, like some mesmerizing snake charmer.

Conducting without a score, and sometimes without a baton, Vengerov set his interpretative seal on the work. It was a clean and powerful account, dominated by an intelligent focus which yielded beautiful, often spectacular, results. The first movement opened at a rock-steady pace in which the regular pulse of the huge, mighty sea was powerfully rendered. The effect was reinforced by Vengerov’s rooted stance and strong, definite gestures. The second movement had a wonderfully relaxed feel which took us deeper into the exotic magic of The Arabian Nights, the freewheeling solos from the bassoon, oboe and clarinet oozed orientalism, Vengerov giving the players time to explore all the nuances of their melodies. The romantic lyricism in the theme for unison violins at the beginning of the third was never allowed to border on overstatement, as it often does, resulting in the purity and simplicity of the melodic line shining through with greater effect. Drama was stored up for the final movement where the orchestra exploded in a wild, swirling dance; percussion joining forces with the incisive BBCSO brass, piercing piccolo and furious strings, all plunging forward. When the festivities are interrupted on the return of the sultan’s menacing theme from the opening movement, Vengerov reared back his titanic ensemble, ploughing heavily and inexorably through the stormy waves towards rock and disaster. Scheherazade’s celestial voice survives by means of her narratives, but she does not exult victoriously. Her voice is soulful and subtle, and so was Vengerov in this performance.

This was the last in a series of five concerts given by Vengerov at the Barbican, aimed at spotlighting different facets of his artistry. It showed him to be a maestro who, like his late mentor, Mstislav Rostropovich, is as adroit with baton as he is with bow. As a violinist, Vengerov undoubtedly reigns supreme. After this concert, there can be little doubt that as a conductor too, he can make his mark.