This turned out to be a concert of three halves. Once the official programme was dispensed with, a highly appreciative Symphony Hall audience, many on their feet, clamoured for more and got it in the shape of not one but two encores. Both by Saint-Saëns, this made for a neat little composer-focused addendum to the first half’s Mozart-fest and the second half’s trip through Tchaikovsky. Maxim Vengerov, looking as though he’d just taken a stroll in the park rather than a virtuosic marathon, endeared himself to the crowd even further by not only announcing the pieces but by proclaiming that it was “lovely to be in Birmingham”. It was great to see so many younger people in the hall, with many a violin student amongst them, I suspect, and it made for a particularly vibrant atmosphere.

Maxim Vengerov
Maxim Vengerov

The demands of such a performance shouldn’t be underestimated, with Vengerov not only playing virtually non-stop but simultaneously directing. Without the imposed hierarchy of a podium, it all felt refreshingly democratic and intimate. The Polish Chamber Orchestra, founded as an opera orchestra 40 years ago, works without a permanent conductor, which must have its challenges but doubtless also gives them plenty of scope for benefiting from working with, and learning from, the likes of tonight’s maestro. There was a sympathetic rapport, the orchestra being responsive to Vengerov’s generally light touch as a director – the eyebrows often seemed to be just as important as the hands. The whole company made it look rather effortless, but their togetherness was surely down to good musicians’ ability to basically breathe as one.

The first part of the programme was for me the highlight, Mozart’s Fourth and Fifth Violin Concertos being technically demanding but eminently listenable and engaging. D major is a common choice for violin concertos as this key, in relation to the instrument’s tuning, makes for most freely vibrating strings and long ringing notes. Certainly this performance of the Violin Concerto no. 4 in D major shone, from the entrance of the soloist a couple of octaves above the orchestra’s opening material, through the measured pace of a brilliant cadenza and with a hop, skip and a jump up to a higher plane again. The Finale, flitting about in various directions, features the fascinating texture of the violin accompanying its own melody with a drone bass on the lowest string, echoed by the orchestra for emphasis.

Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, “Turkish” is so called because of the oriental ideas introduced in its wild and flamboyant finale. There’s something operatic about the style of the piece, with soloist as protagonist, halting proceedings and taking them off in new directions. The audience was transfixed by Vengerov’s cadenza in the first movement. The gorgeous melody of the central Adagio contrasted to fine effect with the swooping drama of the Finale, with a renewed sense of vigour from the orchestra and accented bowing from the lower strings adding a striking visual dimension.

After the interval came a selection of Tchaikovsky miniatures. Sérénade mélancolique in B flat minor was the epitome of melancholy, with occasional forays into more optimistic territory but with an overriding mood of sadness. There were some lovely cameos, with excellent contributions from viola and cello. Applause was cut short at Vengerov’s request, as he clearly wished all the Tchaikovsky pieces to flow from one to the next. This was an interesting approach since the three pieces of the suite Souvenir d’un lieu cher – the product of Tchaikovsky’s recovery period following his marriage breakdown – could clearly have stood as a single entity rather than being sandwiched quite so seamlessly within bookends. Also in a way it seemed a shame to curb the audience’s adulation, but the net result was that the final flourish of the Valse-Scherzo, a cocktail of sparkling mineral water and full-bodied vodka, issued the challenge: “now you can clap!” And we did.

And so to those Saint-Saëns encores. Still in dance mode, we were given Havanaise, the Cuban rhythms soulful and sultry, Vengerov displaying skill and emotion in equal measure, followed by the showmanship of Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. The audience would gladly have lapped up even more, but as we finally conceded that it really was over, I noticed that the orchestra members were busily congratulating one another with handshakes. Civilisation as we know it.

****1