Just a few weeks after the announcement that Oxford would be hosting the UK’s first major Stradivari exhibition this June, Maxim Vengerov gave a phenomenal performance on one of the Italian craftsman’s instruments. Performing on the ex-Kreutzer instrument made in 1727, Vengerov’s performance with the Oxford Philomusica was unforgettable.

Maxim Vengerov with Oxford Philomusica, conducted by Marios Papadopoulos © Brendon Fraser
Maxim Vengerov with Oxford Philomusica, conducted by Marios Papadopoulos
© Brendon Fraser

There was a tangible sense of excitement in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre before the concert started, with audience members jostling for space in the packed auditorium. The Oxford Philomusica seemed thrilled to be sharing the stage with Vengerov, with many players beaming throughout the performance.

Britten’s Violin Concerto was written at a time of great emotional turmoil. With war brewing, the composer had travelled to America with W.H. Auden and Peter Pears (who began his romantic relationship with Britten during the course of the trip). Although Britten’s music has attracted much criticism that it is all brains and no heart, this was certainly not the case in Wednesday’s powerful performance. From heart-rending melancholy towards the end of the first movement to the playfulness of the second, Vengerov took the audience on an unrelenting emotional journey. His interpretation was full of freshness and curiosity, bringing out bluesy elements in the Largamente with a barely veiled smile. Even the most repetitive ostinato figures were colourful and engaging, and the blistering passagework of the second movement seemed almost melodic.

Marios Papadopoulos’ clearly defined beat suited Britten, and he maintained a momentum which allowed Vengerov to navigate the wide expressive range of the concerto with ease. The Philomusica were on top form, imbuing Britten’s crystalline textures with energy and momentum. Despite a slightly unsettled start, the second movement was thrilling, culminating in a stunning cadenza which saw the whole theatre hold its breath. The surging strings lent the third movement pathos, with Vengerov rising over the Philomusica with fragile but tender lyrical lines. The intensity didn’t let up after the orchestral apotheosis, with Vengerov oscillating between his Elysian upper range and his raw lower notes. The Sheldonian was held spellbound for a few seconds after the final notes faded before it erupted with tumultuous applause, stomping and shouts of “bravo!”

After a stunning first half, my hopes were high for the Dvořák concerto. Although it was still an outstanding performance by any standards, it didn’t quite reach the dizzy heights of the Britten. After a rich orchestral introduction, Vengerov’s first entry introduced a note of wistful contemplation. Although the tempo was slower than I have been accustomed to, his spun-out lines maintained a sense of direction. The virtuosic passagework was thoughtful rather than fiery, and the cadenza reserved. The inner movement saw some beautiful woodwind playing, with the mellow tones of the first flute especially notable. Vengerov draped his melting tone over Dvořák’s cantabile lines, luxuriating in his sumptuous lower notes. The nostalgia of the second movement was shattered by the effervescent dance finale. The triumphant coda was met with a standing ovation, and the thunderous applause eventually prompted Vengerov to give an encore. After humbly thanking the audience, he launched into the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs. A final chance to revel in Vengerov’s silky and elegant tone once more was a perfect end to an exceptional evening.

*****