There can’t be many more picturesque locations for a summer music festival than the alpine setting of Verbier, nestled in the heart of the Swiss Alps and commanding a healthy air of relaxation and civility. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Verbier Festival continues to draw big name artists from around the world while providing a platform for young emerging artists along the way. This time, however, it was experienced hands taking the stage, showing just how it is done. Maxim Vengerov easily falls into that category of artists who can command the “and friends” strapline when devising concert programmes, but in this case, the “friend” in question was brother-in-law Ilya Gringolts, performing on equal terms in a mouth-watering programme.

Ilya Gringolts © Tomasz Trzebiatowski
Ilya Gringolts
© Tomasz Trzebiatowski

Verbier’s venue of choice for most of its chamber music, the modern Église, provided an intimate environment with clear acoustics, not too reverberant, and in a change to the running order, after a Prokofiev-style “Happy Birthday” to the Verbier Festival, Vengerov and Gringolts decided to kick off with Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op.56. From the very opening, it was clear that there was great chemistry and understanding between the two. Pensive passages were carefully sculpted, with the players handing over not only melodic lines but also timbres to each other. This takes great skill. The muted melancholy of the third movement was eerily played, contrasting dramatically with the raw and gritty fast movements, with copious amounts of grind on the strings and a folk-infused final movement reaching a frivolous climax.

Gringolts has a rather modest and understated demeanour, but this belies his deep musicality and intense fire. Bartók’s monumental Sonata for Solo Violin, therefore, made a perfect vehicle for these qualities. Playing from memory, Gringolts mastered this beast of a piece, displaying every technique under the sun and, more importantly, providing a convincing interpretation. Creating an organic feel in the Chaconne-style opening movement is no mean feat, with Gringolts’ ebb and flow helping to shape the tricky melodic lines and harmonic shifts. The fugal second movement was punchy, with a wild and relentless drive, and Gringolts fashioned a feather-light touch and an overriding sense of wistful sadness in the third movement. The Presto, with its busy wasp-like murmurings and folk-like themes, was sinister with a touch of anarchy. This was an outstanding performance of a quite phenomenal work.

Maxim Vengerov © Benjamin Ealovega
Maxim Vengerov
© Benjamin Ealovega

After the interval, it was Vengerov’s turn. And if you were to pick your ideal concert for solo violin works, having just heard the Bartók sonata, you wouldn’t go far wrong with Bach’s Partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, with its famous Chaconne standing at the pinnacle. This was a mature Vengerov. Yes, he does play music with his heart on his sleeve, but there was no exaggeration here and no over-sentimentality. Every note (and grace-note) was heard, and each line in the dense harmonic and contrapuntal structures was brought out. Mastery of technique was a given, but it was how the whole piece fell together that was striking – and at last, a proper distinction between the Allemande and the Courante, when so often they can sound too similar. The intensity of Vengerov’s performance was exhilarating and tangible, with both deftness of stroke and a fullness of tone that filled the hall in all the right places.

Henryk Wieniawski’s Études-Caprices for two violins, Op.18 were written for violin “with the accompaniment of a second violin”, and Vengerov and Gringolts chose the first four of the eight to close the concert. Jam-packed full of pizzazz, sentimentality and joie de vivre, the pair dissolved into the music, eking out every inch of romanticism and extrovert frivolity, and taking the last two pieces at an insane pace to produce pure champagne sparkle.

With more Bartók as encores, extracts from his Duos for Two Violins, Sz.98, BB.104 saw Vengerov and Gringolts happily canter through Mosquito Dance and Sorrow to close the evening with a big violinistic exclamation mark!

*****