The artistry of Maxim Vengerov is an uncommon phenomenon: it represents a rare amalgamation of repertoire spanning both traditional and modern, of musical interests firmly single-minded at times but broadly versatile elsewhere. A profoundly sincere approach to his profession coupled with his imposing musical intelligence and a flawless aptitude to play the violin uplifts his concerts to a celebration of music, of beauty and, ultimately, of humanity. His exceptional skills don’t corner him into a conventional virtuoso career, for he is quite interested in the exploration of new challenges, be it discovering historically informed performance with early music specialist Trevor Pinnock, performing the famed Monti Csárdás with gypsy musicians, swapping his violin for a viola or even for a baton to conduct orchestras, giving masterclasses or working as the appointed International Goodwill Ambassador by UNICEF.

Maxim Vengerov and Roustem Saïtkoulov © Fiona Hamilton (Melbourne)
Maxim Vengerov and Roustem Saïtkoulov
© Fiona Hamilton (Melbourne)

His Sydney recital began with a single movement from Bach's Violin Partita in D minor, the Chaconne, thus taking a bow towards 19th-century practices when excerpts from Bach’s violin solo works were regularly used by the artist to limber up, albeit publicly, before “the real concert” began. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Vengerov was in full flight from the first note, looking comfortably relaxed yet fully concentrated. The Chaconne is often performed as a herculean battle with the immense technical and musical difficulties of this masterwork. Vengerov’s reading was rather different: he was both at ease and at peace with every one of the theme’s 64 demanding variations. As if playing solely for himself, he lent a much more intimate feeling to this performance than what the ambiance and size of the Concert Hall would normally demand. Under his hands, one four-note chord flowed with velvety elegance on to the next, the violin ceasing to sound like a single voice instrument. It was a particularly exquisite moment when the important key change took place from the original D minor to (in the hauntingly beautiful words of Philipp Spitta, Bach’s biographer) “the devotional beauty of D major where the evening sun sets in the peaceful valley”.

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in C minor, Op.30/2 also gave a less dramatic impression than its performances customarily offer. Vengerov, choosing an ever-so-subtly different type of sound and vibrato, was joined by the Russian pianist, Roustem Saïtkoulov, whose never-ceasing attention to detail, delicate fingers and absolute control over volume, tempi and tone colour made him an ideal partner. Their collaboration gave the impression of an amicable conversation between two old friends. The sudden outbursts of dynamic extremes so typical of the first and last movements were more jovial than punchy, the Scherzo’s off-beat accents more humorous than controversial, and the variation movement was defined by its cantabile, or ‘singing’, character, as Beethoven prescribed. Saitkoulov’s extremely judicious use of pedalling allowed the violinist to play as delicately as he wished and even the gentle pizzicatos of the second movement were clearly audible. The palpable care and respect with which Vengerov and Saitkoulov treated each other and the music was as exemplary as it is seldom witnessed in our concert halls at this level. Their stardom shone from within; their outside appearance was characterised by simple humility. They formed a truly fine alliance throughout the evening with nothing to criticise, with the possible exception of their strikingly dissimilar dress code.

The violin tone changed quite noticeably yet again for the opening movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G major as a result of a lighter touch with the bow and generally faster bow strokes. This veil-like sound effect suited Ravel’s dreamy world which, famously, apart from one brief section never features any dynamic mark above ‘piano’. The musicians were equally comfortable with the ‘Blues’ character of the second movement, clearly under Gershwin’s swanky influence. (The American composer visited Paris and even studied briefly with Ravel in 1926. Evidently they both learned from each other.) The endless, rapid semiquavers of the last movement swirled around with easygoing virtuosity, in full justification of its title: Perpetuum mobile.

The recital could have finished with the elegant performance of one of Eugène Ysaÿe’s 20th-century responses to Bach’s solo violin works, the Violin Sonata No 6 in E major, to form a great arch of two sonatas bookended by solo violin works, but instead (somewhat curiously) three shorter pieces concluded the official programme. Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s Étude no. 6 is hardly ever heard in concert halls due to the formidable virtuosity required for its successful performance. This gave Vengerov the first of several chances to demonstrate his legendary technique. His congenial approach seemed to be in denial of the colossal hurdles of the left hand pizzicatos, harmonics in double stops, fast bariolage passages and other terms which are even harder to execute than they sound to the uninitiated. Two pieces by Paganini followed before it was time for the three ‘real’ encores, received with rapturous ovation by the capacity audience.