Maxim Vengerov studied initially with Galina Turchaninova in Novosibirsk, then at the Moscow Conservatory like many of his generation in the USSR, and finished his formative instruction with Zakhar Bron. His rise was rapid, including debut performances with the Concertgebouw, BBC Philharmonic and USSR State Symphony Orchestras, and he was soon appearing at major international venues such as the Wigmore Hall, Suntory Hall, the Mozarteum and the Concertgebouw Hall. He has performed with a glittering array of important conductors and has more recently adopted this role himself, laying down his violin for much of the time since 2008 amidst much speculation as to the reason for this bold move. Vengerov had likened his solo appearances to being a hamster on a wheel and maintained that he needed a change of direction whilst, at the same time, not ruling out the possibility of a return – something that audiences, used to his trademark brilliance, welcomed enthusiastically in April, 2012.
Amongst the most successful of Vengerov’s recordings is a disc of Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur, which won three European music awards. His 1999 pairing of the Concertos No. 1 by Prokofiev and Shostakovich with the London Symphony Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich won a Gramophone Record award. In 1997 Vengerov became the first classical musician to be appointed an Honorary Envoy for Music by UNICEF.
Vengerov’s playing is hailed as some of the most captivating and committed musicianship of the present age. It is curious, given that this is the case, that his recordings do not stand out from the crowd, especially on a stylistic level. Of course, recordings do not necessarily convey that elusive spark of greatness perceived by a live audience. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor (1994) benefits from a luminescent tone that is both clear and powerful, whilst Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1999) is impassioned, with great tonal depth allied to an expansive approach to timing often eschewed by other interpreters. In duo sonata repertoire, Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ (1992) is bright and direct in Vengerov’s hands, whilst this energy is used to good effect in Messiaen’s Thème et Variations (1993) which is an intelligent reading of this intellectual yet vivid and communicative musical language.
In Brahms’s Violin Concerto Vengerov and Barenboim take a decidedly monumental approach in their 1999 recording, with a big, rich sound and slow speeds. Within its apparent aesthetic aims, however, the performance shows off Vengerov’s fiery demeanour and a dense, sumptuous lower-string tone, along with his apparently bomb-proof technical equipment. His approach to Brahms’s Op. 100 Violin Sonata (2004) is similar, but works less happily in its more intimate and complicated musical discourse.
Vengerov’s committed, determined and passionate bearing (plus high-profile media projects, such as film soundtracks and television documentaries) have guaranteed him a place in the heart of many concert-goers and music-lovers. It is perhaps the sincerity of his musicianship that defines his greatness.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)