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Maxim Vengerov

by Heather Leviston

Red and white streamers were thrown, masses of red and white balloons descended from the ceiling and the crowd was on its collective feet cheering, clapping and whistling. No, it was not a victory bash for the Swans football team; it was something rather different, but no less exciting.

In a strange coincidence of duplicated initials, Musica Viva’s 70th anniversary celebrations culminated in a Gala Recital Tour by megastar violinist Maxim Vengerov. Organisation and artist also share a stellar reputation for musical excellence and a passionate advocacy for music education that goes beyond the concert hall.

Among a host of initiatives designed to nurture classical music in Australia, Musica Viva has promoted music education in schools, where valuable programs have been run over many years. In 1997, Vengerov became the first classical musician to be appointed an International Goodwill Ambassador by UNICEF. It is a role he embraces. “Education is everything… children are our future”, Vengerov told an enraptured audience towards the end of an evening’s breathtaking display of virtuosity.

The first half of the program consisted of traditional fare: J S Bach’s Chaconne from his Violin Partita No 2 and Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 7. As possibly ‘the’ supreme vehicle for testing the musical and technical strengths of a violinist, it was an audacious starting point, but possibly a predictable one. This masterpiece of Baroque genius, noted for taxing the stamina of any violinist, might have served as a warm-up for what followed as Vengerov piled one virtuoso piece on another. With generous tone and considered intention of phrasing, he appeared to negotiate the plethora of technical difficulties of the Chaconne as if they were nonexistent.

Fellow Russian, Roustem Saitkoulov, looking decidedly poetic in his black velvet jacket and large white bow tie, joined Vengerov for the Beethoven Sonata. With the lid at half stick the piano sounded a little muted at times, but once again formidable technique was at the service of expressive musicality. The emotional trajectory of the piece was nuanced and meaningful. A central motif of the program was also established in the second movement, Adagio cantabile – “Slow and songful” (as the program translation so aptly put it). The piano rippled away underneath a singing violin line of nostalgia and longing. A steady scherzo saw a lighter mood and the work ended on a fiery note.

Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 opened the second half of the program. As the most substantial work after interval, it provided ample opportunity for Vengerov to display his mastery of a different style. The opening Allegretto was charged with fantasy, with refined threads of silvery sound and shivering diminuendo. A long final bow stroke gave way to the pizzicato, swooning slides and rougher attack of a very convincing Blues movement. The final Perpetuum mobile was an exciting build up of unbridled intensity.

Eugène Ysaÿe dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 6 to violinist Manuel Quiroga. The “sweet, clean tone and faultless technique” that had so impressed Ysaÿe could also be heard in Vengerov’s playing. It is a transfixing piece full of the most wonderful fantasy, in which the considerable technical demands never detract from the delights of Ysaÿe’s musical imagination, especially when played by a true virtuoso.

A further link to song came with Heinrich Ernst’s Etude No. 6 (The Last Rose of Summer) for solo violin. It comprises Introduction followed by Theme and Variations, with the variations leaving no technical stone unturned. As one seeming impossibility followed another, the audience was left to wonder whether there was anything Vengerov could not do. It was not just a case of one virtuosic element after another but several occurring simultaneously. Tumultuous applause followed this digital acrobatic feat.

For a work by a player/composer renowned for his virtuosity, Paganini’s Cantabile, opus 17 for violin and piano came as an unexpected relief with its broad, singing melody. Although some spectacular ornamentation was woven in, the work’s lyrical character prevailed. Kreisler’s arrangement of Paganini’s I Palpiti, which in turn is a set of variations on an aria by Rossini, continued the connection to song as well as affording exceptional virtuosic firepower.

Several popular encores culminated in a Hungarian dance, which would have had us all dancing in the aisles if they hadn’t been full of balloons and streamers. This was a birthday party to remember.

Heather Leviston reviewed this concert at Hamer Hall on December 8.

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