Interview with Russian Violinist Maxim Vengerov
Being a superstar is just a beginning
If you check Microsoft’s online Encarta encyclopedia, you’ll learn that ’Novosibirsk, formerly Novonikolayevsk . . . is the largest city and one of the chief industrial centers of Siberia. . . . It is the seat of a university and a scientific research center, and has opera and ballet companies.’
It is also the birthplace of the latest and greatest Russian violinist, Maxim Vengerov.
That Vengerov (and his rival Vadim Repin, for that matter) comes from Siberia, where the snow and ice are no joke, would have been a good straight line for borscht-belt comics 50 years ago when the famous Russian violinists came from more traditional bastions of culture: Heifetz from Vilna, Milstein and Oistrakh from Odessa, Kogan from Dnepropetrovsk (like Odessa, a large city in Ukraine).
It’s no joke now.
During a conversation with Vengerov, while the 29-year old virtuoso is in Chicago on another one of his seemingly perpetual series of tours, he tells me unequivocally that Novosibirsk is not only the center of Russian culture, but that it is ’the most intelligent Russian city.’ During World War II, many industries and the most brilliant scientists were moved there as a safety precaution; to keep the scientists and their families happy, the government made sure there was culture, and lots of it, including art, ballet, the theater and, of course, music.
’Musical life in Novosibirsk was very rich,’ Vengerov says. ’When I was still in Mom’s womb, I heard David Oistrakh give one of his very last concerts in Russia, playing the Tchaikovsky concerto.’
Vengerov calls Oistrakh one of his heroes. ’He had the ability to be one with the instrument,’ he explains, ’to play with such incredible nobility.’
It sounds like a description of the way the romantically dark-eyed Vengerov plays. Despite a publicity machine that emphasizes his appeal to Gen X and beyond (www.maximvengerov.org, a website created by adoring fans, is liberally laced with beefcake publicity photos and gushing emails), the reflective character of his technically spectacular performances is surprisingly authentic and moving.
This was already true when he burst onto the music scene 15 years ago, as you can hear on a 1989 recital reissued by newly relaunched Biddulph Recordings. The 73-minute recital, headlined by Schubert’s C Major Fantasy, shows the then-teen to be in supreme command not only of his technique but of his elegant music making. Equally impressive, as he has gone on to do consistently in his recording career, he inspires the musicians around him (in this case, pianist Irina Vinogradova) to play to his level.
You can hear it as well on his 1996 recording of the Sibelius concerto with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony, and in his new EMI Classics release of French music, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Antonio Pappano. On that recording, Vengerov plays with such an unusual combination of Gallic splash and musical respect that French critics are calling his interpretations landmarks that elevate Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and Saint-Saˆ´ns’ Third Concerto to the level of the great German concertos.
Like many young classical superstars, Vengerov leads a peripatetic life. ’I divide my time into different activities,’ he says, ’teaching, touring, making recordings, and traveling.’ Aside from teaching one week each month at the Musikhochschule des Saarlandes in Saarbrˆºcken, ’I’m like a gypsy,’ he says.
After playing Lalo with Barenboim in Chicago, he is off to Vienna to play chamber music with his great friend Mstislav Rostropovich. The bond between Vengerov and the great cellist runs very deep.
’Rostropovich is one of my mentors,’ he says. ’He’s like a grandfather to me. He has supported me throughout my development, ever since I played for him when I was 17. His personality is very difficult to put into any frame. He doesn’t limit himself to being a fantastic cellist, he’s also an incredible musician, and an inspiring friend. When he agreed to record Shostakovich’s First Concerto with me [for the Teldec label in 1995, later selected as Record of the Year by Gramophone magazine], I had to make my own way to Evian in France. It was quite difficult to get there from where I was and when I arrived, he said in an encouraging fashion, ’Well, my dear, I’ve heard you are so talented, you have come such a long way, if you really want to learn from me, we really have to make a recording of the century.’
’He has broadened my views of music and introduced me to composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev as if they were still alive and I was actually meeting them.’
During the summer of 2003, Vengerov spent a month in Rostropovich’s apartment in Moscow. ’I really enjoyed my time there,’ he says, ’It was quite remarkable to see how Russia is developing. Positively so,’ he adds, ’although there is so much change, and there is still poverty.’
Asked if music had the same place it did in the Moscow of the ’50s and ’60s, when musicians like Shostakovich, Kogan, Oistrakh, Gilels, and Rostropovich were working and teaching, Vengerov observes, ’Unfortunately not. It is a time of crisis and many musicians have left. But because the world has opened up, musicians like Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Olga Borodina, and Rostropovich can maintain residences in Moscow.’
Part of what makes Vengerov such an intriguing musician is his interest in the viola’’I love the deeper voice of the viola,’ he says, ’its different colors, the way I can dig into the lower strings’’and his desire to play on violins other than his famous Strad.
His 2002 recital of Bach, Shchedrin, and Ysaˆøe for EMI Classics, for example, demonstrates the astounding range of colors that a great modern violinist can create by working on a range of instruments. It shows Vengerov achieving his wizardry not only on the Kreutzer Stradivari (which should probably be called a modern instrument because it has been reworked to play at modern pitch), but also, for Rodion Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue, on an 18th-century fiddle by Carlo Landolfi restored by Nahum Tukh to its original Baroque specifications.
Equally impressive is his commitment to an increasingly wide musical palette. In Shchedrin’s 15-minute Echo Sonata (on the same CD), which was composed in 1985 for the tercentenary of Bach’s birth, Vengerov moves from the extroverted, almost schizophrenic mood of Ysaˆøe’s Sixth Sonata (’miraculous,’ a violinist friend told me) to a deeply reflective reverie that shows Vengerov, almost in denial of the music’s dramatic stance, playing more and more within himself. The recording ends with an encore, Shchedrin’s delightful Balalaika, taken from a live London concert, played entirely pizzicato. Very excellent!
Vengerov had been planning to take a sabbatical of sorts this year, but his schedule already includes a spate of performances of the three Brahms sonatas with pianist Fazil Say, including his first appearance, on March 3, at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and a number of performances of the Walton viola concerto. Recording projects for the year include the Brahms sonatas and, ’hopefully,’ a new viola concerto by ’a wonderful composer’ named Benjamin Yusupov, a 42-year-old Tajikistani now living in Israel. Yusupov employs Western and Eastern musical traditions with exhilarating freedom either using exotic instruments or conjuring up an illusion of their sounds with conventional instruments. Yusupov has already dedicated a violin concerto to Vengerov and a set of songs to Vengerov and mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.
In his sabbatical, now rescheduled for 2005, Vengerov plans to study improvisation. ’You need free time for that,’ he explains. ’It will be like learning a new musical language, allowing me to express myself fully.’ His interest in improvisation stems, in part, from the third movement of the viola concerto he commissioned from Yusupov, which calls for the soloist ’to improvise in rock style.’
Characteristically impatient, Vengerov is eager to get to 2005’and show the audience what he has done during his sabbatical. At the end of the Yusupov concerto, he says with glee, ’there is a tango that I will have to dance with a partner’ (apparently, this means touring with a dancing partner, which may be a first for a classical violinist). Although Vengerov loves to dance, he admits, ’I will first have to learn the tango.’
Asked if he intends to improvise cadenzas for the mainstream classical concertos, Vengerov says, ’Yes, that’s my goal, to recreate this wonderful tradition and follow my greatest heroes, like Paganini, Liszt, and Schubert, to improvise on stage. I am writing out cadenzas for those concertos already.’
You can hear an example of Vengerov’s interest in improvised cadenzas on his CD of the Brahms violin concerto, recorded live in Chicago in 1997.
This urge to express his personality is not new. When, at the age of five, he was first taken to meet the famous teacher Galina Tourchaninova in Moscow, she looked at his hands and said, ’Oh, that’s lovely, you have big hands. Maybe you should be a cellist.’ When she continued, ’Do you have strength in these hands?’ Vengerov punched her in the stomach as hard as he could’’which was actually quite hard,’ he admits. ’Fortunately, she was in a good mood that day, and she accepted me as a student.’
As with his hero Oistrakh who, ’as the years passed, improved and matured,’ Vengerov is showing that he has just begun to learn how to use his technique and hypnotically centered, luminous tone to illuminate the emotional dimensions of every note he plays. As he lets himself become more susceptible to the tonal beauty of his instruments, he will continue to transcend conventional interpretive considerations. He can already speak above orchestras. What is left is to find his own unique voice.
It’s all pretty hot stuff for a boy from Siberia.