S&H Concert review

Vengerov & Virtuosi, RFH, June 29 2001 (MB)

This was one of those concerts which promised much but sadly failed to deliver; a case of hype suffocating the reality. The music making was often uninspiring, the phrasing dull and limpid and the normal electricity which accompanies a Vengerov concert evidently disconnected. Had I guzzled any wine before it began I would no doubt have happily slept through the entire evening. As events moved from one sorry piece to another I began to wish I had - and damn the consequences.

The problem was not so much Vengerov (who at times positively bristled with energy) but with his inert chamber group. Dressed largely in black their playing was as maudlin as their outfits. Expressionless and devoid of emotion they played every piece as a penance (in contrast with Vengerov who danced around like a puppet). They admittedly played together and often faultlessly - although this was no doubt the problem; they were like groups of Siamese twins unable to perform as individuals. Only with Bazzini's La Ronde des Lutins did things pick up sufficient energy - but that was the last scheduled piece of the evening by which time this concert had reached irredeemable levels. Brahms' Hungarian Dances were performed as if in clogs (not even gypsy ones), Dvorak's Humoreske (so devilish in the hands of an Elman) was here stodgy and relentless and Schubert's Ave Maria (whilst beautifully spun in silk by Vengerov) seemed too long by half.

It was with some relief (particularly in hindsight) that the first half did not include Tchaikovsky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher. Didier Lockwood's concerto (here edited for piano and 10 violins) replaced it - an interesting work I would like to hear in its full orchestral version but which suffered from some patchy playing - and with not much commitment from the players either. The only truly towering performance of the evening was Brahms' Third Violin Sonata - a performance so mellow and crushingly beautiful in its phrasing as to defy belief. The melodic lines and dynamic imagination of this performance were irresistible. Vengerov's sweet tone and flawless intonation was matched fully by the wonderful pianism of Vag Papian (the sole hero throughout the evening and evidently trying his best to stoke up the fires). His thunderous octaves at the work's close were magnificently underplayed.

There were three encores: a beautifully toned Thaïs, a rather blunt Sabre Dance and a fiery performance of Csárdás by Monti. Rumour has it that Vengerov paid a gypsy violinist to play this to him every evening he went to a particular restaurant. Vengerov of course played it fabulously (such blistering pizzicato, such devilish string playing) yet it lacked that rough-hewn edge you hear when a great gypsy violinist plays it (listen to Roby Lakatos to hear how great this piece can sound).

Maxim Vengerov is too great a talent to dismiss out of hand but this is surely a folly. I will continue to cherish recitals I have heard him give in London (amongst the finest of our time) and simply forget I ever attended this concert. By all means buy the recording (EMI CDC5571642 made in Vienna) to hear for yourself - but don't buy me a copy.

Marc Bridle

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