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S & H Recital Review

Bach, Brahms, Beethoven: Maxim Vengerov (vln), Fazil Say (pf), Barbican Centre, 28th February 2004 (MB)

Kreutzer plays Kreutzer’ might almost be the headline for this review: Maxim Vengerov, after all, plays the great ‘Kreutzer’ Stradivarius and played it in this recital that included Beethoven’s Sonata No.9 in A major – the ‘Kreutzer’. Of course, Rodolphe Kreutzer never played the work, describing it as ‘outrageously unintelligible’, something a critic might also suggest of the performance we were given. Like the Bach Sonata No.1 that started the recital, and the Beethoven which ended it, this was a concert which could not really be judged by normal musical standards, with both Vengerov and Say offering playing that was as inspirational as it could be infuriating.

The Bach is as good as any place to start for it showed how mercurial both these outstanding musicians can be. Both violin and piano weaved a sombre passion through the meditative opening Adagio that was as sheerly beautiful as it was dynamically flawed. Say’s playing – of a composer whose works he regards as sacred – was almost too breathlessly hushed; so much so that one yearned for more florid finger-work so as to at least suggest an element of keyboard colour. That came in the Allegro where Vengerov, too, seemed more aware of the contrapuntal energy that gives the movement its flux. The inspiration from both players, however, came in their seamlessly intertwined legato which sustained the work’s moonlit darkness. Indeed, like Siamese-twins conjoined at the head this was extraordinarily single-minded playing that never ceased to impress, at least on an interpretative level. Yet, the contrast between the keyboard and violin was so ruthlessly understated – and this again showed through in their narrowly textured performance of the Andante – that one constantly yearned for one or other of the players to break ranks. That almost happened in the closing Allegro with Say’s playing – and especially his right hand – proving more mercurial of phrasing than Vengerov’s luminous, though occasionally over-stated vibrato. If a cerebral approach to Bach’s contrapuntal writing was what seemingly dominated the performance it was done at the expense of individual characterisation.

Unquestionably great, however, was their performance of Brahms’ Violin Sonata No.2 in A major. One of Brahms’ sunnier works – almost akin to the Second Symphony in mood – what we got from Vengerov and Say was a performance that was almost the antithesis of what it should have been. Darker toned, dramatically played and thrillingly articulated it makes one anticipate their forthcoming CD of the complete sonatas with some eagerness. For once, that great opening subject of the sonata distilled some of the Wagnerian inflections that some hear in it; and aided by Vengerov’s almost cathedral-like tone (how magnificently he projects a sonorous, almost epic sound from the G string) one was spellbound by the wordless song that makes this work one of Brahms’ most poetic chamber pieces. Come the second movement Andante – with its alternating moods of tranquillity and high-energy - and the movement’s Slavonic mood was captured with vibrant authenticity. If Say was the more improvisatory – using his pedalling to dextrous effect – it was Vengerov who captured more the movement’s innate musical temperament. The simplicity of the rondo finale was emboldened by tone colours that rose preternaturally from keyboard and violin alike to close a performance that was as memorable as it was original.

Brahms’ C minor Scherzo opened the second half and was given a similarly authentic sound world as that of the A minor sonata; juxtaposing cumulative energy –with sprightly spun rhythms – with understated, but melodic, phrasing it served aptly to contrast Brahms at his most concise with Beethoven at his grandest.

And Beethoven wrote few things greater than his A minor Violin Sonata. The outstanding achievement (or, indeed, drawback) of Vengerov and Say’s performance of this Everest of sonatas may not be the incandescent virtuosity which characterised every bar, nor may it be the denial of almost two centuries of performance history, for this was a peculiarly self-indulgent performance that had no direct ancestry nor a modern-day context for what we heard. No, the greatness of this interpretation goes back to the very first piece played – Bach’s Sonata No.1 - and the way that these players became subsumed by a singularity of musical thought. What I found extraordinary about the performance was the way that Vengerov literally played second fiddle to Say with mood, rhythms and dynamics largely dictated by the pianist. The very gestures that Beethoven invokes in this work – it’s almost concerto-like scale, for example – often seemed to derive from the keyboard and it was that grandness, that power, that Vengerov hinted at in his opening of the work with his double-stopping given much greater depth than is usually apparent in performances of this sonata, and which Say used to such deliberate – and leading - effect with the power of his left hand. The hectic, prestissimo divisions that followed, too, seemed less augmented by the violin than by the brilliance Say brought to his right hand on the keyboard with a glittering relentlessness that pushed Vengerov towards ever-greater freneticisms of virtuosity. If the richly composed second movement restored a sense of musical proportion – if not egalitarianism - it was again the propulsive final Presto, with its torrential tarantella, that shifted the balance back towards Say.

The problem with this unique performance was that by subverting Beethoven’s mastery of instrumental balance we were led along a musical path that was not wholly convincing. Say, who for a long time was afraid to attempt Beethoven, saw elements in Beethoven’s masterpiece that are not necessarily beneficial to a rounded performance of it. Because the breathtaking scale of its difficulties were so easily overcome by both players what was left was an interpretative conundrum that remains only partly resolved, with Say’s impression of this work all but subverting Vengerov’s own.

And in this, Say’s stage presence is all-important, with him proving to be the dominant on stage partner. He crouches at the piano uncomfortably, and when not crouched sways perilously towards his partner. Throughout the entire Bach one wondered why he needed a page-turner because he simply wasn’t looking at the music, or played with his eyes firmly shut. When not using his right hand he either rubs his chin or conducts his partner; when not pedalling (and this was damaging in the Beethoven) he shuffles and stamps. Vengerov, by no means a still stage presence himself, seemed propelled along by his partner’s mannerisms and took interpretative risks I’m not sure he would with a less dominant partner. The great irony, of course, given the instinctive nature of both these players’ music making – and the almost telepathic symbiosis that exists between them at times- is that amid the chaos also rise moments of genius. An unforgettable – if controversial ‘Kreisler’ – is proof of that.

Marc Bridle




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