Being part of the chain – Maxim Vengerov interview

As he launches a series of new albums, the star violinist reflects on recording, conducting and teaching.

© IDAGIO/Diago Mariotta Mendez

To meet Maxim Vengerov is, first of all, to be reminded of the extent of this remarkable violinist's precociousness. He celebrates 40 years of performing with a concert this June, but it's worth remembering that he made his debut aged just five. The youthful glint in his eye and the undimmed sense of enthusiasm he communicates as we talk belie the fact that this is a performer who’s already been at the very top of his profession for over three decades. 

His debut album made waves when released in the early 1990s, and a subsequent recording of concertos by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra and Mstislav Rostropovich, won Recording of the Year at the Gramophone Awards as far back as 1995. He became an International Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF two years later – the first classical musician to be appointed to such a role. 

The young violinist was already giving masterclasses aged just 17, he recalls almost incredulously. And the last two decades have seen teaching become an ever more important part of his broad musical diet – he holds posts at both London's Royal College of Music and Salzburg's Mozarteum University. Conducting became a major focus during the same period, too, allowing, he explains, greater immersion into composers and their worlds, and in turn enriching his violin playing. "If you've conducted a couple of Beethoven symphonies," he notes, "obviously you understand better how to play the Violin Concerto." 

It's clear as we talk what a rich store of experiences he was able to collect through his decades working as a soloist with some of the great conductors – experiences that have coalesced now into relaxed wisdom. "I studied with many wonderful teachers," he says, "but most of all what I really got, the really great experiences, came from talking with and having played for great musicians and personalities."

Among them, there's one name that stands out: that of the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. "I worked with him on a number of occasions – hundreds of occasions – and I worked with him on precious composers, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten, who he counted as his teachers." This tradition and lineage, Vengerov says, "puts everything in perspective. And it also puts quite a lot of responsibility on you, because the minute you start playing these composers you know you're part of the chain, you have the roots."

There was also a lot to learn in practical terms from Rostropovich, as Vengerov discovered during the sessions for that award-winning Prokofiev. He was still "a kid", he says, when he went to play through the work at Rostropovich's London home, ahead of performing it in concert with the LSO. "I played for him. He told me wonderful things about Prokofiev, about how he loved nature, his connection to the force of nature."

"By the time of the concert I thought, 'I know the piece. I feel comfortable.' The next morning we went to Abbey Road to record. But all of a sudden Slava started in a slower tempo than in the concert. I thought: what's going on? Maybe the maestro is tired. It is the morning, you know..." He pauses to interject with one of the many laughs that pepper our conversation. "He didn't want to follow me, so I rebelled: this is how we played it in the concert, I thought, and that's what he'd told me in the rehearsal room, so why should we change now?"

In the break, Rostropovich explained: "'Look Maxim, what happened yesterday in the concert was yesterday. Today is a different morning, a different mood. It's raining outside; yesterday it was sunshine. Just look at me and you'll understand.' And you know what? It was the greatest experience: to look at him and see him conducting from his eyes and his gestures. When we came to editing the recording, I could hear that I was a very different person. He was one of the few people I recorded with who made me play differently, who made me into something else."

© Cătălina Filip / Enescu Festival

Talk of that recording also brings us to one of the more unusual media appearances made by the young Vengerov, when he was asked to perform at the 1996 Grammy Awards. "The question was: what to play?" he recalls. "They have only like four or five minutes for classical artists. I said straight away: 'I'll play the finale of Shostakovich 1'. Their immediate response was: 'absolutely not', that Shostakovich was too difficult for audiences. But I insisted, played the piece and it was a huge success." Backstage, Vengerov then bumped into Coolio. "Oh man, is that classical music?" he apparently asked. "That's cool!"

That choice also seems typical of a musician who, as a teenager, risked scuppering a major contract rather than give in to a label's expectations. "I signed the contract with Teldec for ten years. The first album was Paganini, Saint-Säens and Bizet-Waxman with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. For the second album, they wanted other virtuoso stuff." Vengerov, however, had other plans: Beethoven and Brahms. "Of course they laughed: 'Ha ha! Very funny...let's wait a bit,'" he recalls them responding. "But I said: 'Please allow me. I'd love to be a good musician, not only a good violinist.'"

He even remembers a phone call with Teldec's legendary boss Hans Hirsch, where he made his case again. "I explained my reasons, after which he paused and said, 'Ok, I'll give you a chance.' A quarter of a century later, Vengerov says he is still pretty pleased with the results. He had recorded with the Russian label Melodiya from the age of ten – "not CDs but LPs!" – and says he learnt an enormous amount from the process of listening and talking with the producer. "I walked out of the studio a completely different human being. And when the recording was edited, I was thinking, 'wow, was that me?'"

His earliest experiences of the microphone predate even that, though, when he was six or seven. "I was a fanatic about recording myself," he says. "In Siberia we didn't even have tape recorders at the time. But my father, who was an oboist in the Philharmonic, went on tour to Italy and brought back with him this huge tape recorder. I would record myself and listen, asking: do I like it? What can I improve? I would do it to perfection."

Inevitably his first orchestral recordings represented a steep learning curve as well, and he offers up a selection of choice anecdotes, each retold with a laugh, from working with some of the most important conductors of the time. Recording Paganini with Mehta, for instance: when he asked to repeat a passage a few times, the conductor turned to the orchestra: "This guy shouldn't play the violin, he should play golf!"

Things were similar recording the Mendelssohn concerto with Kurt Masur in Leipzig. "I remember recording the first entrance" – he pauses to sing the famous melody – "then when the tutti started I looked to the maestro, begging with my eyes: 'I'm so sorry to interrupt, but can we repeat that.'" The conductor agreed with an avuncular "Ja, ja, bitte schön". But by the third time Masur turned to the orchestra. "Er möchte eine Sternstunde," he said to them: he wants his moment of glory.

Daniel Barenboim was also instrumental in Vengerov's broader development as a musician. "I first learned the Sibelius concerto with him, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I played for him at the piano rehearsal the day before. I thought I played quite well. I paused and looked at him, and he looked at me. And I looked at him." The silence, the violinist recalls, lasted a good 30 seconds, before he decided to say something.

"'Maestro, was everything ok?' I asked, 'Don't you like my performance?' He said: 'Hmm, yeah, it's ok. You play the Sibelius quite well, but it's not Sibelius.'" When Vengerov asked how he could improve, Barenboim simply sent him away to read the score. "Next morning there was a first rehearsal with him. I played. I was really going into the detail, into the score, learning all the lines and how they interact with the violin line. And when I finished the rehearsal, he said: 'well, that's a good start. Now we can work!'"

There was even more of a shock when Vengerov first tackled the Stravinsky concerto, at the invitation of Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Berlin. "I learned the Stravinsky a little bit later in my life – I was 24! – after I learnt a lot of the Romantic concertos. Usually, based on my previous experiences, I could learn concertos in just four or five days. So, basically speaking, I left only one week for the Stravinsky concerto. But before the first rehearsal I realised I was going to fail: I didn't know the language of this composer; I didn't know his works. I was totally lost."

That first rehearsal was a "fiasco", and they ended up having to replace it with Brahms's Violin Concerto. But, two decades later, Vengerov looks back on it as an important lesson. "Every composer demands you as an instrumentalist to add another layer and to learn technical expression. You couldn't play the Stravinsky concerto with the knowledge I had."

© IDAGIO / Diago Mariotta Mendez

For Vengerov, the need to learn and develop – now as much as ever – is clearly paramount, and has similarly informed his attitude to recording. "For me the challenge with the recording studio is to bring the best of the recording studio, this concentration, this quality, but to create a live performance, so that it's not different to live." Now he's gone full circle and is also able to bring the best of the recording studio to live performance. "I'm very comfortable recording live. For example, my last recording, live from Carnegie Hall, includes Enescu, Ravel and some virtuoso pieces like Ernst's The Last Rose of Summer, which I last played when I was ten. But it's wonderful because you get the atmosphere of the hall, which is like a bubbly feeling."

"When you come back to old pieces after learning new ones, it changes the perspective." The same goes for a new recording of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, which, like the Carnegie Hall recital, is one of several recordings Vengerov is releasing exclusively on IDAGIO. "I've recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto officially twice, first with Abbado and Berlin Phil, and second on the gala memorial concert dedicated to Rostropovich. My third recording will be released on IDAGIO, with Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, together with French repertoire: Saint-Saëns and Ravel."

"When I recorded for the Tchaikovsky for the first time, it was already the greatest piece for me," he says. But now his approach has been enriched by everything that's come since: his teaching, his conducting. He graduated from an opera conducting course last year – "Yes, believe it or not!" he interjects with a laugh when I mention it – and has now conducted not only Tchaikovsky symphonies, but also Evgenii Onegin. "I had to undergo the experience of conducting opera to have a broader comprehension of his music, even if I will never conduct another opera in my life."

"For obvious reasons," he pauses, as if to check his imagination before it darts off too far, "you can't become everything!"

Listen to Maxim Vengerov's new album with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Myung-Whun Chung here.

Hugo Shirley · Published
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