Friday 24 January 2020

Maxim Vengerov, celebrating 40 years since his stage debut with new recordings & a new relationship with IDAGIO

Maxim Vengerov (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Maxim Vengerov (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
This year the violinist Maxim Vengerov is celebrating an amazing 40 years on stage. He made his stage debut aged five at a concert in his native Siberia, and when we meet for this interview he was even able to quote the exact date. And he is still on form, the night before our interview Maxim was the soloist with the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, conductor Sergey Smbatyan, at their Barbican debut [see my review]. 

Maxim's has been a busy career with a long period as one of the world's top classical violinists, but not without incident; he spent a period not playing due to injury, and has branched out as a conductor. But it is clear from our chat that violin playing is still very much a priority. As part of his anniversary celebrations there are new recordings, and a new relationship with streaming service IDAGIO.

Having just heard him play one of the great war-horses of the classical repertoire, Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, I was curious as to whether he had ever wanted to not perform. But he still feels the excitement going on stage, and said that he continues to play whilst the excitement is still there. If it stops being there, then he won't continue as he needs to feel there is a purpose to performing. But as a performer Maxim says he has always taken risks, he does not want to be confined to a box. This is one of the reasons why he has branched out into studying other things, such as becoming a conductor, but for him violin playing remains his mother tongue.

His first concert, in Siberia, took place when he was five (in fact, when he was four years and eight months), it was just with a piano and lasted 30 minutes, to an audience of 700. Even at that age he would work eight hours per day on the violin, something that would not be considered nowadays but was then part of the culture. And he comments wryly that in Siberia they did not have many better things to do, and his family did not even have a television. So there was music, his father was an oboist and his mother a conductor who conducted a children's choir and created a music school at the local orphanage. Music was his life, he would attend his father's rehearsals (and often fell asleep), though there were art galleries too. But the main attraction was the opera and symphony concerts.

The young Maxim's first idol was the conductor of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra, Arnold Kats, and at one point Maxim told him 'I'd like to be just like you', to which Kats responded that Maxim ought to learn the oboe so that he could replace Maxim's father. But Maxim didn't want to learn the oboe, if he played that no-one would see him. He wanted to be seen, to play for an audience. And after that first concert, all of a sudden performing made sense, he discovered he could communicate. Even now 40 years later, he feels that little has changed, he has accumulated some significant life experiences but the joy of performing and communicating has remained.

Of course, a problem with performing for so long at such a level is that the major concertos reappear a remarkable number of times, I wondered if Maxim ever felt stale about them. He understands that people want to hear the works they know, that is how the business works. People can be afraid to try something new, and what he calls the 'joy of recognition' is built inside all of us.

But he has come through periods when a particular work threatened to become stale. He left the Tchaikovsky concerto to one side for 15 years, and the Mendelssohn for 20. In fact, he recently picked up the Mendelssohn concerto again and found that the joy had returned. He was due to play the Bruch concerto with the Guadaljara symphony and they agreed to swap it for the Mendelssohn. Maxim found he played it with a new freshness.

Another reason for this new approach is that in the interim period, Maxim has conducted so many symphonies by Mendelssohn and Brahms, when he comes back to the concertos he finds he has a totally different feeling for the structure.

The same is true of Tchaikovsky's concerto which he first played when he was 13. After playing it 100s (perhaps 1000s) of times, he put it to one side. But then he started teaching at the Hochschule für Musik in Saarbrücken, and had to talk about the work, about his passion for it. So when he returned to playing it, he found he had different ideas. After conducting Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 he feels his performance of the concerto became more symphonic, and then two years ago he conducted Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin and his performance of the concerto became more operatic.

So the more he learns about a composer and his work, the more it offers possibilities for the concertos. Having played a great deal of Brahms' chamber music, as well as conducting the symphonies, again affects his performance of the concerto. He can tap into one or other elements, and his performances are never boring.

With a concerto like the Brahms, where there is a lengthy introduction, the orchestra starts and the conductor will offer their own strong interpretation, the soloist then has to respond and the performance can be like large scale chamber music. As a soloist, Maxim needs to understand the structure of the piece so that he can understand the essence.

As part of his 40th birthday celebrations, there will be a new recording Sibelius's Violin Concerto in the original version. This has only ever been recorded once before. The new recording was made after performances in 2016 with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Marios Papadopoulos. Maxim has had a long relationship with the orchestra, he was artist in residence for a number of years, and has conducted the orchestra in Oxford and in London. The recording will be released around the time of the anniversary in June, as part of Maxim's new relationship with IDAGIO.

Before then, Maxim's latest recording of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (with Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France) will be released on IDAGIO. This is in fact Maxim's third recording of the concerto, previous ones having been made with Claudio Abbado and with Mstislav Rostropovich. And there are further recordings on IDAGIO in the pipe-line.

When it comes to recording, Maxim seems to take a pragmatic approach and sees the need for both live and studio recordings. He has made studio recordings since the age of 10 when he was recording LPs for Melodiya, and then moved on to CDs in predominantly studio recordings though some were live. And his new recordings on IDAGIO will feature a mixture of live and studio.

He feels that you can learn a lot when making a studio recording, listening to yourself on the playback is like looking in a mirror and you need to think how to improve. His first challenge was how to make a studio recording feel like a live one, without the presence of an audience. Lacking an audience, the recording could become boring and static, and he had to learn how to communicate and connect to the music.  And once the recording is edited, he tries to bring the expertise learned back onto the stage, so you grow as a musician.

Maxim's official celebration with be on 12 June 2020 at the Royal Albert Hall, when he will be joined by pianist Martha Argerich and cellist Mischa Maisky for Beethoven's Triple Concerto, with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Marios Papadopoulos. The celebratory concert is completed by Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Sarasate's Navarra (originally for two violins, but being played with a group of students from the Royal College of Music where Maxim is Polonsky Visiting Professor of Violin).

This month, Maxim joins IDAGIO as an Ambassador, with recordings released before the Royal Albert Hall celebration. New subscribers will receive a 15% discount on premium membership using ‘Maxim Vengerov’ as a discount code. The partnership is inaugurated with the release of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, works by Saint-Saëns, and Ravel’s Tzigane with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and conductor Myung-Whun Chung ( A second release will follow on 4 February, followed by further releases.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Barenboim odyssey reaches completion: Beethoven piano sonatas at Philharmonie in Paris (★★★★) - concert review
  • Beethoven marathon: François-Frédéric Guy directs all the piano concertos from the keyboard in one concert in Paris (★★★★) - concert review
  • A flaming affair: Berlioz' La damnation de Faust at the Philharmonie de Paris -
    (★★★★) concert review
  • From the rare to the popular: Fauré and Poulenc from Bertrand de Billy and the London Philharmonic (★★★★) - concert review
  • Bach Round-Up: violin, piano, organ, recorder, viol, choral and orchestra by Bach and his cousin Johann Bernard  - cd review
  • European song exploration: Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song reaches the 1840s (★★★★) - CD review
  • An engaging Baroque recital from City Music Foundation artist, Anna Cavaliero - concert review
  • Notable debut: the Armenian State Symphony orchestra's first Barbican appearance gave us music from Armenia alongside Bruch and Ravel with the orchestra's artist in residence, Maxim Vengerov (★★★★) - concert review
  • An anarchic approach to the everyday: Bastard Assignments debut album (★★★½) - CD review
  • Songs from the Soil: Theatre of Voices launches Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped season  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Strong revival: a well-balanced cast bring a sense of enjoyment to Richard Jones' highly theatrical production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House (★★★★½) - opera review
  • The music around him: a look at Mozart as he writes Mitridate, Re di Ponto in The Mozartists '1770 - a retrospective' at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Home

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