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Maxim Vengerov: Baroque Violinist

By John Sidgwick


PARIS, 29 March 2000 - The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, close by to the Place de l'Alma on the banks of the Seine in Paris, has witnessed many memorable events in its history, not least of which were the stagings of the Russian Ballet under Diaghilev in the early party of the 20th century. Yet none can have been more noteworthy in its way than the concert that was given there recently by the violinist Maxim Vengerov in partnership with the English harpsichordist, Trevor Pinnock. Through lack of information, few members of a packed audience could have realized that they were witnessing a seismic happening that is bound to have its influence on music and musicians the world over.

This event was billed as one of the season's Grands Solistes concerts, the equivalent of the good old-fashioned "celebrity concerts", the sort of occasion on which a faithful public pays to be amazed. Well, amazed they certainly were, although so far as the first part of the concert was concerned, not quite in the way they expected to be. It was not their fault that the organizers had not seen fit to make any mention of the fact that Vengerov would be playing a baroque violin in the first half of the concert.

At the age of 25, comfortably established as a virtuoso violinist and with a guaranteed future trundling the accepted violin repertoire around the world, Vengerov could quite simply have rested on his laurels. But the man is not like that.

There, centre stage, was Trevor Pinnock's beautiful double-manual harpsichord, an instrument made for him in 1982 by David Way in Connecticut. On came Pinnock and Vengerov to give a performance of J.S.Bach's Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1014. In the quietest of fashions, the two artists spelled out Bach's magic in a rendition that was music of the utmost purity. The great violin virtuoso had stepped aside to leave the way clear for the composer's message to come across as clearly as possible.

Vengerov returned alone to the stage to make his way through the monumental Chaconne from Bach's D minor Partita. It was fascinating to observe Vengerov navigating the elaborate variations on what must still be to him an unfamiliar instrument, in spite of the time he has spent on it. One had to admire the fact that he was clearly adopting fingerings that he surely does not use on the "romantic" violin and also frequently resorting to the use of open strings, once again, not a feature of the sort of playing he has been brought up with. Towards the end, he was let down by the gut strings going slightly out of tune. But this is the lot of baroque players. In spite of all, it was a fully-rounded performance, well on a par with that produced by the top three or four full-time baroque players of today.

After a blistering performance by Pinnock in full spate of Handel's Chaconne for Harpsichord in G Minor, he and Vengerov were joined by the excellent baroque cellist, Jane Coe, for a performance of Corelli's "La Follia" Sonata op. 5 No. 12. The cellist comfortably demonstrated her complete ease in the medium, providing a foundation for a delightful and at times humorous piece of baroque music-making.

It must have been with relief that the audience observed after the interval that Pinnock's harpsichord had been replaced by a Steinway grand piano. This was home territory. Vengerov has always demonstrated great maturity in his playing of Mozart, music which is curiously elusive and a trap for many of the most accomplished players. On this occasion, in the Sonata No. 25 in G major, Vengerov surpassed himself, giving a performance of this outwardly simple music which shone with beauty. And Pinnock was alongside him at every moment. The Mozart sonata provided an excellent prelude to the Beethoven Sonata op. 30 No. 2 in C Minor with which the concert closed.

Time for flowers and encores. Vengerov and Pinnock obliged first of all with their own most attractive arrangement of the Mozart Haffner Rondeau. They followed this with Fritz Kreisler's Caprice Viennois and finally with a Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dance. Standing ovation.

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