Over Sunday roast at The Gilbert Scott, St Pancras, Jessica Duchen meets the violin’s ultimate superstar, Maxim Vengerov, to talk about his three full-time jobs, his long battle with his beautiful Stradivarius, and why concerts today are all about the audience
Sir Thomas Beecham once likened Elgar’s Symphony No.1 to a musical equivalent of St Pancras Station’s towers – and arriving at The Gilbert Scott brasserie at this busy hub’s Renaissance Hotel, you can see what he means. There’s grandeur in the dark wood of the great staircases on the way in, rich colour in the restored lavish tiling, mysterious corners, embellishments galore, and in the restaurant, light pours in through tall windows. Traditional with a modern twist, The Gilbert Scott – named after the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and run by super-chef Marcus Wareing’s team – offers a Sunday lunch to match. It comes as a pleasing irony to hear in this environment, from my guest, Maxim Vengerov, that the one masterwork he has never yet tackled is the Elgar Violin Concerto.
Vengerov – intense, stocky, mercurial, and still sounding strongly Russian, though he left his native Siberia for the West many years ago – is quick to turn on the charm. He is in the UK now to perform with an organisation from a town as quintessentially English as Elgar himself: the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra – the recently renamed Oxford Philomusica. On 8 November he heads the orchestra at Cadogan Hall, London, playing the Brahms Violin Concerto.
His musicianship – immensely communicative, immediate, seductive and technically near-miraculous – has made him the nearest thing the violin has today to a household name. Yet he is no less driven a personality for all that. ‘I have three full-time jobs,’ he tells me, tucking into roast chicken, with plenty of veg but no potatoes. ‘Playing, conducting and teaching – and raising my family, which is a full-time job as well.’ He and his wife, Olga Gringolts (sister of the violinist Ilya Gringolts) have settled in Monaco and have two daughters, aged four and two.
From wunderkind to maestro
If Vengerov, 41, seems to carry more weight on his shoulders than some other successful men in their prime, perhaps that is because he has already been in the public eye a good 15 years longer than most musicians his age. The son of an oboist father and a choral conductor mother, he created quite a buzz as an outstanding wunderkind in the Novosibirsk class of Zakhar Bron; he first toured and recorded at the age of ten.
When he won the Carl Flesch Competition in London, aged 16, it surprised some that he even bothered entering, given such a well-established career. ‘I believe in good traditions,’ Vengerov comments, ‘I think competitions are a good tradition and I wanted to do everything right. But I remember I was in a tiny hotel room in London and on either side other contestants were practising the Tchaikovsky Concerto simultaneously, and they sounded so bloody good that I got terrified!’
He needn’t have worried; it was already clear that his abilities were in a league of their own. I saw him for the first time when, in his mid teens, he gave a Wigmore Hall recital: a spotty schoolboy playing the Waxman Carmen Fantasy as if he were Jascha Heifetz himself. It was simply mind-boggling.
Here he is in the same piece, at the BBC Proms a while later…
Coming back for a new life
More recently, the Wigmore was the scene of a very different recital. Vengerov took a break of several years from the violin, following an injury to his shoulder; but during his time out he turned himself into a conductor, studying in Moscow with Yuri Simonov. On his return to the Wigmore platform in April 2012, he performed a programme of Bach, Handel and Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata. His playing emerged as fiery, burnished and characterful as ever – yet subtly different, too.
‘I think it has changed only for the better,’ Vengerov says. ‘I was refreshed and I could use the knowledge of my new job as a conductor. I implemented a lot of things I learned from conducting to the violin business. I even rebuilt my technique based on this knowledge.
‘I think my rhythm became better, in some ways – because as a conductor you have to have great rhythm,’ he adds. ‘As a soloist you sometimes don’t realise: you just go along with the flow and everyone has to follow you! But I think now my phrasing and colouring are sharper, more precise, more differentiated. Before that it was more instinctive. Today it’s more conscious, and yet I use the freedom that I had before.’
Conducting and playing the violin are activities that feed one another with complementary strands of knowledge, he says, while playing a major concerto in the first half and conducting the second half, as he frequently does, makes a difference to the chemistry with the orchestra: ‘It is also the way to spend a little more time rehearsing with the orchestra, because once you conduct a symphony they play differently for you in the first half. They do. They do!’ he grins. ‘First of all, you’re not only conducting, so they feel you’re one of them, you’re a colleague. And they fully recognise that you’re something more than just an instrumentalist who comes and goes.’
His association with the Oxford PO goes back three years, but his love for the city dates from his first visits to the UK in his prodigy days. ‘I came to Oxford for the first time when I was 13 and we stayed in the house of Yuri Temirkanov,’ he remembers. ‘We applied for residents’ permit when we were invited by the Royal Academy of Music to study there with my ex-professor Bron, but we lived in Oxford so we made our way always between the two cities. I remember Oxford always as a miracle. And after 16-17 years I had an invitation from Marios Papadopoulos to play with him.
‘The first time was really memorable: to see the Sheldonian Theatre and learn that Handel and Haydn had played there – it was quite extraordinary to be part of this ongoing tradition. Then it happened that we decided to make the collaboration.’ He says he loves working with the orchestra not least because of a lack of stress, thanks to longer-than-average rehearsal time: ‘It is a great opportunity actually not to be on this treadmill!’
His activities with the orchestra extend to recordings – a process he loves. ‘I could happily devote myself to recording in the studio,’ he says. When we met up, they had been hard at work in sessions on the Sibelius Violin Concerto in its original version. ‘It’s much more technically complex,’ he says, raising an eyebrow, ‘but wonderfully written for the violin, as Sibelius was himself a frustrated violinist. He dreamed of writing a piece for the instrument that he would not be able to play.’
Here is Vengerov with Daniel Barenboim in the more familiar version…
Music without compromise
‘Music without compromise’ is a recurring phrase for Vengerov, almost a watchword. He is a magnificent performer in person as well as on stage, blessed with exceptionally expressive features and mesmeric charisma. I get the feeling, as our lunch progresses (mixed salad, then the kind of lavishly gravied roast chicken for Vengerov, and aubergine for me, that dive-bomb us with sun-drenched flavour) that I am enjoying a private concert in the form of speech as he explains that to him, all music is interconnected and that to excel in one medium means you need a thorough knowledge of all the others too. It is not least to that end that he has enrolled in a two-year course in Russia to study opera conducting – and eventually he will take the podium to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Watch that space.
Teaching is the third of his full-time jobs. ‘It is the area in which I feel the most responsibility, because I know the effect,’ he says. ‘It’s all about timing – not only what you say to the student, but when you say it!’ He is Menuhin Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, coming regularly to London to give masterclasses, and also teaches at the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad, to which he’s strongly committed. The organisation (not to be confused with the summer academy of the Gstaad Menuhin Festival) is about to move to splendid new facilities in a school for gifted children in Rolle, near Lausanne, which Vengerov says is ‘a new stage of our life, which is very exciting.
‘I go three or four times a year for two or three days and I teach sometimes from morning to evening. It takes more thinking and more concentration than whenever I play or conduct. I know that if I don’t play as well as I want to, it affects me; but if I say something wrong it affects someone else, and they trust you, and if they didn’t it wouldn’t matter so much, but they do. So it’s a great responsibility. The same as being a parent.’
In this masterclass, Vengerov coaches Alexander Sitkovetsky, Chloe Hanslip and Corinna Belcea…
‘What’s that violin? Change it!’ – Rostropovich
Close beside Vengerov, under the table, is a sleek box that contains one of the violin world’s ultimate treasures. It’s the ‘Kreutzer’ Stradivarius of 1727 – a violin that once belonged to Rodolphe Kreutzer, dedicatee of Beethoven’s eponymous sonata and the author of those famous violin studies. Vengerov, the lucky fellow, has it for keeps. Not that the relationship with it has been easy, he says.
‘I got to know this violin when I was in my twenties,’ he recounts. ‘I was thinking about getting my own instrument, but of course I didn’t have enough money to buy one and the prices were going and up. A Japanese lady who came regularly to my concerts, Yoko Nagae-Ceschina, said that if one day I need to buy an instrument I should let her know and she could contribute. And like a miracle that violin appeared at the Christie’s auction for sale
‘It looked very beautiful,’ he adds, ‘but in fact it didn’t have the beauty of sound that it has now. I had to work for two years on this instrument until it became what it is today. We had to get to know one another. For a long time it hadn’t been played. I’ve played a lot of instruments in my life and every instrument has something else to offer you – it teaches you how to produce the sound, and you can actually steer the sound into your way. But when I got this instrument it was a fight!’
He explored some adjustments in set-up to the violin; and about six months later arrived to play with Mstislav Rostropovich and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival. ‘After the concert Rostropovich came up to me and said, “What is this instrument you’re playing? Change it – it’s not for you!”’ After a good deal more sensitive work on the violin, over about a year and a half, he began to feel the Strad was coming out of its shell. ‘If you hear how it sounds now and at that time, it’s like two different fiddles,’ he says.
‘Everyone speaks about the “golden period” of Stradivari, which was about 15 years up to about 1720, but now people are starting to realise that the later period of Stradivari has something enormous to offer,’ Vengerov declares. ‘It’s a treasure sound-wise. During every period of Stradivari’s life he built different models and this is model of his last period when he was already 80-plus. For me the later period Stradivaris have a completely different experience to offer the players. With my Strad, when I play with orchestra I can imitate cello, I can imitate flute, I can penetrate my sound into the colouring of the horn, any of the woodwind – it’s really miraculous what you can do.
‘This instrument taught me one very important thing: no matter how you prepare yourself at home, this is just a preparation of your muscles. The real work starts at your first rehearsal in the concert hall. I work a lot with the acoustics of the place, with overtones; I use my ears as my principal instrument; they control everything. And with that instrument I can do a lot more things than with others. In the future I would like to work with other instruments too, to help them come to that level, because some of them are played but not worked on. The value of these instruments is incredibly high, but they also have to reach their potential while playing.’
In the bath with Vengerov
To reach his own potential, he adds, he has decided to do no more than around 70 concerts a year, rather than the 130-odd that occupied him in what he terms ‘my former life’. ‘I’m going to take it slower,’ he says. ‘I’m old enough to start appreciating the time I can spend with music.’
‘Especially today, in such a hectic world, music should play a more significant role in every person’s life,’ he adds. ‘If you come to a concert, this is your chance. Today concerts are not about the artists any more, not even about the music: they’re about the person who sits in the concert hall and actually relaxes – it’s like taking a musical bath!’
To that end he is giving an experimental concert in December, in Tel Aviv. ‘The only lighting will be electric candlelights on stage, so it will offer people intimacy – like listening at home yet knowing that there are thousands of other people collectively listening to the greatest music. In the first half I’m going to play Bach Partita No.2 including the Chaconne, followed by the Franck Sonata; and in the second half I’m going to repeat the whole thing.’
Really? ‘This concert is not an educational project, it’s not about interpretation, it’s not about the artist, it’s not about the show,’ he insists. ‘It’s completely the opposite. It’s about the people. I want to offer them a chance to reflect on their emotions. When they hear the music for the second time everything is more settled; they know the music and they can just go inside their shells. We offer music meditation. And the second time I will try to play even more relaxed, because once you’ve played you get to know the audience, so the second half will be even more meditative. This is two hours of relaxing time.’
‘I’ve had some experience playing for people in remote areas, hill tribe communities in Thailand,’ he says (he is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador). ‘I played Bach and they were emotionally touched, moved to tears. Every sound is a vibration: it’s like a stream of light that embraces and goes directly to the soul and the subconscious. The important thing is that this music stays with us afterwards. It affects us in a way that we don’t understand.’
Not enough research has been done into how that works, he remarks. ‘It will be,’ he adds, with a smile. ‘But I just do what I feel is right.’
As for the Elgar Violin Concerto – hopefully that’s only a matter of time.
Maxim Vengerov and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marios Papadopoulos, Cadogan Hall, 8 November. Details and tickets here.
Maxim Vengerov and Jessica Duchen had lunch at The Gilbert Scott, Renaissance Hotel, St Pancras Station.
MAXIM VENGEROV…IN PERSON
If you could play only one composer from now on, who would it be?
Bach, because I could play it on my own if I ended up on a desert island playing for wild birds.
What would be your ideal instrument, whether or not you already have it?
The ideal violin is the one that is in tune with your sound expectations. We should imagine the sound first: you hear the sound in your mind, then you take the violin and try to make that sound. The ideal instrument is the one that allows you to do this.
If you could change three things about the set-up of the profession or its training, what would they be?
Musicians today have to realise three things. First, if you learn to play the violin you have to have a basic knowledge of almost everything in music, because everything is interconnected. For instance, if you know opera you would immediately change the colouring in the way you play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. So you have to learn about conducting if you’re a violinist, and chamber music, baroque, everything – and then you can specialise.
Next, as musicians it’s important not to feel claustrophobic and not to make compromises. Today it is more difficult than ever to go from day to day because everything is so fast and you have no time to think. I am very lucky that I have a lot of work, but I know so many people who have to make so many compromises in music just to make a living. Yet it’s important to realise in our small ways to make a little contribution to society and think what music can actually bring to people. There should be no compromises for the best music.
Third: how do we make classical music more accessible to the young people? Some people start playing Bach and putting in a jazz band or percussion just to enhance it, or making a video – as if Bach is just not good enough any more! Yet in nature, you don’t want to spoil it, you don’t want to enhance it – and this is a great force in music, like the waterfalls, like the wind, it’s a wonder of the world. If we can only realise this I think we’ll go further in our vision.
What makes you happiest?
Connection – especially instant connection. Because music is about connecting with people.
How do you like to relax?
You know the joke about the philosopher? When they ask him how he relaxes, he says ‘By not getting tense!’ Balance is the key to everything.
You’re king for a day: what do you do with your power?
I would immediately say to people that I try to show all the qualities that human beings should have – and perhaps, if you like me, why don’t you follow my example?