Maxim Vengerov in interview: 40+ years on stage

An interview with one of the greats: Maxim Vengerov

Maxim Vengerov in interview: 40+ years on stage

Maxim Vengerov will celebrate 40 years on stage with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on September 19. It is a postponed concert: what with covid this is now the 42nd year, as plans for the timing-correct event had to be moved.

Starting to play the violin at the age of five, it only took another five years for Maxim to win a major competition (for the non-mathematicians out there, that made him ten years old); after that, another interval of five years brought him victory in the Carl Flesch Competition. How did he cope with the attention and pressure of all of that?

I didn't have much of a choice, to be honest. Growing up in the Soviet Union, the only thing as a young boy was hoping to get out. Music was a dream pass, a vehicle to get out. I wanted to see the world, ultimately. I did everything for that to happen. Of course, I love music, it is my passion, more than a job - and in Siberia you had to make sure you warm yourself up, and playing an instrument was one of the things you could do!.

Talking of Siberia, I parenthetically mention the Novosibirsk Symphony Orchestra "I came there in 2019, playing with them Shostakovich and conducting Shostakovich 10  in the second half, a brilliant orchestra. They grew enormously and I am very happy for then, because since the passing of their great maestro Arnold Katz, who was the Music Director for 50 years, they made big progress. I'm very happy they are one of the top in Russia".

When it comes to teachers, who was significant, I wonder?

Galina Turchaninova actually shaped me as a violinist. She gave me all the tools, and now if I look at my early recordings and videos, it's really the same, and if I attempted to change anything along the way, after studying with her, I always came back because she was representative of the greatest Russian school of violin, which takes roots even before that in the Franco-Belgian School, with great masters like Wieniawski and Ysaÿe ad Vieuxtemps, and with these qualities and values, I have been raised.

For the benefit of non-violinists, what, I wonder, are the defining qualities of that Franco-Belgian school?  “It was the connection between the notes, sostenuto, singing. Even if you have to play fast there is always a connection between the notes. It's like a chain of notes that takes shape into the phrase and this connection between te notes is what creates the energy”. Like a legato cantabile? “Absolutely - even if there are spaces between the notes, you breathe. You take it as singing.”

Some of Vengerov's recordings were for me, as I'm sure many others, formative. I think particularly of Vengerov's recordings of Shostakovich and Prokofiev Concertos with the LSO and Rostropovich, made when the violinist was a mere 19 years old.

I was 19, and extremely lucky to meet Rostropovich when I was 17. I started having lessons with him prior to these recordings. He took me very seriously, he gave me so much time. I came to visit him in London and in Paris and everywhere he went. I went after him, I listened to rehearsals when he was conducting, he introduced me to great works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Dutilleux, so many composers that he worked with. Absolutely, there was a direct line, he was in the middle after Shostakovich, so it was a blessing to inow Slava, and from that I got to know the essence of the great masters with whom he collaborated and studied.
Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 1 (i) Vengerov; LSO / Rostropovich
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1, Passacaglia. Vengerov; LSO / Rostropovich

Mstislav Rostropovich was a great cellist who conducted as well, and in fact conducted one of the great Shostakovich 11ths, at the Barbican (now on LSO Live - see link at bottom of this post).

I collaborated with two giants, Rostropovich and Barenboin (not only a brilliant pianist and a conductor). I remember coming to one of the lessons I had with Barenboim, who also dedicated  so much time of his. I came many times to Berlin; I flew especially to see the maestro. He would work with me for four hours a day sometimes on a piece, regardless of whether we played it after or not. And he said to me very often, look at the score. You see the relationship between orchestra and solo line, you have to integrate the solo line. You have to know the vertical. At the moment you’re just thinking horizontally as a violinist. You have to think like a conductor. I understood where he was coming from  but I could understand only a fraction of what he meant at that point. I said to myself, there is no way I can avoid it. Even if I don't become a conductor, I just need to have this experience to understand how the concertos - Brahms, Beethoven - how they have been conceived. That‘s why conducting has helpoed me to view the compositions in a completely different light and different colours, and it never gets boring. Each time you perform Brahms, for me, it's a new concerto, because the orchestra starts and you continue; whether you like it or not, you have to continue. It's never boring. It's chamber music. Before for me I was always interested in the orchestra, and instinctively I would have done the right things most of the time, but there was not this feeling of who is playing on the other side and what do they feel, and how the conductor feels you. It is now a more fulfilling experience for me to play with an orchestra. And beyond that, when I play chamber music with my partners, if we play quartets - it's a symphony for me. You take Brahms works, you play a sonata, it's a symphony. You have to in your mind, re-orchestrate it.

Conducting has given Vengerov extra layers to his companions of a lifetime. Both Barenboim and Rostropovich are very generous spirits. One thinks of Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, for instance.

Maxim Vengerov is himself a great teacher, too, allied to the Royal College of Music. What, I wonder, makes English colleges different from others overseas? What makes them special?

I have collaborated with the Royal College for a number of years. Their u towards music is not just what’s essential, but they always think beyond the frame and out of the box. I admire the administration and the people that decide the programming. First of all, any institution is defined by the Professors, and the faculty is staggering. They all work harmoniously together and it is incredibly well-orgaised and structured. They made a very important findraising - over £20 million - to build infrastructure, new practice rooms, concert spaces. And they are always eager to learn about new tech, but at the seme time they guard the great traditions of the past. That’s why we work so wonderfully together, because we both try to look beyond the horizon. One of the great things  we were doing is the concerto masterclass, where I can put all my experiences in music into practice. For example, we took the Beethoven or Brahms Concerto, we ask three different students to play three different movements. We work first of all together with piano accompaniment, that’s the first masterclass, then the second we will work with orchestra where they rehearase and I'm present. I may conduct, or observe a young conductor and give some tips to the orchestra  as well; it’s a very fruitful collaboration. In the end, in the evening when we have the concerto masterclass  it becomes above all very interesting and entertaining for the audience. They came to see the young player experimenting for the first time playing a concerto with orchestra - most of the violinists haven’t played it with orchestra. Within the College we can experiment at relatively low risk, with live streaming all over the world. We have already done Brahms, Beethoven, Sibelius, Mozart, Shostakovich. We have wonderful plans ahead of us.

Maxim clearly has an attitude of paying it forwards, as one can easily see from the masterclasses available to watch for free on his own  website.  Watch him teach - he listens, gives the students space, and only ever offers constructive criticism. How important is teaching to him?

It is so iumportant in many dimensions. Firstly, when I teach, I learn so much. Not only about the music, but also about the psychology of the students. And what happens without you realising it, you lower your ego. You have to. As a soloist and as a conductor you have to have just enough ego to get through the rehearsal and the concert. If it‘s slightly more than that, then you are using music to express yourself, and that's not what it's all about. I learnt it from Rostropovich. He said to me, “Maxim, if you want to express yourself, write your own music”. That’s the bottom line. If you play Beethoven, Shostakovich, Mozart, anything, forget about yourself. Use your knowledge, your brains, your heart, to go deep into the music.

To be ego-less, “Exactly. Teaching is the perfect way for me to learn this. It makes me a better human and also as a performer I benefit a lot. You give a masterclass and you have a different point of view than when you perform. All of a sudden, you say 'I've played this piece for 20 or 30 years and I just noticed that’ - it makes you you realise that music is limitless”.

Any more advice you might give to aspiring violinists?

I think every musician, every human being, goes through different cycles, or dimensions. In every dimension there are different challenges along the way, hurdles to overcome, joys, sorrows. There are moments when you feel hope and some moments you don’t feel hope, and that’s quite normal, being an artist. And if you feel neutral, this means this is just a job and music is not just a job. It's more than that. It is such a commitment that  musicians need to undertakeit  from the age of four or five (and Asians start at two or three), If you take an instrument at eight, it may be too late. You need to shape the muscles, very fine muscles; you need to train. them. With such commitment from such an early age, not just the child but the parents, teachers, everyone that is involved, you need to study music uncondiconally, whether you become a musician or not. Thank God, when you are 18 you can take another study. You can be really happy you studied music and it was part of your lufe. Only a few will get to be a soloist, and that's normal, but that doesn’t mean you will be deprived of being a happy musician if you’re in an orchestra. The recommendation is really it’s always wonderful to he hopeful that this will become your job, but you have to be realistic.

Vengerov clearly has a big heart. He's also done work for UNICEF ....

Again this has been a great step for me, learning about human vlaues, even in comparison with our relatively safe world. When you go to African states and you see the poverty, and people being abducted, their life has been ruined with no hopes. But with little means, you can still see the human soul is there to survive, and when I would open my violin case and start playing, the kids would have a smile. There is nothing more fulfuling than to see that reaction, how music moves people. And that experience for me has been one of the greatest ones for me, when I was just 23. It was important. It put everything in perspective. And I do regularly do fundraising concerts for UNICEF and some work raising awareness of UNICEF. Working with kids is a bit of a mission, because its a contiuation of the legacy that my mum left to me. She was a teacher herself, a choir conductor of a children's chorr, director of an orphanage, and I practically grew up with these kids who had no parents but had music. She gave them light in their life

Maxim Vengerow, photo © Diego Mariotta Mendez

Moving on now to that concert with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra. Vengerov has a long-standing relationship with the orchestra. I wonder how it came about and what he finds unique about the orchestra and its conductor, Marios Papadopoulos?

Marios has been a friend for many years. He approached me and asked if I would like to come to Oxford. I immediately said yes, for me Oxford, just the name and the tradition meant a lot since I was a child. i remember I visited Oxford for the first time when I just came to England. I came on the invitation of Yuri Temirkanov, who has a home there, and we stayed with his family; even before I went to London, I went to Oxford. I did not play there at the time, but it was one of the first places I visited in the UK. After that, meeting Marios and playing so many concerts with him, along the way we decided I would assume the position of Artist-in-Residence that allows me to do more than just playing, I was also conducting the orchestra and teaching at Trinity College, I became a Fellow of Trinity. It has been wonderful for me to meet people outside of the Classical world, scholars, academics, amazing personalities. Every meeting in Oxford is an experience. Then with Marios and the Orchestre we have recorded quite a lot of repertoire, including the Brahms Violin Concerto and the Sibelius Concerto in its 1904 original version. That's an amazing piece, I recorded it in 2015 and that's in the pipeline to release. We're looking forward to that. Also with Marios, as he's a brilliant pianist, we have recorded the three Brahms Sonatas and also we are looking forward to release along with other recordings I have made between 2012 and 2018

The repertoire of the Oxford Philharmonic is really quite adventurous - Louise Farrenc, for example. There are quite a few concerts coming up with Vengerov - the Albert Hall on September  19. It is very collaborative - a concerto in the frst half. but then Beethoven's Triple Concerto and Sarasate’s Navarra with students from the Royal College of Music.

It was an idea of my managers, that I should do a concert to celebrate my 40th anniversary. Yes, its special because my first concert was at age 5. Now I am turning 48, so its almost 43 years now. I still feel very young, and I would have hated to be all alone on the stage during that night. But to be with my wonderful friends from the Oxford Phil, where I have so many great freinds there true friends that go beyond music. We will play Shostakovich 1, this piece I played with Slava in the Barbican for the first time. Then in the second half we play the Beethoven Triple with Mischa Maisky. I remember when I came to London to play for first time, I played a recital in a small hall and I do remember I was very lucky, there was a critic the necxt day a little article about my recital, and next to it was Mischa Maisky. So I was very privileged. Practically since I was 14 or 15, when I met Mischa for the first time, we became friends. I know his family and he's just a fantastic player. And I have worked with him so many times. He agreed for the third time to reschedule the concert. Thank God he had time Another friend of mine didn't have time this time, and that was Marta Argerich. She couldn't because she was aksed by Zubin Mehta to come to Vienna for his anniversary around that date ... we have a fantastic replacement, Simon Trpčeski. We have given many recitals with him, including at the Barbican, Carngeie Hall and the Paris Philharmonie. A great soloists and wonderful chamber music partner; So we will celebrate with the Beethoven Triple, a testament of friendhip, love and then freedom, which is quite actual for this time. Beethoven is always ocntemporary, you see ...

Navarra is a celebration of the Royal College. The Shostakovich always sounds to me as one of the most challenging of concertos; Is it? “Its challenging technically, but its even more challenging musically because its not absolute music, not like Beethoven. It goes beyond music: in every phrase and in every sound there is a message. Shostakovich has, similar to Bach, recorded a lot of events. Just to take his name DSCH, that comes trough in the second movement, the Scherzo"’.

A musical acrostic, then.

It's in a different key, but its taken from the Tenth Symphony. Also Shostakovich's Passacaglia, the central movement, its one of the greatest creations of all time, architecturally, and you have to make certain sacrifices the soloist is not to be seen as a soloist, but as taking the second role and to let the orchestra shine. These was the words from Rostropovich when he listened to my Shostakovich 1 at his Maida Vale home. We talked at length about the first and second movement. For the Passacaglia, he just said, 'Very well, then, let's go to the cadneza'. And I noticed he is not saying everything to me. I said “Maestro, but you don't say anyting about the Passacaglia.”;  “Well, Maxim, you are too young to understand that’. You see, there are certain things you need time for, to mature.” And then he said, “You see, you were not growing up in this Soviet system, you couldn't possibly feel what Shostakovich felt when he was writing this music”. This concerto was at his table, in the cupboard for so many years, until he dared to give a premiere. So he was afraid that any of the works could he banned - like “Lady Macbeth,” which was banned from all the Soviet stages. And the 1938 article, in Pravda, was heartnreaking to him and thereafter follows the First Violin Concerto and Tenth Symphony. When he finally had success with those, it was like therapy to him.

I mention the response to Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, one of the great masterpieces .“Rostropovich said Shostakovich always said he wrote the first symphony for himself, then the second for somebody else. He woudl wirte the 3rd for himself, then the fourth for someone else. The fifth for the party, the sixth was a compromise ...”.

Please note that the Oxford performance on September 17 now features Maxim playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto, not Shostakovich 1, and there is no Triple Concerto in Oxford. Navarra remains, and in the second half is Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. In London, the programme will now comprise Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Navarra.