Maxim Vengerov Brings Virtuosity With Expression To Koerner Hall

Maxim Vengerov, 2011 (Public domain image)

Bach; Beethoven; Shostakovich; Tchaikovsky. Maxim Vengerov, violinist; Polina Osetinskaya, pianist. January 15, 2023, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

When I first heard Maxim Vengerov in recital over 20 years ago, I came away very impressed by the Russia-born Israeli violinist’s dazzling technical virtuosity, but little else. So I was unprepared for the warmth and expressivity he brought to his recital yesterday afternoon before a packed house at Koerner Hall, a concert without a single bravura showpiece!

Throughout the afternoon, slower-than-usual tempi predominated, Vengerov spinning long, often hushed, vibrato-laden musical threads. This meant a highly-romanticized performance of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1014. Granted, Bach’s six sonatas for violin and keyboard are more songful than his six works for solo violin, but in both the Adagio and Andante, Vengerov’s violinistic dreaminess and crooning, while lovely, would likely not be considered echt Bach.

The most often performed of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”), received a rather subdued reading, in which lyricism prevailed over its customary drama. The central melody of the Adagio sostenuto – Presto was taken slowly and quietly, with
tension-building pauses and gradual crescendi. The Andante con variazioni ranged between reverence, playfulness and melancholy. The Finale (Presto) showed that Vengerov’s fingers can still fly, his light, quicksilver bowing creating a Mendelssohnian scintillation.

Russia-born pianist Polina Osetinskaya was Vengerov’s vital partner, especially in the Beethoven, her crystalline articulation drawing rich colours from the keyboard, her frequent pauses providing space for Vengerov’s stretched-out phrasing. (She’ll return to Koerner Hall for her Canadian solo debut on June 3.)

Shostakovich wrote his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 to perform on his own instrument, the piano. With his blessing, 19 of them were transcribed for violin and piano by Shostakovich’s good friend, Dmitry Tsiganov, first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that premiered nearly all of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Seven of the ten brief Preludes that Vengerov and Osetinskaya performed were cabaret or folk-style dances with quirky, broken meters, in which I would have wished for a bit more of Shostakovich’s sardonic, rhythmic bite. Two pieces were wistfully sentimental, and I particularly enjoyed the final selection, filled with the dark brooding so characteristic of Shostakovich.

The only works that Tchaikovsky ever composed for violin and piano received wonderfully enchanting performances. The three-movement Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op. 42, begins with Méditation, originally conceived by Tchaikovsky to be the slow movement of his Violin Concerto. Vengerov took it slowly, intensely wringing out all its pathos-soaked juices. Scherzo called for Vengerov’s fleet fingerwork, its luscious, expansive middle theme played with extreme ardour. Vengerov gave the Mélodie, music that would not be out of place in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, all the bittersweet sentimentality it requires.

Ending the formal program, Vengerov brought Kreisler-like charm to Tchaikovsky’s
Valse-Scherzo in C Major, Op. 34 (it also exists in a version for violin and orchestra). Responding to the well-deserved ovation, Vengerov and Osetinskaya performed two encores: the Scherzo from Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata and the third movement of Franck’s Violin Sonata — the latter played very slowly, with a rare depth of feeling — an appropriately introspective conclusion to a concert, free of any superficial display, that will long abide in memory.

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Michael Schulman
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