Johannes Brahms: Sonata #2
Serge Prokofieff: Sonata #1
Maurice Ravel: Tzigane
Pablo Sarasate: Caprice Basque
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vocalise
Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasy
Maxim Vengerov (violin)
Alexander Markovich (piano)
In a marvelous coincidence of scheduling, two friends who share the same recital pianist, Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin, played within a few days of each other in New York, Repin with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Friday (the Brahms' Concerto) and Vengerov last night at Carnegie Hall. Although almost the identical age and with very similar backgrounds, these two promising superstars are of very different temperaments and play in very different styles. Where Repin utilizes vibrato very effectively, Vengerov is much more linear and closer to the mainstream of current violinistic thinking. He plays in a less ornamented manner and delivers phrases much more straightforwardly than his young compatriot. However his approach is no less musical and is in fact more on the intellectual side. If Repin is our era's Elman than Vengerov is its Oistrakh.
The recital opened with a beautiful reading of the Brahms 2. Vengerov's phrases just flow and he favors the soft and gentle approach to this piece of musical poesy, never emphasizing the dramatic elements of the Sturm und Drang but rather keeping the entire work under the wing of the subtlely suggestive muse. Vengerov, with his gorgeous Strad ex Kiesewetter (Cremona 1723), loves to play mezzopiano and below, forcing the listener to sit up and take notice and not to let his attention wander from the elegant music that is there if one concentrates just a little. The entire Sonata was played in this style and it is an interesting approach to Brahms, so easy to convey as bombastic and melodramatic. Vengerov obviously has a deep appreciation for the inner tranquility that permeates the master's music even in its heartfelt and stressful passages.
For the music of Prokofieff these two young Russians are eminently suited. The ghostly sotto voce of the Sonata #1 is perfect for this violinist who dazzles with his soft artistry. The sardonic quality of the piece was emphasized by Mr. Markovich and the final Allegrissimo was played at a breathtaking tempo. Again Mr. Vengerov was devoid of ornamentation and his dexterity was obvious. I would have liked to hear a much more lusty Tzigane as this performance was so soft and gentle that the underlying passions of Ravel's gypsy were so hidden and subtle as to be almost indistinguishable. I learned Shakespeare from a professor who encouraged his students to never read who was speaking, to only appreciate the essence of the poetry. This was Vengerov's approach to Ravel: the beauty came through, but the characterization was missing. Although the result was gorgeous music making, some of the fire was out.
This program was supposed to include one of those early Sonatas of Schubert which are hardly ever played anymore, but with the last minute change of pianists the program changed as well. But who could resist the bouquet of light virtuoso pieces which comprised the bulk of the second half? Mr. Vengerov has a winning personality (he is somewhat famous in the pop world since his appearance at short notice at the Grammy Awards two years ago) and is a born entertainer. He sailed through a series of difficult puff pieces which were designed to impress and they did. Tzigane always puts me in mind of Sarasate's Ziguenerweisen and we received the next best thing, a wild reading of the Caprice Basque (even more suggestive of Ravel). Vengerov then delivered a warm performance of one of the most haunting of Rachmaninoff's melodies, a favorite of the ill-fated skating star Sergei Grinkoff and the crowd was very moved.
The final scheduled work of the evening was the Carmen Fantasy of the Hollywood composer Franz Waxman. When Liszt was an old man he disavowed only one group of his own music and that was his opera paraphrases. This painfully uninventive amalgam of Bizet showstoppers hardly qualifies as great music, but in a showy performance just for fun, Vengerov pulled it off with ease. The born entertainer was tested when he popped a string mid-piece, but he just made an apologetic shrug, put on a new string and continued from the very note from which he had paused. Many trills and runs later, we were all suitably impressed.
Encores seemed superfluous in a program like this but we were treated to four anyway. Three Hungarian Dances (#7,2, and of course 1) of Brahms were followed by some Italian Rondo designed to be humorous and filled with left hand pizzicati and other crowd pleasing effects. Here Vengerov put on his best Chico Marx face and mugged his way through a happy-go-lucky perpetuum mobile half Stradella and half PDQ Bach. It was a wonderful performance and left us all feeling good about leaving Mount Olympus for a while and just having some fun. You have to be really confident to play such a piece of treacle at Carnegie Hall (I have only heard Perlman do this sort of thing successfully) and Mr. Vengerov projects strongly his beliefs in his own abilities. A good time was had by all.
Frederick L. Kirshnit