Monday 10 December 2012

Maxim Vengerov - the full interview

Recently, I was lucky enough to be granted a short interview with Maxim Vengerov. Our conversation came shortly before his masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music. Vengerov is Yehudi Menuhin Professor of Music at the RAM and gives regular masterclasses to the students there. Some of Maxim's thoughts on teaching went into a piece I wrote about the masterclass; here is the compelete text of the interview.

Did you have personal experience with Lord Menuhin when you were younger?

The first time I worked with Lord Menuhin I was seventeen. I remember it was just a marvellous experience to work with him. He was so gentle to me. I must have been really nervous. He felt that; he made me really comfortable around him.

It’s quite important that when a young person stands next to you that the “grand maestro” realises what pressure it is for the young one to be with them. It’s the responsibility also: “can I be up to the expectation? Will I be liked by maestro or not?” All these thoughts were coming to my mind. Once I was standing with him he was so incredibly humble. And at the same time I felt that there was a very strong leadership. We played [a] Mozart Concerto. So I felt really really confident as the concert was just wonderful. [I had] very strong memories from the beginning. I came across Lord Menuhin a couple of more times [but] that was the only time we were on stage together - which was quite memorable, I must say.

When you were growing up, was Menuhin’s playing a reference point for you in the Soviet Union? Was it something that you had contact with?  

During Soviet times all we knew was the Russian school – violinists such as David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan. Menuhin came to Moscow in 1960 or something like this, and they produced a recording, or at least that was what we heard. Also, I had since I was a child Menuhin’s recording of Chausson’s Poeme and Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, so I remember it was still this LP which I enjoyed very much. And so Menuhin was on the top of the list, together with Isaac Stern and Jascha Heifetz. His recordings – there were like two or three records available. That was all. So it was quite a rarity, but [one] which we really treasured and studied with my first teacher, Galina Turtschaninova, and that was wonderful. I still have this recording [on] LP. On the cover: Menuhin sitting in shorts. I think he was on the stairs, together with Enescu, with his teacher. So quite a lovely memory for me of my childhood.

When you were able to travel more, did you find all this new information – such as recordings of new violinists – quite bewildering?

Of course. I was struck by the variety of records that were available when I moved to the west. So I was constantly buying different recordings that weren’t available in Soviet Russia at that time.

When you were young, did you take part in masterclasses?

I started taking masterclasses when I moved away from my regular studies. I was at that time sixteen and, for a year, I didn’t really want to take any masterclasses with anyone. It was for me an important time to find out more about myself and what music means to me. The goal was also to find out if music was after all something I wanted to do. It was rather strange because at fifteen I won the Carl Flesch competition, so had a lot of engagements. Nevertheless, I felt the need to find a certain creativity and something of my own. I still was not entirely sure if I wanted to become a musician or not, believe it or not. But after a year of intense study – and that was not only study by myself on the violin – but that was exactly when I was going around buying records, and not necessarily of violin performance music, but also of orchestral symphonies. I was studying the music from the score in depth with the teacher, analysing the form, harmony and then subtleties of the performance, the differences of different conductors. So, for instance, I would buy Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony and I would buy four or five different version so that I could actually see the differences of the interpretations. And so I would shape my own tastes for music. That was important because when I learned a new programme, immediately I would apply the same thing to the repertoire I was playing. After a year of intense study on my own, I decided I had a need to meet musicians – to go to meet the world. I was incredibly lucky because I met fantastic musicians, such as Barenboim and Rostropovich – the two of them became my long term mentors. With Rostropovich, my cooperation with him was about seventeen years, so I consider that some of the best recordings with orchestra I have done were with him, because we had great chemistry on stage. With Barenboim it was a different experience, but no less fruitful from a different angle and different point of view. I met also musicians like Carlo Maria Guilini, who gave me in a very short time – one or two performances – a different comprehension of the musical world and the time. Zubin Mehta; Muti; Maazel: so many that I really profited from. The idea was not only to play with them and ask for their advice, but also to try to follow them in a way, and I told them “maestro, if you feel the tempo should go forward, please do so. Don’t just follow me. I will follow you, I’d like that”. It was interesting for them too! I hope so, at least that’s what I was thinking. In any case, I think that made me a more flexible musician, a more well rounded musician that I was aiming to become.

What do you hope to be able to give to your masterclass students in the forty five minutes or hour that you have with them?

What is easier to do, it’s easier in this such short time to break the confidence of somebody. If you say the wrong words at the wrong time... the student can be quite fragile, especially if he or she trusts you. But what is more difficult it to build something, not to diminish the great qualities that a student has. Everyone has good qualities... Now, you have to say if you were to serve a really good guideline to the student for the next years, then this is a big task and a big responsibility. So I try to be as wise as I possibly can, try to master my form of interacting with them. I try to say as little as possible, but on the other hand I’d like to give them a bit more dense information that I possibly can. Also, we have to guess what the student is able to take during one hour and what he or she is not able, so to say, because sometimes people are just not ready for some things, so you have to already spot immediately what they’re able to perform.

Finally, can you tell us about the performances and recordings that you’ll be working on in the near future?

During this year I have done three recordings. One of them is coming out soon - I think in December. It was done in Wigmore Hall live with [pianist] Itamar Golan, from the recital which was done in April this year. The second recording we have done is with my string ensemble at the Yehudi Menuhin Academy in Gstaad in Switzerland. It’s the works of Mendelssohn – the small violin concerto; pieces by Tchaikovsky and Brahms. I am also a professor of the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad.  Also, the third recording was a rather interesting combination of seventeen original church sonatas for two violins and organ. The last four sonatas are with woodwind, cello and double bass and timpani. So these are original sonatas that are so incredibly exciting. We have done this recording with the principal organ player from Gdansk main cathedral and my Polish student, Maria Włoszczowska. So these are three recordings I have done in the last year.                       

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