Tuesday 4 December 2012

The return of Maxim Vengerov

Photo: Hana Zushi / Royal Academy of Music

For a while it seemed as though we wouldn’t see Maxim Vengerov with violin in hand again. A much-publicised injury kept him from performing as a violinist for almost four years. Speculation spread about his own personal reasons for apparently laying down the instrument, but the worst predictions of total retirement proved to be untrue when Maxim returned to recital performance in 2011. Maxim Mk.2, though, is a man with altered priorities: a less hectic solo performance schedule, a greater interest in conducting and a rekindled passion for education.

Despite his period of absence from the stage, Maxim’s popularity remains. At the Royal Academy of Music, on a chilly November morning, ushers are having to turn people away from the most recent of his regular masterclasses. The Academy’s Duke’s Hall is packed with students and interested members of the public, and Maxim’s first comment before them is a revealing one. “You move too much,” he tells Madalyn, his first student of the day, “it is absolutely not necessary.” Movement, once a central part of his playing, has been banished in recent years. Now, Maxim’s energy is directed completely into his hands; everything else is a distraction.

He asks Madalyn to consider her pianist – “You’re part of a team” – and to tailor her phrasing to illuminate the “harmonies”, a word he returns to often. It’s musical consideration, rather than technical, that dominate the short time that Maxim has with each student. But what can he achieve in 45 minutes? He’s certainly aware that damage can be done in that time. “It’s easier in this such short time to break the confidence of somebody”, Maxim tells me when we speak a few days before the masterclass. “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 is to build something, not to diminish the great qualities that a student has.”

The format is fixed. Each student plays a portion of a single work, after which the teacher offers constructive criticism and works through particular musical problems.  Madalyn begins very well and Maxim encourages her to vary her use of bow and fingers to produce an even more engaging performance. For the audience, granted access to the teaching arena never normally possible, part of the fun of the masterclass is anticipating which elements of the student’s performance the will be dissected by the teacher. When it comes to his second student, however, Maxim himself appears unsure how to proceed. He asks for extracts from all four movements of Schubert’s Duo in A and at one point walks out into the hall to gain a different perspective. His verdict, grasped at a little, as though the precise problem eludes him, seems broadly accurate: her playing is clean and well judged, but somehow lacking in projection and essential communication. His job then becomes to coax from her from her initial reticence and encourage her to involve those listening in what he calls “the composer’s message”.


For all of the dedication and sacrifice given by the students before him, none can have experienced the early international adulation heaped on Maxim during his teenage years. After studying under the strict and highly pressurised system in his native Russia, he moved west, meeting with success and recognition. He became, initially at least, determined to find his own way and set his own priorities.

“I didn’t really want to take any masterclasses with anyone”, says Maxim. “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.”

In Western Europe, Maxim found on offer a previously unimaginable array of music and culture. He bought records voraciously, not only confining his listening to violin music. “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, Maxim felt ready “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.” He worked with them frequently, and with many others. “I think that made me a more flexible musician, the more well rounded musician I was aiming to become.”


While the he may have banished some of his more extreme movements in performance, it’s clear from watching Maxim teach that physicality is vital to his conception of violin playing. When words can’t quite make the point, he acts his intentions with his body, pulling faces and adopting mannered walks to demonstrate the music’s expressive state. He sings, too, sometimes at length, and it’s clear that the voice and the hands draw on the same well of music. Maxim will express a musical transition with an image: one moment of change in the Schubert Duo becomes and picture of weightlessness: “There is no gravity here. You are lost.” Then, the transition, coupled with a joke: “I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Or is it a train coming?!”

The humour serves a purpose, putting the students at ease and encouraging them toward their best. Maxim sympathises with their position, having experienced it himself. He recalls playing with Yehudi Menuhin at age seventeen and dealing with his own initial anxieties. ““Can I be up to the expectation? Will I be liked by maestro or not?”” All these thoughts were coming to my mind.” Menuhin, though, was a model of sensitivity. “He was so gentle to me. I must have been really nervous. He felt that; he made me really comfortable around him.”
Maxim Vengerov - priorities adjusted and reconciled with the violin - is the maestro now. 

Maxim Vengerov is Yehudi Menuhin Professor of Music at the Royal Academy of Music, London.

My thanks to Maxim Vengerov and Nicola-Fee Bahl for their help in preparing this piece.

Read the full text of the interview here.

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