Maxim Vengerov at the National Concert Hall

Ahead of Vengerov's part in the 150th anniversary celebrations of the opening of the winter garden for the great exhibition of 1865 that became the National Concert Hall, I've dug up this oldie from, I think, 1999, written for some cultural magazine in the Irish Times of the day…

At first the mass of publicity that precedes this 25-year old wunderkind of the violin puts one on one’s guard against another over-marketed phenomenon. But very quickly one realises that in this instance the hype is to be believed.

Not only is Maxim Vengerov a dashing young Siberian, with a romantic past, and amiable personality: irresistible to the publicity machine. He is also one of the greatest musicians alive.

Our own Michael D’Arcy, Leader of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, says of Vengerov: ‘I am always impressed by his wonderful ability to transcend technical demands in order to express the meaning of the music. He excels in all kinds of repertoire and brings the same insight to a three minute encore as he does to the great concertos.’

The essential thing about Vengerov musically seems to be that he is such a master of technique his playing is pure ‘soul’. As one critic has it: ‘The sinful ease with which Mr. Vengerov commands his instrument renders any questions of technique superfluous.’ The violin becomes voice, and the voice sings the soul straight and true. ‘The violin becomes part of your body,’ is how Vengerov himself has put it, ‘an extension of your heart. And you try to sing.’

His intense manner of playing, by the confidence of its musical logic, gives the listener a sense of inevitability about his interpretations. He makes connoisseurs of everyone, is how one enthusiast has put it.

It wasn’t always this way. Vengerov was born into a musical family in 1974 in Siberia. Indeed, he quickly developed into a musical prodigy. (‘I lost two years of childhood in one sense, but in the end I know it was so right.’) In 1985 he won first prize at the Polish Junior Wieniawski Competition, Lublin, and in 1990 first prize at the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition, London.

But when he moved to Israel in 1990 he admits that he wasn’t very flexible in his musical thinking, and needed a bit of loosening up. ‘I was raised in a quite conservative way [musically],’ Vengerov recalls. Then there was his interpretation. When he was invited in 1992 to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the conductor, Daniel Barenboim, told him the night before the performance that his playing of the Sibelius Violin Concerto lacked character, didn’t connect with the heart of the piece - without telling him the solution. Vengerov spent the whole night, violin put aside, reading the score as a work of art.

Of the resulting performance one critic wrote: ‘Behold the cosmic talent called Maxim Vengerov. I heard this 18-year-old Russian with the Chicago Symphony, and I came away shaken...I'm pretty sure I never heard a more glorious performance of the Sibelius live - and, over the course of 25 years as a critic, that covers every big artist.’ Vengerov the virtuoso had arrived.

Since then, he has recorded with every major orchestra in the world and worked with all the great conductors. He continues to give much credit for his success to colleagues, teachers and particularly the conductors he has worked with who have helped him develop more sophisticated interpretations of each work.

In 1996 he received two Grammy nominations for Classical Album of the Year and Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra. His recording Prokofiev and Shostakovich Violin Concertos No. 1 won him Gramaphone Magazine’s Record of the Year.

The musical wisdom of Maxim Vengerov

On technique: The trick is never having to think about how to achieve something, but rather being able to call it up at the precise moment you need it.

On challenges: ‘The most difficult thing for me to achieve is bringing out the sound I hear inside my head. Sometimes, I am conscious of my disappointment at what comes out.’

On religion: ‘Playing the violin for me is like praying because I believe in it so strongly; it’s religion… music is unique because you can speak and everyone can understand, since the message is delivered spiritually.’

On the benefits of playing an instrument generally: ‘When you play, you learn how to think better, you learn strategy [when] figuring how to play something hard.’

On the purpose of music: ‘.. to make ourselves better, to be free, to feel wonderful.’

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