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CD Review

Maxim Vengerov

Violin Recital

  • Eugène Ysaÿe:
  • Sonata #2
  • Sonata #3
  • Sonata #4
  • Sonata #6
  • Rodion Shchedrin:
  • Echo Sonata
  • Balalaika
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata (Toccata and Fugue) in A minor, BWV 565 (arr. Fox-Lefriche)
Maxim Vengerov, violin
EMI Classics 57384 DDD 66:42
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Imagine: sixty-six minutes of a naked violinist.

Of course Maxim Vengerov wasn't literally naked when he recorded this CD – or so we assume! Still, solo violin recitals have a way of exposing the musician, both for better and worse. At least a pianist or a cellist can sit down; here, it's Vengerov standing under the hot lights with his violin and some very, very difficult music. "Merciless" is the first adjective that comes to my mind.

Fortunately, Vengerov is up to the task. I haven't heard anyone record the Ysaÿe sonatas this well since his countryman Gidon Kremer's (now elderly) disc was released. Vengerov is maturing nicely. Now in his late 20s, he is no longer a Tchaikovsky-playing teenage prodigy for everyone to caress. This recital shows daring and intelligence, and a great deal of insight into the music. There's little that's cuddly or sentimental about the Ysaÿe sonatas, and they don't gratify the masses. (Look who hasn't included them in their repertoire and draw your own conclusions.) Still, they offer a lot to chew on, just as Bach's solo violin Sonatas and Partitas did two centuries earlier… and still do. Ysaÿe's Second Sonata, in fact, quotes from Bach's E-major Partita. The composer subtitled it "Obsession," and that's a fair description of the rather malevolent, even sulfurous, wind that blows through this sonata. The other sonatas are hardly less "obsessed."

The Echo Sonata by Rodion Shchedrin also draws from Bach; this work was composed in 1985 to honor the German composer's tercentenary. This sonata might be thought of as a continuation of Ysaÿe's Second Sonata, which makes it a reinterpretation of a reinterpretation, if you will. Again, Vengerov plays it with passionate concentration, like a Russian chess master.

Bach himself appears on this CD… or does he? Bach's most famous organ work, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, was transcribed for violin by Bruce Fox-Lefriche (who changed the key to A minor in the process). There is justification for such a transcription; some of the busy figuration seems more suited to a string instrument than to a keyboard. Anthony Short's booklet notes reminds us that there are musicologists who don't believe the work was Bach's to begin with, as it is not very typical of him. Imagine finding out that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was written by someone else entirely! Vengerov sets his phasers to stun with this performance.

These were studio recordings. The last work, Shchedrin's Balalaika, must have been a live encore; a chuckling and prematurely applauding audience makes its presence known. Played entirely without the bow, this piece imitates the eponymous Russian folk instrument. It is amusing enough, but there must be a visual component to the humor, and it is lost on me, obviously. It brings this CD to a rather jarring end.

The sonics are good, although the violin tone isn't very warm. I can't say if this is an artifact of the recording process or due to the violinist himself; I've never heard him play live.

Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle