Widely regarded as one of the most loved works in the concerto repertoire as well as probably the most difficult to play, Tchaikovsky’s masterful Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 demands brilliant virtuosity from the soloist with some extraordinary cadenzas presenting sonic challenges across the full range of the instrument. Making his second appearance with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, after a stunning debut in 2015, Russian-born Maxim Vengerov delivered a technically astonishing performance of Tchaikovsky’s signature work. Universally hailed as the finest string player of his generation and one of the finest musicians in the world, he is clearly a violinist of enormous prowess and exceptional skills, but he offered much more than this in his interpretation. Playing the ex-Kreutzer Stradavari (made in 1727), the sound Vengerov produced from his instrument was warm and luscious with a dark, rich timbre in the full-bodied and lyrical passages that was both beautiful and achingly sweet. Even more impressive was his ability to squeeze out the impossibly high notes in the cadenzas from an instrument of this age. This was thrilling, passionate music at its best, played by a master who innately understands the composer’s work and how to make it leap off the page and excite an audience.
He illustrated this most strongly, not only in the ravishing and fiendishly difficult cadenzas of the Allegro moderato movement, but also in the slower and lyrical Canzonetta with its interchange between violin and solo woodwind and in the short, sharp passages between orchestra and violin in the allegro of the Finale.
He was assisted by some excellent playing from the orchestra, who were particularly fulsome in the glorious passages of the major themes, as well as producing first-rate flute, oboe and bassoon solos. Conductor, Jonathan Brett, had a precise and focused style, for the most part following rather than leading the soloist. However, he also took risks in the large, sweeping passages that so wonderfully illuminate the composer’s genius, displaying an expressive style with animated flourishes.
For an encore Vengerov showed his own and his instrument’s versatility in a Bach Enigma. Stylistically at the furthest end of the spectrum to the romantic lushness of Tchaikovsky, he presented Bach’s polished precision with a depth of sound and a sharpness of musical colour that was joyous to watch.
In the second half of the programme, Maxim Vengerov took to the podium to conduct Tchaikovsky’s monumental final Symphony, No 6 in B Minor, Op.74 Pathétique. Written at a difficult and emotional period of his life and premiering only a few days before his death, Tchaikovsky’s format for the work was unusual, but helped him to demonstrate a range of emotions, beginning and ending with movements about death. Musically, as well as emotionally, this is a roller-coaster of a piece with the introduction of distinct musical themes in each movement. As a conductor, Vengerov was not showy or extrovert, rather he met the challenge of the work with an intelligent and considered interpretation.
Vengerov set the scene in the opening Adagio movement with its mournful burial chant creating a feeling of solemnity with his minimalist, controlled conducting style. This morphed into the idealised Romanticism of the Allegro con grazia movement with its repetitive waltz theme offering hope in the form of love. Vengerov crafted this movement with both delicacy and passion, drawing from the players some excellent ensemble playing, particularly from the strings, woodwind and French horns. The third Allegro movement changed the mood to the famous insistent march that grew ever louder and was interspersed by some fast tarantellas. This could easily have got out of control but Vengerov reined in his forces while ably producing the sense of menace and threat that the composer intended. It was a chilling performance by the darker strings, cellos and basses in particular, joined by the brass and percussion. This led neatly to the Finale (Adagio lamentoso) with some heart-wrenching melancholic music, full of longing and despair. Vengerov’s short, sharp stops between sections were well-timed and gave the sense of the main protagonist being incapable of going on – a truth that may have applied to the composer, Tchaikovsky, himself. The strings played poignantly and the whole came to a dramatic, slow and eventual tragic conclusion which lingered in the Concert Hall for some minutes, before a deafening applause.
Vengerov’s highly developed musicianship and his deep-seated understanding of his fellow countryman’s music, makes him an ideal Tchaikovsky interpreter and conductor. Never sentimental in the romantic sections, he nevertheless is an impassioned and passionate artist conveying this sensibility to orchestra and audience alike. His appointment as Artist in Residence with the QSO next year is an enlightened and very welcome move.