Updated: July 18, 2013 4:52PM
Ravinia scored a major coup in booking Maxim Vengerov, heir to the great Russian violin tradition, for his only U.S. appearances this year. On Monday and Wednesday the Highland Park festival showed off its prize as the quietly charismatic 38-year-old — absent from the world’s stages as a violinist for four years, due to a shoulder injury — gave a Martin Theatre recital and appeared as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Ravinia music director James Conlon in the pavilion.
Vengerov and his longtime collaborator, pianist Itamar Golan, first appeared together at Ravinia 20 years ago as “Rising Stars” in what is now Bennett Gordon Hall. The Siberian-born Vengerov stunned audiences then and continued to do so as he rose to the top with his unique combination of astonishing technique, tremendous musicality and a rich, distinctively individual sound and tone. As a protege of instrumentalist-conductors Mstislav Rostropovich and Daniel Barenboim, he had numerous solo opportunities as an international artist and was well-known to downtown Chicago audiences.
Then in 2005, by his own admission, he overdid a weightlifting hobby, and by 2007, required surgery and lengthy rehabilitation that kept him away from performing until last year. His natural curiosity was encouraged by his two “musical fathers,” and he used his time away from the violin to pursue intense conducting studies with great Russian-trained pedagogues and to build up his teaching career in London and the Suisse Romande. For two of those years, remarkably, he had to entirely re-create and rebuild his physical technique, something he says that he did on his own.
The results of his time away, which included marriage and the birth of his first child, are close to unbelievable. By reducing his physicality, the violinist makes his playing seem even more effortless. His left hand appears capable of even greater fingering and pizzicato (akin to plucking) magic, and his bowing arm — the one with the repaired shoulder — offers full movement across an unbroken arc. The smile that charmed the world as a teenager has not abated.
At the Martin with Golan, Vengerov offered a selection of real duo sonatas featuring the piano as much as the violin in most cases. This made complete sense as Golan is a dynamite pianist, and Vengerov could show his interest in deep music as well as showpieces. Beethoven’s G Major Op. 96 and Schubert’s “Duo” in A, D. 574, were each given performances as intellectually complete as they were dramatic. You see and hear how Barenboim’s demand that the young player spend time studying scores without his instrument, analyzing and rebuilding them harmonically, has paid off.
In the second half, the Franck Sonata, if sounding a bit Russian (why not?), was another meeting of equals that despite its constant presence on programs and recordings held the listener’s attention throughout.
Lollipops from Saint-Saens and encores from Brahms and Faure displayed the virtuoso, but were never mannered or merely for effect.
The Britten concerto, composed in 1939 but receiving its Ravinia debut Wednesday in the composer’s centennial year, was as fine a performance of this rich, hypnotic and highly original work as one could hear. There are many discussions of the impetus of and possible meaning of this often moody work. Vengerov went straight to the music and made this entirely a tale of harmony, melody and structure. Neither the intense heat and humidity nor the outdoor setting had any effect on his total mastery of pitch and dynamics. (Two gnats had interrupted his Martin recital, one aiming for his face, the other nesting in his famed 1727 Kreuzer Stradivarius, and the cicada choir was in full force Wednesday.) Even the softest sections created a listening silence around them. A Bach solo sarabande as an encore had similar results.
CSO played in total connection with Vengerov, whom they applauded loud and long. After making his first appearance this summer as the festival’s music director, Conlon then leads a busy set of weeks: more Britten in a chamber evening July 24, with the Steans Institute young musicians Aug. 5, and two performances of “The Burning Fiery Furnace” Aug. 17, as well as a concert performance Aug. 3 of Verdi’s “Aida.”
On Wednesday, Conlon surrounded the concerto with Wagner overtures and preludes, in a nod to that composer’s 200th birthday year, and the “Four Sea Interludes” from Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” the operatic breakthrough from six years after the concerto that made Britten Britten in the eyes and ears of many. As I listened to the second half from the lawn, the sound and “feel” of the evening was good, with the winds and brass superb.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).