Few soloists make it look as easy as Maxim Vengerov does. Backed by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, the violinist made the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Max Bruch look like a piece of cake. With astounding felicity he played its wizardly runs as if having a casual conversation with a friend. And this was just the start of the Oxford Phil’s wonderful New York debut concert.
An Illusion of Effortlessness
Mr. Vengerov has played with the world’s greatest orchestras, but he and the Oxford Philharmonic know each other particularly well, as he has been its artist-in-residence for the better part of a decade. Music Director and Conductor Marios Papadopoulos told us in a recent interview that Mr. Vengerov – an accomplished conductor himself – has appeared as a soloist with the Oxford Phil in music by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Britten. It was only natural, I suppose, to add the next “B” in the pantheon.
Bruch’s Concerto No. 1 is an eccentric one right from the start, where a sneaky tympani roll seems to arise as a mere evolution of the silence. The composer’s ingenuity – Joseph Joachim himself championed the piece when it was new – is evident not only in the ensemble writing but in the opening violin passage and cadenzas; Mr. Vengerov glided through these like a painter tossing off freshly designed masterpieces.
The first movement flows into the contemplative second. In the third, intricate interplay between soloist and orchestra demands that all play as if one consciousness. A brilliant performance like this one owes as much to the conductor’s great skill and feel for the music as to the violinist’s.
It also requires superbly calibrated tone in the violin’s highest register, and Mr. Vengerov’s is one of the sweetest you’ll ever hear. Amid the third movement’s fireworks he also displayed a beautiful woody timbre in the lower register.
A Student Showcase and a Sublime Classic
Pablo de Sarasate, himself a virtuoso violinist, composed his Navarra for Two Violins and Orchestra in 1890. He probably never envisioned those two violins multiplying into eight. But that’s what we experienced, as Mr. Vengerov and seven excellent students from Juilliard’s pre-college program stepped in front of the orchestra to perform this exciting, shifty showpiece. With nearly perfect tuning and timing, the octet showed impressive skill both as ensemble players and as potential soloists.
The evening’s most sublime music came in the second half, with a revelatory performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 1. Like all great symphonies, it must be experienced live to be fully appreciated. Still, this rendition was something extra special. There is nothing like being submerged in the introduction’s astonishing harmonic clusters in the marvelous acoustics of a hall like Carnegie. As the harsh and at times almost modernistic first movement progressed, Maestro Papadopoulos brought out internal passages that had flown under my radar in previous hearings.
A stirring, eloquent reading of the exquisite second and third movements set up a gorgeous take on the finale, with its famous Beethoven-like main theme. I’ve always found it interesting that Brahms began the symphony in his challenging, mold-breaking mode and finished it up in his most accessible and melodic.
The performance did such justice to the composer’s full range of creativity that the audience demanded an encore. We were treated to an extraordinarily moving “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This may have been a nod to the creative spirit of the Oxford Philharmonic’s homeland. But world-class quality is what beamed from the stage at the orchestra’s New York debut.