Schumann: Fantasiestücke for Cello and Piano, Op. 73
Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Ravel: Tzigane, Rhapsody for Violin and Piano
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67
My bucket list includes a few musicians that I have never managed to experience live despite my best efforts. But I have not given up on any of them yet. Former child prodigy and still one of the world’s premier violinists, Maxim Vengerov has stubbornly remained among the top names on that list for longer than I care to remember, but luckily this year Aix-en-Provence’s still young but already essential Festival de Pâques and good timing have forever changed this sorry state of affairs.
When I heard that for the third time in five years he was going to be in one of my favorite French towns to perform three widely different compositions – pleasantly engaging, boldly virtuosic and intensely gripping – that would allow me not only to be able to enjoy his prodigious talent in a wonderful environment, but also to support a worthy musical endeavor at the same time, I pretty much organized a trip to France around the not-to-be-missed opportunity.
Therefore, last Saturday after enjoying some superb Goldberg Variations followed by a lovely lunch on cours Mirabeau, my mom and I found ourselves in the coolly modern, perfectly sized, acoustically blessed and definitely packed Conservatoire Darius Milhaud at 6 p.m. to hear the exasperatingly elusive violinist perform alongside familiar New York cellist Alisa Weilerstein and fast-rising Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, who apparently blew everybody away last year when he stepped in for Daniil Trifonov and impressively nailed no less than Rach 3.
As if to make the suspense last a little longer, the first piece on the program, Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, had been written for cello and piano only. Bringing along his two signature characters, the extrovert Florestan and the introvert Eusebius, the composer provided Alisa Weilerstein and Seong-Jin Cho with an attractive set of eight vignettes to play with, and so they did with a totally winning dedication.
But persistence and patience do pay off sometimes, and Maxim Vengerov finally made his first appearance in the concert to join Cho for Maurice Ravel’s popular Sonata for Violin and Piano. Beautifully emphasizing the natural quality of their own instrument as well as the inherent musicality of the piece, the two musicians adroitly wandered their own winding paths, the much anticipated bluesy interlude languorously unfolding in all its irresistible splendor.
While Ravel’s Sonata was a delightful treat, Vengerov really got to display his fierce virtuosity in the French composer’s flamboyant Tzigane. Conceived more or less as a formidable one-man show for the violin, the piano showing up late and discreetly, Tzigane packs an awful lot of dazzling twists and turns in its 10-minute duration, all the more to highlight the conflicting darkness and light of the traditional Hungarian gypsy dance. Starting in a gloomy mood and concluding with joyful fireworks, Vengerov delivered a passionate performance freely oozing the sexy exoticism of bohemian life and the gorgeous lushness of Late Romanticism.
After the musically appealing but relatively light-hearted previous numbers, the three musicians got together for Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, which incidentally happens to be one of my favorite chamber music pieces, not the least because of its viscerally expressed sense of tragedy. Written in 1944 when the composer was dealing with the general exhaustion brought by World War II and the tremendous grief caused by the loss of his closest friend, the work evokes those trying times with grating dissonances, frenzied episodes, dark melodic lines, and a devilish passacaglia whose relentless staccato rarely fails to stick into the listener’s mind for an unduly long time.
Having three certified virtuosos take on the technically and emotionally difficult piece was of course a near-guarantee of excellence, and I am happy to report that the brilliant performance even exceeded our sky-high expectations. Far from shying away from the composition’s many jarring moments, the trio confronted them head-first with tightly coordinated expertise and downright exhausting force. That said, aside from the purely musical fulfillment, it was also extremely heart-warming to see American, Russian/Israeli and Korean artists make beautiful music together in our only slightly less turbulent times.
Although the world has clearly not been waiting for my feedback with bated breath, I can now confirm that Maxim Vengerov is a truly outstanding violinist. However, his French speaking skills being slightly less impressive, we were not able to catch the full name of their encore, only to figure out that it was the second movement of a trio of some sort. But that did not keep us from enjoying the mysterious parting gift until the very last note.