The reviews of this comeback recital referred to Vengerov as "the greatest violinist in the world" or if that seemed a bit meager, "a God-given genius of the violin" - this after a shoulder injury had forced Vengerov to undertake a four-year hiatus in his golden career. During that time his attention to turned teaching and conducting (word has it that if a concert promoter wants him as a concerto soloist, arrangements must be made for Vengerov to conduct). I never doubted Vengerov's supreme status as a standard-bearer for the Russian tradition of violinists in the line of Oistrakh, famed for a huge tone and interpretive authority.
But the violin is a very human instrument capable of subtlety, tenderness, delicate gradations of tone, and of course, romance. Vengerov has left those qualities out of this recital, as is evident from the opening Bach Partita no. 2. Bach's solo music poses a tremendous technical challenge, but because the score has few expression and dynamic markings, this music also offers a canvas for personal interpretation. Vengerov's opening Allemande is direct and forceful to the point of impersonality, and I didn't feel involved until the middle of the piece, around the Sarabande, where the playing, while still Olympian, became more yielding and flexible. For the audience, Vengerov's technical command and big, seamless tone must have overshadowed the Chaconne and made it impossible to disagree with his interpretation. I can feel that, too, but this is an extroverted interpretation rather than an inward one.
As a startlingly gifted teenager, Vengerov recorded the "Kreutzer" Sonata like a fully mature musician but with a touch of unaffected enthusiasm. Here he returns as a master, and with a pianist more his equal in Itamar Golan (on the original title page the piano is mentioned before the violin). The outer movements win the audience's attention, but the more subdued Andante with variations in the middle, requires more inward, lyrical qualities. I wasn't very involved in what Vengerov and Golan had to say, so much was focused on qualities like tone and pacing. It wouldn't be appealing if Vengerov became as impersonal as Perlman when he's on automatic pilot - it's not necessarily a gift to be able to treat any technical challenge as child's play. Once we are halfway through the variations, Vengerov finds his footing, and the finale is a breathtaking display of tone and control - you think every string is seamlessly the same as every other. The overall interpretation, as in the Bach, is extroverted.
To fit the recital on one CD, a Handel sonata has been deleted (insofar as any London critic made less than gaga remarks, it concerned this piece). I found the most complete music-making in the second encore, that old chestnut of a Brahms Hungarian Dance that cannot help but evoke gypsy fiddlers in basement cafes. Vengerov swaggers through it with panache and knowing humor, as if to say, "I know this is cornball, but it's crnball of genius." the first smile of the evening came to me. the first encore, a dazzling toss-off by Wieniawski, served to remind us that when he puts his mind to it, Vengerov was effortless at being the greatest violinist in the world.