Lunch with a stranger can be formal and awkward but I need not have feared for my first encounter with Maxim Vengerov. Arriving punctually at our table with the smile that has charmed a thousand audiences, the 38-year-old violin virtuoso cuts a stylishly informal figure in jeans, designer shirt and blue jacket.
His choice of Orrery, an upmarket restaurant in Marylebone, central London, indicates he likes to dine well but there is also an element of convenience. The Royal Academy of Music, where Vengerov is to spend the afternoon teaching (as recently appointed Menuhin professor of violin), is round the corner and the Russian is no stranger to this haven of French-inspired cuisine.
After a quick glance down the menu, we both opt for a salmon starter followed by roast grouse. Vengerov turns down the offer of liquor, explaining that he needs to be alert for his class. But mention of drink reminds him of the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who started mentoring him as a teenager and invariably drank over lunch.
“He would say, ‘Drink with me’, as if we were buddies with no boundaries. I felt ashamed — I always addressed him as ‘maestro’. In Russian, as in German, there is a difference between the formal ‘you’ and the familiar ‘you’. Where I come from, the teacher is somewhere between a saint and a holy statue.”
Vengerov is in the middle of a particularly breathless schedule. Barely 12 hours ago, he was playing Brahms in Bucharest. After three days of rehearsing and performing in London, he is off to Japan. Yet only a couple of years ago it seemed unlikely he would play again — certainly not to the standard that made him a superstar.
By his early twenties Vengerov, a product of a fast-track musical education in the late Soviet era, was hailed as the outstanding violinist of his generation. Beside the electrifying speed and nimbleness of his performances, he communicated warmth of personality, effortless spark and charisma.
It was worlds away from the reticence of the old Russian school and the shallowness of most Western contemporaries. His recordings won awards, while his fees at the time rocketed to a reported $40,000 (Dh146,800) per concert, significantly higher than those commanded by other leading instrumental soloists.
But a decade later, the success story began to unravel. In 2005, fearful of burnout, Vengerov stepped off his 100-concerts-a-year treadmill and took a six-month sabbatical, during which he damaged his right shoulder while weightlifting.
Back at work in 2007, the sparkle in his mainstream performances was missing, as if the damage to his shoulder had had wider repercussions. In 2008, aged 34, he virtually gave up his solo career, preferring to train as a conductor.
Vengerov is not the first musical celebrity to have encountered such problems. The late Russian émigré pianist Vladimir Horowitz regularly withdrew from public performance for years at a time, plagued by feelings of inadequacy, and American pianist Van Cliburn fell off the career ladder in his early thirties, unable to match the expectations aroused by his sensational early success in the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958.
But when, in 2011, Vengerov gave a comeback recital in Brussels, followed by another at London’s Wigmore Hall, he seemed determined to put such comparisons behind him. He programmed two of the most demanding works in the violin repertoire, Bach’s D minor “Partita” and Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata”, dispatching them with the sort of attack and élan that generates edge-of-seat excitement. “I feel very young and new again,” he said at the time.
Judging by his present schedule, the rejuvenation is real. It has coincided with stability in his private life. He was married a year ago, to Olga, sister of another renowned Russian violinist, Ilya Gringolts, and the couple have a nine-month-old daughter.
As we sample the tomato gazpacho that comes as a taster, I ask Vengerov to analyse his career-blip: was the problem more psychological than physical? His response is neither defensive nor clear-cut.
His disappearance from public view, at an age when leading musicians expect to be at their peak, was, he concedes, “not a pleasant time. But I’m a positive person, I take things the way they come. Two years after the sabbatical, when I found I really couldn’t play, I said, ‘Fine, it’s a break, I’ll take up conducting.’ I wasn’t depressed — I made a good start, conducting some good orchestras. Then, in November 2009, I woke up one morning and said, ‘I want to play again.’”
The spirit was willing but the body was weak. His hand would not respond the way it had done before his injury, “and nobody could tell me why. It was a hopeless four months, until I found a specialist who recommended surgery [undertaken in February 2010]. Even then I couldn’t play. That was when my willpower was tested. The surgeon told me the problem was now psychological. Although I was consumed by doubt, the will to come back was overpowering, so I announced the concert in Brussels. Now my right hand feels stronger than ever.”
Vengerov, who was born to a family of Russian Jews in Novosibirsk, Siberia, was immersed in music from his earliest years. His mother ran a 500-voice children’s choir. His father played principal oboe in the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra.
He began learning the violin at the age of 4, made his public debut at 5 and performed the Mendelssohn concerto at 7. After winning the junior division of the prestigious Wieniawski Competition in Poland in 1984, he started performing regularly in public. Six years later, aged 15, he won the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition in London and the following year gave his first masterclass, at the University of California in Los Angeles.
He sidesteps my attempts to discuss the relentless competitive pressures facing young musicians. Reluctant to relate their aspirations to his experience, he says simply that “the pressure built up without me noticing it. I always felt I was a grounded, happy human being. I couldn’t believe it when the string broke, I tightened it, and it broke again. You recognise a few messages from that. So I cleaned up the computer and started a new life.”
While Vengerov has been delivering these mixed metaphors, our salmon ballotine has come and gone without much impact. When, after a decent interval, the grouse appears, I can’t help expressing dismay at the smallness of the helping.
Vengerov, a self-confessed bon vivant, concurs. “In Michelin-starred restaurants, you get even less — the food doesn’t even look like food. It’s an illusion, it’s art, it’s all about ‘creating’. Ten years ago I took my grandfather to a fancy Paris restaurant. The waiters simultaneously lifted four big pans to reveal a tiny morsel in the middle. His comment was, ‘Maxim, just give me a plate of potatoes.’ For Russians, food has to look like food.”
Such an observation reflects the modesty of Vengerov’s background. Old enough to remember the tail end of communism, he says that while Siberia suffered food shortages, “people were happy — they had their lives filled with music and friends. They had more time. I had a wonderful childhood, I felt really privileged. I knew I had to practise eight hours a day, but I still did the things other children did, like hockey and soccer — only for a shorter time. I was too young to be aware of the oppressive side of Soviet culture.”
I ask him about the Russian-Jewish musical tradition, which flourished before and during the Soviet era, producing such outstanding violinists as Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and David Oistrakh. He challenges the idea that traditions in culture are tied to blood and soil.
“Everyone talks about it, but what is the Russian school? It started when [19th-century Polish violin virtuoso Henryk] Wieniawski, who had studied in Paris, came to Moscow and St Petersburg to teach. So we owe it to the French, who owed it to the Poles.
“The centre of musical gravity travels — it’s not confined to one geographical base. If one country was the centre for all time, it would be pitiful for the rest. I was lucky. I grew up in a country where there had been a concentration on musical education. Russia had the créme de la créme of teachers. Today, when everything is fluid and flexible, you go to where the great teachers are — to Lausanne, to London.”
Our juicy grouse, however minuscule, is going down well and Vengerov, released from talk of his wilderness years, has found his stride. He argues that “talent is everywhere. You don’t need to be Jewish or Russian to understand Russian music, or to play with a particular flair. The environment plays a part only insofar as it makes you want to work. If I had been the best in my teacher’s class and everyone else average, I wouldn’t have worked so much. But I recognised the quality of the others — I knew I had competition. It made me want to excel.”
Given that, since the fall of communism, classical music has lost its privileged position in the Russian cultural edifice, does he despair for the future of musical education there? Vengerov, who returns regularly to Moscow for concerts, says culture and creativity follow money.
“The environment is not yet culture-friendly. Once the economy grows to a level comparable to the West, cultural values will be restored, teachers will come back and students will want to study in Moscow again.”
Vengerov, who has conducted orchestras in Guangzhou and Shanghai, sees China as a template for classical music’s revival. “They can play. You can see in their eyes the will to learn, even if there is not yet a depth to their performances. It was much the same three centuries ago in Russia, when Peter the Great imported Western traditions. Eventually, out of all the masses, there will be one or two geniuses.”
But, I interject, this still doesn’t explain why a few exceptional young musicians play Mozart with the beauty and wisdom of an older person. Is it genetic?
“Some day it will be explained,” says Vengerov, before continuing enigmatically: “Just like reincarnation — I think in our lifetime it will be scientifically proven. A lot of things will be explained, and when they are, humanity will take a more spiritual direction. Music can help: it’s the highest expression of the human soul. When people come to the temple of music, all political, religious and ethnic disagreements fall away.”
Amen to that. The most tempting prospect on the dessert menu seems to be rhubarb — it’s the only item listed without fancy verbal elaboration — and the result, a layered trio of mousse, jelly and sorbet, takes barely a moment to eat, leaving time for a quick coffee. While I am settling the bill, I can’t resist asking what impact Vengerov’s lay-off has had on his exchequer: does he get paid less now per concert than before the hiatus in his career? There’s a long, studied pause before he lets loose another big smile and, in quasi-confidential tone, says: “More.”
When I express mild surprise, he seems eager to justify himself. Referring to the instrument he plays, he explains that “Heifetz sold the 1727 ‘Ex-Kreutzer’ Stradivarius in 1956 for $24,000, but he was earning $8,000 for three New York Philharmonic concerts. He could afford my violin. In half a century the price grew to just under $1 million. Life is more expensive now.”
The implication is that, however pricey Vengerov may be, a top soloist’s fee has not risen as fast as the market price of a top violin. There is no time to pursue this conundrum. As bright-eyed as he was when lunch began, Vengerov sets off on foot for an afternoon of teaching.