VENGEROV: His gift comes with a bow 18-year-old prodigy makes local debut with BSO

November 20, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Rumor has it that when Maxim Vengerov came to the United States last year, Midori began to wish she had learned how to type.

The Siberian-born violinist, who makes his local debut tonight performing the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the most highly touted fiddle player to ++ come to these shores in a long, long time. Although the 18-year-old Vengerov is still a newcomer here, he's become a household word in Western Europe and Japan where he's been appearing since he was a 13-year-old Wunderkind.

According to one British critic, he combines "the charm of Fritz Kreisler with the robust power of David Oistrakh"; to another, Vengerov's "daring" and "risky" playing recalls "legendary violinists like Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman and Efrem Zimbalist." And the magazine The Strad, which is to string playing what The Sporting News is to baseball, says a talent like his comes along "once in 100 years."

You might think such praise could make a teen-ager, who still travels with his mother and finds himself drawn to video arcades, a little nervous.

"No!" says Vengerov with laughter on the telephone from Los Angeles where he's appearing with that city's philharmonic. "It just affects me like a narcotic -- you couldn't play if nobody liked you."

There is indeed something about Vengerov's playing -- to judge from two remarkable recordings on the Teldec label -- that suggests some of the great violinists of the past: a huge breadth of tone that never sounds forced, magisterial bowing, flawless -- triple and quadruple stops that are matched by a sure grasp of musical structure, and an imagination that creates striking coloration suggesting a vocal rather than a merely instrumental model.

It's no accident, therefore, that Vengerov is a careful student of old recordings. Name any violinist -- from the largely forgotten Toscha Seidel or Miron Poliakin to Heifetz or the young Yehudi Menuhin -- and he can intelligently discuss their records.

"For a violinist not to study the violinists of the past would be as foolish as a singer being unaware of the bel canto tradition of Italian opera," he says. "What unites them -- and they were all different -- is that none of them [attacked] the instrument aggressively and that they all had a lot to say."

But Vengerov is quick to add that "what the violinists of the past said, we cannot. Someone like Fritz Kreisler was a gentleman on the violin, making everyone fall in love with him. But much as I adore his playing -- and I'm particularly influenced by his recording of the Mendelssohn Concerto -- he cannot be imitated. His art was of a different age; times have changed and so have we."

Vengerov was born in Novosibirsk, the capital of western Siberia, 1974, the son of an oboist in the local orchestra. He became fascinated with the violin at the age of 3 when he heard a recording by David Oistrakh. For two years the toddler attended concerts with his father, where, Vengerov says, he "listened, slept and crawled under the seats." At 5, finally big enough to manipulate the violin, he began lessons with a local teacher. Two years later when his teacher left for an appointment at Moscow's Central School for gifted children, Vengerov -- accompanied by his grandparents -- went with her. But at the age of 10, because his grandparents had become ill, he was forced to return to Siberia where he began to study with Zakhar Bron.

Bron, a student of Igor Oistrakh, is now regarded as one of the world's greatest pedagogues -- partly as a consequence of his success with Vengerov and also because of his work with another, equally talented Siberian, the slightly older Vadim Repin. What were such precocious youngsters doing in Siberia and why was Bron there to teach them?

Vengerov laughs.

"Americans makes the mistake of thinking that Siberia is like Alaska -- a vast, frozen place with a few small cities. Maybe that's what it may become because so many artists are `f emigrating from Russia, but the musical culture was very rich -- with wonderful musicians and wonderful teachers."

By 1985 Vengerov was well-known enough -- he had just taken first prize in Poland's Wieniawski Competition at the unheard age of 11 -- to cut his first record. Two years later he was sent off on his first world tour -- accompanied by two other prodigies, Repin and the pianist Evgeny Kissin -- to demonstrate the miracles achieved by Soviet musical education. Those miracles, as Repin and Kissin also amply demonstrate, are palpable; but in 1989, Vengerov and his family left the Soviet Union to go to Luebeck in Germany, where Bron had emigrated, taking all his students with him. But last year, Vengerov left Bron to move with his family to Israel.

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