Maxim Vengerov: ‘Growing up Jewish in Siberia, I knew I had to excel’

Virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov puts his success down to his upbringing as a Jewish boy in the heart of Russia.. With celebrations of his 40 years as a performer on ice, he talked to Jessica Duchen about his career


Is it really possible that Maxim Vengerov has been giving concerts for 40 years?

Debonair, charismatic, a father-of-two and the nearest thing the world of the classical violin has to a household name, he is after all only 45. He was to celebrate the ruby anniversary of his performing life in a gala concert on June 12 at the Royal Albert Hall and it was with this in mind that we met in central London just days before lockdown began.

I first encountered Vengerov when he was a tousle-haired lad of 15, playing at the Wigmore Hall with a precision, fire and charisma worthy of a young Jascha Heifetz. This was the real deal, a prodigy extraordinaire whose grasp of both instrumental technique and musical expression was mature far beyond his years.

Born into a Russian Jewish family in Novosibirsk, Siberia, he is the son of an oboist father and a choral conductor mother. While still in Russia he created quite a buzz as an outstanding Wunderkind in the class of the violin pedagogue Zakhar Bron; he first went on tour at the age of ten. When he won the Carl Flesch Competition in London, aged 16, it surprised some that he even bothered entering, given that he was already so well-established.

He credits his heritage with a crucial role in his early successes. As a Russian Jewish violinist, he is part of an extraordinary tradition: a number of the 20th century’s greatest violinists came from this same background and largely formed the public impression of what a great virtuoso performer should be. While Vengerov takes a certain pride in this, he also has some vital perspective to cast on where it goes from here.

“I was raised in Novosibirsk, where we acknowledged we were Jewish but didn’t practise it — we didn’t go to synagogue because it was forbidden in the USSR. We were simply Jews living in Russia,” he says. “I was born already in the times when everything was fading away, the strength of Russia was gone and different values were starting to emerge. But as a Jewish kid I knew that I had to excel, and that’s why there were extraordinary Jews among the writers, musicians, poets and doctors. They all needed to excel.”

That feeling is familiar to anyone whose face or background does not fit a mainstream majority: the sense that one has to run twice as fast as anyone else. “Yes, absolutely,” Vengerov agrees. “I’m sure there were great musical souls who were non-Jews, but look at the results at that time, and now. Today there are more Asian violinists because they feel more passionate [about music and the violin]. That doesn’t mean there is no more Jewish talent; it’s just that the values have changed, along with the necessity to be strong or to excel, because there is more acceptance of us today.”

After the collapse of the USSR, Vengerov and his parents emigrated to Israel, where his grandparents had already settled. What was that like? Vengerov smiles: “It was always my dream to be near the sea,” he says (Novosibirsk, in the very centre of Russia, is as landlocked as any place on earth). “Moving to the West opened different eyes to the world for me: I became more cosmopolitan.”

The family had not planned their move much in advance, he adds, “but Israel embraced us with open arms. We met lots of wonderful friends and I found the greatest audiences there. Israel and Russia are still where I feel at home.” He now lives in Monaco with his wife, Olga (whose brother is the Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts) and their two young children.

Nevertheless, he says, he traditionally goes to Israel whenever the country is experiencing a crisis. “In the 1990s when the Gulf War was taking place and there were rockets overhead, I arrived in Israel and said that I want to perform, and I was wearing a gas mask. When there was a conflict in the south, I played for citizens of Beersheva, with sirens going off. Always when there’s a conflict, I feel I’m a solider with my rifle in my violin and bow. This tradition is from my predecessors — Isaac Stern used to do the same. You need to be there for your family, and I have a lot of family in Israel.”

Music has a unique capacity to build bridges where other means fail, so it is impossible not to wonder if Vengerov might turn his art to this use, too. He has never been to the West Bank — but he does not rule it out when the time is right: “At a later stage, I am sure,” he says, “when there would be agreement between the Israeli government and Palestine. It has to be done in accordance and in agreement with everybody, and then music can be part of it. In my opinion, music must be supportive of your family, so I would not do anything the Government does not do.”

Both in and beyond Israel, the violinist is passionately involved with performing for charitable causes. “In 2006, I founded a music school in the north of Israel, Musicians of Tomorrow. It is run by a wonderful former violinist of the Israel Philharmonic, Dr Anna Rosnovsky. Helping people and sharing is part of my tradition, the tradition of my family. I was lucky to receive so much help, both in Russia and Israel, and it’s time to give something back.”

He has taken part, too, in numerous events commemorating the Holocaust. “In 2004, there was a BBC documentary for the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, and as part of this I played the Bach D minor Chaconne there. Later, when I was performing in Brussels, an elderly lady came up to say that her mother who had survived Auschwitz had just passed away. She wanted to tell me that this film had touched her deeply, because this very piece I had chosen to play in Auschwitz had saved her life. She had arrived there when she was 15 or 16, they saw her violin and said ‘OK, play for us’ — and she was very lucky.” Because of her violin playing, she had been spared from the gas chamber.

“We arrived at Auschwitz the day before filming and we had to make the sound-track in the coldest studio I have ever played in. It reminded me of Siberia!” Vengerov recounts. “You could literally see the steam coming out of your mouth. I was playing, feeling frozen to death. The next day was even worse, because I had to wear a very light coat, otherwise I could not hold the violin. It was -20 degrees and we were filming for four or five hours. It was an experience that built me as a person — I’m very thankful for it. It was an honour to do this to commemorate the victims and those who are still alive.” Sixteen years on, there are tears in his eyes as he remembers it.

Most recording studios are a little bit warmer, especially when such music-making has been taking place within them. Vengerov looks back on his recording career to date with a keen sense of irony; he is perfectly aware that he’s not exactly over the hill, and yet the evolution of recording technology in this time has been remarkable.

Here, too, he started young: not many musicians got to record aged 10 on the leading Russian record label, Melodiya. “My first recording was on LP stereo,” Vengerov says. “My second was part of the Tchaikovsky Competition opening concert, I was 11 and it was also on LP, but digital, so I had already moved to a different epoch. Then when I came to London and recorded for Biddulph Records, that was my first CD.”

He was just into his teens. Next, he won a contract with Teldec, then through the 1990s and 2000s recorded numerous discs for companies which at intervals ate one another in takeovers.

Now there is yet another new format: direct to streaming. Vengerov is making all his new recordings exclusively available via the classical specialist streaming service IDAGIO. “I’m so lucky to live through all these epochs and to see also the evolution of a level of great quality through all these changes,” he says.

The anniversary concert has inevitably been postponed until April 2021 in the Coronavirus crisis, but not cancelled outright. It is planned as a collaboration with colleagues — the pianist Martha Argerich, the cellist Mischa Maisky, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra under the conductor Marios Papadopoulos, and students from the Royal College of Music, where Vengerov is Polonsky Visiting Professor of Violin. Once it can go ahead, there will be double cause for celebration. Until then, recordings must hold sway.


Maxim Vengerov’s first releases on IDAGIO are of works by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Ravel with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Myung-Whun Chung and a recital with the pianist Roustem Saitkoulov of Brahms, Enescu and Paganini. JC readers can get a 15 per cent discount on premium membership using the code ‘Maxim Vengerov’.


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