Maxim Vengerov and Friends at Barbican Hall – Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Brahms

Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op.34
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, Op.67
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115

Maxim Vengerov & Ilya Gringolts (violins), Lawrence Power (viola), Antonio Meneses (cello), Eduard Brunner (clarinet) & Itamar Golan (piano)

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 17 January, 2014
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Maxim Vengerov. Photograph: Naim Chidiac / Abu Dhabi FestivalSurprisingly, for a ‘Somebody and Friends’ concert, Maxim Vengerov’s selection of works wasn’t designed to showcase one particular musician, but rather to provide an interesting and satisfying programme. Possibly those in the audience hoping to witness a Vengerov extravaganza would have been disappointed, but the choices highlighted the truth that a lot of good music-making is not the exerting of a central personality, but rather the confluence of disparate talents to forge a coherent musical view.

Ilya Gringolts. Photograph: Tomasz TrzebiatowskOne of these talents, Sharon Kam, was unfortunately invalided out by a skiing accident, and thus the clarinet was performed at short notice by Eduard Brunner, who showed no signs of having stepped in. Opening with Prokofiev’s seductive Overture on Hebrew Themes, Brunner was thrust immediately into the limelight, effectively capturing the antiquity of the themes without dampening the performance in melancholy sentimentality. This fluid yet sprightly character was echoed by Brunner’s colleagues, the spiky clarinet melodies echoed with mischievous gusto on viola by Laurence Power, practically bouncing in his seat. Brunner’s brand of polite anarchy, while musically fitting, did leave him occasionally obscured. Yet it also imbued his playing with a quiet authority – Noel Coward’s Mr Bridger to Lawrence Power’s Michael Caine.

The Shostakovich brought further opportunity for variety, with the violent string chords of the second movement diverging heavily (literally) with the sensitive solos for violin and cello at the work’s opening. Here dynamics were tantalisingly disassociated from emotional flow, drawing out the beauty of Shostakovich’s writing. Extreme dynamic shaping was offset by tenderly graded passages in the later movements where Vengerov’s timbre turned towards the unashamedly sentimental at times. What was missing, however, was any sense of fun or humour. One of the many elements of Shostakovich’s genius is his juxtaposition of the heartbreakingly serious with tongue-in-cheek mockery and sheer playfulness. The main thrust of this work is deeply serious, but this palls without lighter-hearted contrasts.

Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet provided further opportunity for a mildly indulgent interpretation, which worked very well at certain moments, with some superbly-judged expressive ebb and flow, as well as some gorgeously delicate melodic doubling. But, there was an absence of moving forward. To use another screen reference, this felt like the performance equivalent of Kiera Knightley – one can appreciate much beauty, yet the overall impression, bafflingly, doesn’t quite convince.

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