Maxim Vengerov is 43. He's one of the most brilliant violinists you'll ever hear. Fifteen years ago, I heard him play a stunning solo concert at Carnegie Hall: just him, a microphone (through which he delivered lengthy remarks) and an audience that hung on his every word and every note, and from whom he solicited questions during the performance. Then a shoulder injury sidelined him, it was thought, permanently, and he began reinventing himself as a teacher and conductor. Now he's back. On Friday night, he took the stage at Strathmore with the pianist Roustem Saitkulov, looking stockier and more staid, and more conventional in his presentation. But his playing was as breathtaking as ever.
By "more conventional," I mean that Vengerov played with an accompanist and didn't talk to the audience, except to announce each of his four encores. His program, presented by Washington Performing Arts, also offered the accepted range of solo repertoire, across a couple of countries and from the meaty to the purely entertaining. The program began by describing the whole arc of Brahms's career, from the scherzo in C minor, or "Sonatensatz," that the 20-year-old composer contributed to a collaborative sonata for the violinist Joseph Joachim, through to the composer's third and last violin sonata, written more than three decades later.
The second half veered into a whole different world of light and color with the Ravel sonata, and then turned to showpieces: a set of fiendishly difficult unaccompanied variations on "The Last Rose of Summer," by the great 19th-century violin virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, and two pieces by Paganini. And the bouquet of encores alternated between the virtuosic (Brahms's Hungarian Dances Nos. 2 and 5) and lyrical, ending with a performance of the famous Meditation from Massenet's "Thais" that hung in the air like a pure span of rose gold.
Vengerov plays with such innate ease that difficulty doesn't really register as such. But his technical wizardry is accompanied by a big dose of heart. There's nothing cerebral about his approach; rather, he seems instinctively to understand what makes the music go, and to offer it with a soft warmth that ameliorated, for instance, the rawness of the youthful, Beethoven-echoing Sonatensatz, and animated the intense expressivity of the third sonata.
Saitkulov, a frequent accompanist of the violinist, also brought a notably light and buoyant touch, melting into the opening of the Ravel like sugar vanishing on the tip of your tongue. If the Brahms was the meat of the program, the Ravel was, to me, its wondrous delight. The way that Vengerov curled himself around the jazz-inspired tones of the second movement, pulling them out like taffy as if it were the most natural thing in the world, obliterated years of other performances marked by earnest good intentions from talented players.
The Ernst piece was a high-wire act and a bonbon and a prodigious feat and sometimes downright abrasive to listen to, with all of its leaps and double-stops and sleights of finger. The Paganini "Cantabile" was a lyrical wonder; "I Palpiti," the final piece on the official program, took the violin into the realm of bel canto opera with Paganini's reworking of a Rossini aria, as arranged by Fritz Kreisler. If it didn't show someone exactly breaking new ground, the evening was a reminder of the prodigious delights to be found in a master tilling the old one, while remembering that there is fun, as well as brilliance, in the exercise.