Review: Violinist Vengerov returns to Ravinia with a great Britten

James Conlon
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

Beyond the big composer anniversaries of Verdi, Wagner and Benjamin Britten everybody is celebrating this year, Ravinia is honoring a performer anniversary of particular significance to the festival.

It was here, 20 years ago, that a brilliant young Russian violinist named Maxim Vengerov, then all of 17, made his debut on Ravinia's Rising Stars series, also playing the Sibelius concerto for his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut the same summer. "If Vengerov is not the finest violin talent of his generation," I wrote at the time, "I don't know who is."

In more recent years he put his violin playing partially on hold, adding teaching and conducting to his resume while he recovered from an exercise injury. So his return to Ravinia this week for his first festival appearances since 1995 was a "homecoming" no connoisseur of great fiddle playing could afford to miss.

Vengerov followed his recital Monday in the Martin Theatre with an absolutely stunning performance of the Britten Violin Concerto on Wednesday.

James Conlon, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time this season, surrounded Britten's music (including the Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes") with overtures and preludes to the Wagner operas "Rienzi," "The Flying Dutchman" and "Lohengrin."

For reasons that escape me, the Britten Violin Concerto, composed in 1939 but revised several times since then, has found favor with few of today's marquee violinists. The score is ingeniously made, packed with striking ideas and the sort of fiercely demanding bravura writing that's like catnip to a virtuoso of Vengerov's caliber. He may well be its most eloquent living champion, to judge from the intensity and commitment he brought to this neglected masterpiece on Wednesday.

Vengerov sang the cantilena of the first movement with a piercing sweetness that carried over into Conlon's caring accompaniment. The ebb and flow of the melodic trajectory brought a rubato that always felt natural, rather than applied. Fingers and bow moving at a seemingly impossible speed, he gave the Prokofiev-like Vivace a propulsive drive that was tremendously exciting: You half-expected the instrument, presumably his 1727 "ex-Kreutzer" Stradivarius, to burst into flame.

The long, troubled Passacaglia finale may be a tougher nut to crack, but both Vengerov and Conlon kept it together right through the rapt and haunting apotheosis, treating this movement like enlarged chamber music. Given performances as vital as this, Britten's shamefully neglected concerto will not languish in obscurity much longer.

Wednesday's audience would not let Vengerov leave the stage until he obliged them with an encore, which was the "Sarabanda" from J.S. Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor. It, too, was beautifully played.

Ravinia this summer is getting some of the spillover from Conlon's extended, worldwide immersion in Britten's music. He applied the CSO's flat-out brilliance and tonal weight to the "Grimes" interludes with an impact few opera orchestras could have matched.

Britten was an avowed Wagner enthusiast, so the pairing with Britten's music made sense. The storm-tossed "Dutchman" overture and the final "Grimes" interlude worked particularly well back to back. Conlon brought out the Meyerbeerian pomp of the "Rienzi" overture at a decibel level people in Schaumburg would have been able to hear. By contrast, the Act I "Lohengrin" prelude displayed welcome refinement of string tone, just as the Act III prelude from the same opera showed off the magnificent solidity of the CSO brass choir.