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Polished artist also cautious

A young violinist plays Brahms and Mozart with feeling but holds back on the personality.

March 05, 2004|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

At 29, violinist Maxim Vengerov is a survivor in a shrinking recording industry that's cut back its commitments to young artists. After 10 rewarding years with the enterprising Teldec Classics label, Vengerov went on in 2000 to sign an exclusive contract with the bigger-brand EMI Classics. His Bach-Ysaye-Shchedrin disc for his new label continued the stream of recognition with a 2003 Edison Award.

On Wednesday, Vengerov brought his "Kreutzer" Stradivarius for a Brahms-Mozart recital in Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the Colburn Celebrity Series. Evgenia Startseva was his accompanist.

Vengerov is an artist of polish and precision. At Disney, it was often impossible to detect when his bow touched a string and equally a mystery when the bow left it. His tone was warm, focused and occasionally fervent. His phrasing was smooth and continuous. His talent and commitment were evident.

For all that, he seemed to confuse Brahms and Mozart with minor Mendelssohn. He gave Mozart's Sonata in B-flat, K. 454, a high-gloss, porcelain finish that ruled out drama or character. It became an elegant object to put on a shelf and admire next to a periwigged statuette of the composer.

Brahms' more overly passionate works -- the Scherzo in C minor and the Second and Third Sonatas -- received similarly poised, light-textured and objective interpretations. No one could say that Vengerov played without feeling, but he was cautious about revealing too much personality -- either his own or Brahms'.

He and his accompanist may have been uncertain about the lively Disney acoustic. Startseva, who shared Vengerov's interpretive approach to the letter, played with the piano lid fully raised. This produced a sound that tended to overpower the violinist, particularly in the opening Scherzo in C minor. The two adjusted as the recital progressed, but they often kept the same unbalanced relationship, whether growing softer or louder. Maybe from their position they heard more passionate music-making than some members of the audience did.

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