Maxim Vengerov: 'Playing an instrument should never become routine'

Maxim Vengerov is one of today’s greatest violinists – we spoke to the brilliant musician about staying passionate, why recording is so much harder than performing live and the unusual reason he chose the violin in the first place…

Maxim Vengerov violinist

What’s your earliest musical memory?

I remember going along to orchestra rehearsals with my father, who played the oboe. I must have been a toddler and he would put me in the front row of the auditorium and I’d spend my time there sleeping and listening to the orchestra. In the afternoons my mother took me along to the rehearsals of the children’s choir that she led. My parents didn’t have money for childcare so they had to take me to every musical occasion with them.

Why did you choose to play the violin?

My father played oboe and when I watched rehearsals I could never see him behind the violin section. So all I knew was that I didn’t want to play oboe because nobody would see me.

What advice would you give to someone trying to become a professional musician?

Playing an instrument shouldn’t be work, it should be enjoyment and should never become routine. Of course Tchaikovsky said that he had to write a certain amount every day, but he still said that inspiration only comes once in a while. You have to fight for that inspiration, it doesn’t just come, you have to nurture it. I think the best piece of advice is to really have passion for what you do. Once the passion and love goes, you have to quit.

Who are your musical idols?

I grew up with a generation of violinists that unfortunately are no longer alive, like David Oistrakh (below). Later I got to know marvellous recordings of Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern. I remember the first time that I listened to Heifetz’s recording and it was completely different from what I was used to, much more intense, really incredible.

Which recording or project are you most proud of and why?

I’ve been fortunate to record with some great conductors, including Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur. I’ve always considered myself equally a live performer and a recording artist. I try to make every recording a statement of my interpretation at that moment and for me I put perhaps ten times more effort into a recording than into a live concert performance because the greatest challenge of a studio performance is to make it come alive and feel like a live performance.

Nowadays you work a lot with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra. Why have you chosen to work with this orchestra so regularly?

The Oxford Philharmonic is a very special orchestra because every musician is practically a soloist. Most of the members of the violin sections regularly play concertos as soloists and they’re also wonderful chamber musicians. The orchestra comes together like a team of great football players, and Marios Papadopoulos is a marvellous conductor.

Finally, which composer from the past or present would you most like to meet and why?

Mozart, because I’ve spent so much time researching and living with Mozart’s life. I think he was a very special human being – I just want to be friendly with genius.

Maxim Vengerov performs Brahms' Violin Concerto with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday 8th November, under conductor Marios Papadopoulos.

Maxim Vengerov

Maxim Vengerov Violinist Maxim Vengerov

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