A film by Ken Howard

COMPOSERS: A film by Ken Howard
LABELS: EMI
ALBUM TITLE: Maxim Vengerov: Living the Dream
WORKS: A film by Ken Howard
PERFORMER: Maxim Vengerov (violin), Mstislav Rostropovich, Benjamin Yusupov
CATALOGUE NO: 503 4029 (NTSC system; PCM stereo; 16:9 picture format)
Well-made documentaries about living musicians are so rare these days that Ken Howard’s film is most welcome. It is refreshingly well-researched and intelligently structured: clearly a huge amount of time was spent with the violinist in vastly distant locations. It begins in London in 2005, follows his year’s sabbatical and ends with the premiere of Yusupov’s Viola Tango Rock Concerto.

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Howard has struck gold in his subject: Vengerov is every inch the performer, but disarmingly frank, able to laugh at himself and with a gift for the pithy phrase. We see him imbibing every word of his mentor Rostropovich at a rehearsal of the Beethoven Concerto (one of the most musically interesting parts of a film which is short on performance and has only one ‘encore’ bonus track). We also witness his uproarious struggle to keep up in Didier Lockwood’s jazz class. His trip back to Novosibirsk after 20 years is all snow balls and sentiment, but to see the faces of his local audience as he wows them with Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations is touching indeed.

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There’s just one point in his sabbatical year when the dazzling smile slips – one wintry afternoon he confesses that learning how to tango and to improvise were possibly skills that needed more than a few months to master. But this is a man in his prime, and he acquits himself with panache in the Hanover premiere of Yusupov’s bizarre concoction (Bashmet has a serious rival violist there). A shoulder injury prevented its Proms premiere this year, but from what is shown here, we were spared… Otherwise a thoroughly engaging film.