Being a good musician is like being a great cook, according to Maxim Vengerov. In this Masterclass first published in the November 2005 issue of The Strad, he gives his recipe for playing a fiendish Saint-Saëns waltz arrangement by Ysaÿe

Maxim vengerov cr1

I love this piece for performing violin surgery on: there are so many tiny layers. It requires all the pyrotechnics and tricks that a violinist has, but you must also have wonderful taste. It is easy to be too sentimental or romantic, because the music provokes it, but there are many other different moods: you have to alternate between being charming, melancholic and even dramatic. The piece is also difficult because of its form. The theme repeats 14 times: it goes on and on and every time you have to play it differently. That is where the spice comes from – you have to be inventive. It is about eight minutes long but it can become torture for the audience if it is too much of an etude. Technique must serve the greater purpose, which is the music. Then the audience can sit back and relax as they go on a wonderful musical journey.

Timing is everything: the piece can easily fall apart if the momentum is lost. The challenge is to know exactly where the beginning of each bar is. Only then can you find the freedom to go away from it. You have to feel the rhythm strictly but to play absolutely freely. If you play only a regular 1–2–3 then it sounds like an ordinary waltz; so work out when to swing. For this, you must always stay in touch with the accompanist and know what they are doing. They have a demanding role because their timing has to be absolutely right and they also have to match your colours.

ALLEGRO DI VALSE

Ex 1

Take the first chord. If the pianist doesn’t play this with the right intention, the beginning will not have enough dramatic impact. It has to have a little theatrical anger, which gives the impulse for you to improvise the opening cadenza (example 1). After this rhapsodic section, the left hand of the piano takes the tune, four bars before figure 1, with you playing over it. You have the theme here but you are not the soloist, so lead the piano in an equal partnership. Then at figure 1 you hand over the triplet motif to the right hand of the piano, which builds to a fortissimo in the sixth bar of figure 1, leading to your entry (example 2). Here you are free to do any rubato you want, although the music has a built-in accelerando.

The waltz starts properly from the second bar of figure 2, rather than figure 2 itself, as you might think: the piano is silent in the first bar (example 3). So you can play the first bar as you want and you have the freedom to play it differently each time, as it is always solo. After that you are restricted. Of course, the pianist has to adapt to you, but it’s a strict rhythm, especially in the third bar where the metre is four against six: here you have to mesh together perfectly.

Ex 2,3,4

One of the challenges of this passage is to be smooth with your string crossings. For example, if you change string between the G sharp and the open A in the first bar of the tune, it is easy to make an accent on the A as you move the bow across. But it has to sound as if it is all on one string – even, with no change of colour.When you are practising, pay attention to the last note before each string change. Predict the next string and get nearer to it with the bow, almost touching it. Then the right hand doesn’t have to move abruptly. Be conscious of the position of your elbow, watching so that it moves smoothly. Exaggerate the last note on the string before the change; then when you play at the proper tempo you are less likely to accent the next note. It is important to vary the colour of this phrase each time it occurs throughout the piece.We have to present familiar things a little differently when repeating them, so that they don’t become boring. You can imagine how you could torture an audience by playing the same rubato 15 times in the first bar of the tune. I don’t necessarily plan exactly how I’m going to do things – I have to feel it – but it helps to analyse the music, because the harmonic modulations can show you your options.

To help create different colours, I change my fingerings, using a different structure each time. For example, in the ninth bar of figure 2 (example 4), the first time round I might play the top G with a third finger, leading to it with a first and second on the A and B flat, whereas later on in the piece I might play the same pattern with a small slide on the first finger, landing on a fourth finger for the top G. Look for the different colours and effects that such various fingerings can offer. Choice of fingering is the most important thing when you start to learn a piece.What is a good fingering? Whatever works for you. Everyone has a different body – what is good for me is not good for someone else. You have to have your own fingering style, your own fingerprint, and it has to be suitable for whatever composition you are playing: the fingerings that I use for Romantic music are no good for Beethoven or Mozart.

VIVAMENTE

With the chords after figure 3 (example 5), practise the shifts very slowly, being conscious of feeling absolutely no tension. If you are tense you will immediately have problems with intonation – the only way to clean intonation is to relax the hand. This rule applies to everything, but if you are not relaxed when double-stopping, then forget it! Remember that this piece was originally written for piano, so sometimes you have to sound as if you are playing the piano, where double-stops are much easier.

Ex 5,6,7

VIVO – POCO MENO

It is easy to veer into tastelessness at figure 7 (example 6). Create an image for yourself, some kind of story. This passage is quite improvisatory and searching, finally working itself out in the Poco meno at figure 8, which brings a totally new development (example 7). This is a sentimental theme, full of old-fashioned romance, supported only by a thin, pianissimo accompaniment that is very raw, with hardly any sense of harmony. The pianist does give you a little of the swing of a waltz, but it is not very expressive, so it’s up to you to create the atmosphere. Again, fingerings can help with this. I might put in a few slides, for example one between the A and G sharp in the first bar, on the third finger, and then in the second bar, between the A and D sharp. But be careful: like a great chef cooking adventurous food, if you don’t use enough salt or pepper it is boring, but if you add too much it becomes distasteful.

VIVACE

A brutal mistake in the Vivace would be to make it a solo: the piano has the theme! Always work out the connections between the piano and violin tunes. For example, nine bars before figure 9 you take over the theme for a bar, but although it is an upward, leading phrase, you go back again immediately to accompanying in the next bar, until figure 9, which is all yours, with the sparse piano accompaniment of the waltz.

NON TANTO VIVO

The double-stops six bars after figure 10 are very demanding (example 8). To play the passages of thirds evenly, I practise with different dotted rhythms, which gives a better chance of being fluid when playing in tempo. You have to phrase with the right hand, using bow speed: if you play with only one speed it becomes boring. Work out how to accelerate the bow. The most important parts of the passage are the beginning and the end, and by saving the bow in the middle and accelerating towards the end, you make the music much more dramatic.

Ex 8,9,10

When practising the tenths two bars before figure 11 (example 9) clean the intonation by playing both notes together slowly, but be aware of the harmony. Perfecting every note individually is pointless without being aware of the harmonic context.You are being short-sighted if you just play the A and then the C sharp. This is the dominant chord of D major, so play that whole scale, hear the harmony and then play the tenths slowly. You will find that the intonation is immediately different and the problem solved. It can also help to sit down at a piano and play the chords.

Don’t just play the passage eleven bars after figure 11 (example 10). Organise it properly, so that you know where the different beats of the bar come and can get together with the pianist on the third beat. Without order, the pianist won’t know when to come in. Prepare them and conduct them, otherwise they’ll never catch you at this point. At figure 12 we come to the final testament of the theme, con bravura; but make sure not to rush. Then, twelve bars before figure 13, you become secondary again. As much as you wish to be the soloist here, you can’t be, because the piano has the theme – it is very cleverly constructed chamber music.

Ex 11,12

One of the challenges 13 bars after figure 14 is to escape the routine of the etude (example 11). When you practise it, play with the notes connected, without the dots – smooth and easy. Afterwards, play more leggiero, making sure not to tense your right-hand wrist. Pay particular care when there is a fusion between a legato phrase and dotted notes, for example 13 bars after figure 14. The spiccato should sound like cotton in the breeze. If you play it too hard it becomes scratchy. Practise the semiquavers (_) nine bars after figure 15 legato, one at a time (example 12). When you speed up, be light with the right hand: it’s grazioso so don’t be too aggressive. The left hand has to be a great worker, but the right hand has to be a master, a free spirit and an artist. This piece is a fantastic training ground for anyone. It helps you to become a good musician; to develop good taste, technique and sound. You must find a range of colours while realising that you are not alone. And in the end, you must forget that any problems exist. That is the final touch. Let go!

Interview by Ariane Todes