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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1892-1953)
Solo Violin Sonata in D major Op.115 (1947) [13:49]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Solo Sonata Op.31 No.1 (1924) [13:40]
Solo Sonata Op.31 No.2 ‘Es ist so schönes Wetter draussen’ (1924) [12:07]
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Solo Sonata Sz117 (1944) [28:30]
Ning Feng (violin)
rec. Westvest, Schiedam Netherlands, February-March 2012

The solo Sonatas and Partitas of Bach cast a long and enduring shadow over the entire solo violin repertoire that post-date them. Just about every work written - of any artistic stature - seems to be a reaction against or a homage to those remarkable pieces. Certainly, the thesis holds true for the four works recorded here, which for all the unmistakeable fingerprints of their composers are pulled with a kind of musical gravitation back towards the sun of the Bach originals.
In purely technical terms this is a CD of quite stunning violin playing. Every aspect of Ning Feng’s playing seems to be under extraordinary control. The even-ness of his tone production whether high, low, slow and sustained or precipitously fast is remarkably similar. Usually you can perceive a degree of technical strain in the way the tone hardens or some passage-work might fractionally blur - not here, every note and strand of music remains crystal clear. The Prokofiev and Bartok Sonatas in particular have entered near-enough standard repertoire ever since their 1940s composition so they have been recorded by many top virtuosi since. On the level of technical address Feng is the equal of any.
Here’s the snag, though; my listening notes refer time and again in the most glowing terms to this technical skill, but almost never to the musical aspect of the performances. I am not saying for one second that these are not intelligent and perfectly sane centrist performances because they are, simply that the level of musical insight does not match the technical brilliance. I feel almost ungrateful and churlish asking for more in the presence of such skill. Take one simple and immediately audible example; the opening of the Prokofiev Sonata and compare it to another version I know played by a favourite violinist Gil Shaham. Feng is given a generous acoustic which gives his already superb playing a rich veneer. Indeed his opening has a Bachian grandeur that it wholly impressive ... if not very Prokofievian. Shaham, more closely and drily recorded - not totally in his favour it has to be said - is instantly more capricious and sly. The notes still echo Bach but now refracted through Prokofiev’s troubled 20th Century glass. I have no doubt that there will be many who prefer Feng’s approach but I find Shaham’s personality far more individual and more impressive.
Much the same can be said of the rest of the programme - with a growing sense that Feng does not makes enough of the different sound-worlds of the three composers. If you want streams of remarkable playing this is this disc for you and again, perhaps Feng is right to find a continuity where I sense a greater divide. I have to say that the Hindemith Solo Sonatas were unknown to me and as such are a delightful discovery. It struck me that this repertoire - with the closest homage of all in the Op.31 No.1 sonata - most suits Feng, certainly as recorded here. Hindemith never manages to throw off the stigma of being a ‘dry’ and ‘academic’ composer but pick any movement of either sonata to have this caricature refuted. Feng’s ability to sustain double-stopped lines makes the second movement of this Sonata; Sehr langsame Viertel - surely a direct tribute to the opening of the 3rd Bach Sonata - quite superb. Compare Ruggiero Ricci who rather more feverishly takes just 2:42 to Feng’s 4:28 for the same movement; the laurels here rest most certainly with Feng. Indeed this whole sonata seems to most clearly chime with Feng’s style and extraordinary technique. Hindemith wrote these two sonatas for his violinist colleagues in the Amar Quartet of which he played viola. I wonder if the players were delighted or daunted by the gift. The Op.31 No.2 Sonata - subtitled “It’s such fine weather outside” - owes less to Bach. Again while I marvel at the stream of beauty that Feng produces I struggle more to hear the structural skeleton that lies beneath. For sure Feng is willing to play with a single hair of the bow or full-blooded intensity but in the more expressionist Op.31 No.2 I feel that the music would support a more challenging - even ugly - approach.
Fine though all of the music on this disc is there is surely just one masterpiece and that is the Bartók Sonata. Its genesis is well-known, an ailing homesick composer stranded in a foreign country managing to produce a late Indian Summer of major works including the 3rd Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra as well as this Sonata. A masterpiece I would say because it finds a near-perfect balance between originality, homage - the first two movements are marked after all tempo di ciaccona and Fuga - and an innate appreciation of just what could be achieved in the medium. This is great music that happens to have been written for a solo violin. All too often composers wrestle with the understandable limitations that an essentially monophonic single instrument brings. Since I am not alone in recognising the genius at work here it is no surprise that comparative versions in this piece abound and competition is fierce. Again the sheer skill of Feng’s playing astounds. Aided by the rich acoustic this feels like a performance that emphasises the homage more than the originality of the work. Bartók is surely the composer who most successfully fused contemporary and folk-idioms and this work displays this as well as any. Feng’s lush playing understates the spiky fiddling aspect. Try for example Leila Josefowicz or Christian Tetzlaff who are just two of many who project an earthier quality that I personally prefer. Important to note though that in this company Menuhin - the violinist who encouraged Bartók to produce the work and gave the first performance - sounds harsh and effortful. As a major piece clearly both approaches will ‘work’ and will have their admirers. I find the analogy of driving rather fast in a Rolls Royce appropriate; a wonderful ride for sure but where’s the visceral excitement of the driving experience?
Some other passing comments; the liner note is perfectly adequate and offered in English, German and French. Feng’s agent’s website states that he performs on a Stradivarius although on this disc considerable point is made of the fact that he is playing a 2007 Stefan-Peter Greiner violin. As an advert for this maker’s instruments this is superb because, as I have made clear, Feng produces a brilliant even tone across the entire range and as recorded the violin sounds full and rich. The recording is a Super Audio CD listenable to as a 5.0 surround sound disc. My system allows standard reproduction which as I have mentioned places the instrument slightly back in the resonant acoustic. There is one odd quirk which is that - over headphones in particular - Feng’s breathing sounds closer than his violin. Logically that cannot be but that is how it sounded to me. Overall I would say the recorded style suits Feng’s approach very well.
A disc that left me hugely impressed yet strangely unmoved at the same time.
Nick Barnard