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Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908)
Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20 [9:05]
Romanza Andaluza, Op. 22 [5:35]
Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie Espagnole Op. 21 in D minor [35:09]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane [9:48]
Franz WAXMAN (1906-1967)
Carmen Fantasy [11:24]
Ning Feng (violin)
Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias/Rossen Milanov
rec. Auditorio Palacio de Congresos Principe Felipe, Oviedo, Spain, in July 2015

Ning Feng, as already lauded on this site, is a very fine fiddler. He ventures on this occasion into Spanish and Spanish-flavoured fare, with sub-themes of gypsy music and the influence of Pablo de Sarasate. The recital includes two of Sarasate’s own works, as well as Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, dedicated to and premiered by Sarasate, and Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, inspired by Sarasate’s work of that name. Maurice Ravel’s gypsy-infused Tzigane rounds out the programme.

Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) is one of the more popular pieces for violin virtuosos. The opening, soulful Moderato very much sets the tone, and my immediate impression was that Feng, otherwise note-perfect, doesn’t quite “get the gypsy”. At this level of playing, it’s about the tiny nuances, but we have the authority of Sarasate’s readily available 1904 recording to guide us. It’s the difference between a close, candid view of gypsy life and a more distant, romantic one. This may be a generational thing, and indeed Gil Shaham’s performance with Lawrence Foster and the LSO (Deutsche Grammophon) also sounds a little distanced - depth of tone versus depth of feeling and experience. If the well-upholstered virtuoso vehicle we hear today for Zigeunerweisen is accepted modern practice, Feng is in good company, and his performance stands up well, my greatest concern being that expressiveness appears secondary to technical display. Shaham achieves a better balance, with fuller and richer tone; the final Allegro molto vivace is telling in this comparison.

Moving into the crowded Symphonie Espagnole field, Feng and the Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias (OSPA) under Rossen Milanov face formidable competition. While their performance in its own right does fair justice to Lalo’s masterpiece, many others do better. For reference I sampled the now venerable 1980 recording of Itzhak Perlman with Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris (Deutsche Grammophon). Immediately it’s apparent that this performance is on a higher plane; as with the Shaham example, Perlman marries technique with musicianship to deliver something more roundly convincing than Feng. The French orchestra’s contribution as well is markedly more bouyant and colourful, nowhere more apparent than in the Adagio fourth movement, where under the OSPA it simply drags.

The next two pieces fare better. Sarasate’s Romanza Andaluza passes by like a pleasantly warm Spanish evening, with Feng and the OSPA in blissful harmony. Feng then sounds more at home with Ravel’s impressionistic gypsy in Tzigane, and with the OSPA and Milanov in spirited support, this is probably the pick of the performances.

For the final piece, the choice of Waxman’s rather four-square Carmen Fantasy in preference to Sarasate’s surprises me. It’s sparsely represented in the catalogue, possibly for good reason. Originally composed for Jascha Heifetz, and recorded for RCA Victor (review review review), it’s purportedly a tougher challenge than Sarasate’s, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better listening experience. It’s graced of course by Bizet’s familiar themes, presented sequentially with elaborations from the solo violin. Together with the OSPA, Feng despatches it effortlessly, but by this stage of the recital, that was no surprise, and I was left feeling strangely unmoved.

The Channel Classics recording is up to the label’s usual high standard, although acoustically it sounds a little studio-bound. This epithet might also apply to the orchestral and solo contributions, where professional polish seems more in play than spontaneous music-making. Perhaps, despite its disadvantages, we’re getting used to the modern trend for live concert recordings, with the extra frisson they bring.

So far I’ve avoided comment on the Apasionado (Passionate) title of this album. Fitting as the title may seem, I’d suggest that, in the final analysis, the delivery doesn’t quite live up to the expectation. If the combination of works appeals, you shouldn’t be disappointed. Considering each work separately, however, there are almost certainly better choices. Ning Feng is a violin virtuoso with technical skills and a tonal palette of the very highest order; what I’d like to hear though is a bit more soul and, perhaps, a touch more insight.

Des Hutchinson



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