Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1910) [51:36]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Violin Concerto (1925-27) [19:27]
Ning Feng (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlos Miguel Prieto
rec. 2017, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS40218 [71:05]
Ning Feng’s all-British concerto recording offers a David and Goliath look. Elgar’s sumptuous late-Romanticism sits at a decided remove from Finzi’s brand of near neo-classicism – excepting that wondrous Molto sereno central movement, of course, which took on independent life as the Introit. In any case this is only the second recording of the Finzi so it allows the luxury of a compare and contrast session with Tasmin Little’s recording as does, indeed, the Elgar.
Ning Feng is the subtle protagonist, a metrically flexible player whose dynamics are astutely judged and whose technique is up to the demands of the Elgar. His tone production is intriguing, his colouring and coiling of the line - his use of the right hand in particular in these respects – ear-catching in the extreme. His is a supple stylist too, capable of graphic delicacy and refinement, and very sweet toned indeed throughout the compass. He doesn’t avoid expressive shifts either, which is stylistically apt, nor does he make an especially big sound. He doesn’t cut through the orchestra like a rapier, preferring a certain plasticity in his lyricism.
Carlos Miguel Prieto brings out some counter-themes in the central movement that are too often skated over; he scales the brass well too, and is a perceptive accompanist to Feng, whose affectionate phrasing here sounds just a touch mannered now and then, to my ears, though there’s no doubting his affectionate commitment, and his introspective sensitivity. In not driving through the some of the finale’s passagework – the effect is somewhat to edge around it - some moments sound decidedly underpowered and to those unsympathetic to his playing there may be a feeling that he is doing too much, too often – inflecting and colouring the line where gruff stoicism may better convey the music’s essential message. I didn’t find the accompanied cadenza to be as dazzling as it can be. It’s good, no question, but doesn’t quite take flight. So for me – but not necessarily for you – this is a bit of a hit and miss performance.
Both in the Elgar and the Finzi, Tasmin Little has by far the richer, fatter vibrato. Her expression is more central in this repertoire, a product of her tone production and approach, not her nationality. Little and Richard Hickox are slightly more measured than Feng and Prieto in the opening movement, the latter pairing stressing the Bachian elements, seeing the Concerto as lighter and more capricious than the older pairing. The Hornpipe finale is splendidly done, though again it’s a tonally lighter performance, and here somewhat slower than the Little-Hickox Chandos disc. Where the newcomer fails is in the Introit. It’s sweetly done but it needs to be heart-stopping; it needs to be Rodney Friend (Lyrita) or Gerald Jarvis (BBC Radio Classics), both for Boult. Finzi wrote the concerto for Sybil Eaton, after all, with whom he was in love, and who premiered the work. I regret that it sounds so underplayed here but I concede that it fits the approach to the work as a whole, which is more light-hearted than the Little recording.
Despite my cavils I enjoyed and respected this brace of concerto performances. Feng has ideas and never falls into an expected rut, interpretatively speaking. He’s aided by a good recording and booklet and of course by fine playing from the Liverpool Orchestra, directed with suitable sympathy by Prieto.