“Apasionado” – Works of SARASOTA, BIZET, RAVEL, WAXMAN = Ning Feng, violin/ Orq. Sinfonia – Channel Classics

“Apasionado” – SARASATE: Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20; LALO: Symphonie Espagnole in D Major, Op. 21; SARASATE: Romanza Andaluza, Op. 22; RAVEL: Tzigane; BIZET/WAXMAN: Carmen Fantasy – Ning Feng, violin / Orquestra Sinfónica del Principado del Asturias / Rossen Milanov – Channel Classics CCS 37916, 72:07 (4/1/16) ****:

Apasionado or purely virtuoso, these works deliver violinistic fireworks by the carload.

So far in his recording career, Chinese violinist Ning Feng has tackled only a couple of the warhorses of the violin repertoire, namely the Bruch and Tchaikovsky concertos. With the current recording, he adds a once-popular concerto to his catalog. As the name of Édouard Lalo’s work implies, it combines elements of concerto, symphony, and symphonic suite in a unique manner. With  its Spanish flavor, colorful orchestration, and varied emotional palette, it should still be a crowd pleaser but is heard rarely in the concert hall these days—and rarely recorded. In fact, except for remastered recordings by violinists past such as Isaac Stern, this seems to be the only SACD version currently available.

It’s a very recommendable version, too, one that captures the wide-ranging landscape of the piece, from the fiery opening through the operatic drama of the Andante to the ebullience of the Scherzando second movement and finale. Feng’s performance is fully engaged, while the Spanish orchestra seems to relish Lalo’s masterly imitation of Iberian musical gestures. (Then again, the Spanish musical idiom was a natural for Lalo, who, though born in northernmost France, came from a family of Spanish military men.)

The other works are the kind of short virtuoso vehicles with which violin soloists filled out their programs in earlier times. Rarely programmed nowadays, they still retain their popularity with armchair audiences. Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (“Gypsy Airs”) uses genuine gypsy melodies, beginning with a long-breathed, melancholy tune that the solo violin embellishes, swooping from the lowest to the highest register, and ending with a fiery czárdás—a melody Liszt had earlier cribbed for one of his Hungarian Rhapsodies (No. 13).

It’s appropriate that the disc include a take on gypsy music from a Frenchman, one with roots in the Basque region near the Spanish border. Ravel’s Tzigane is broadly imitates the style of gypsy music, though unlike Sarasate’s work it contains no authentic gypsy melodies. However, like Sarasate’s work, it is an endurance test for the violinist—even more so, as the solo violin must navigate mine fields of quick pizzicato passages, as well as sing sweetly through long stretches of harmonics.

With Romanza Andaluza, Sarasate returns to home turf. It’s a piece with a sleepy, lilting rhythm; fireworks aren’t called for here. Instead, the violin comments on the tune, maintaining a songful demeanor, though of course the soloist gets to show off his or her command of a variety of techniques from challenging double stops to high harmonics.

One review I read of this recording groused that Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy is dull and foursquare compared to Sarasate’s better-known fantasy, which should have been included on the program instead. However, if you’re like me, you’ll be happy to hear something other than the same old same old. As it turns out, Waxman’s piece is anything but dull and manages to erect new hurdles in the soloist’s path. The Fantasy is an expansion of a piece included in the 1946 film Humoresque, starring John Garfield as a concert violinist. Jascha Heifetz requested the expanded version and thus gave violinists a well-constructed virtuoso vehicle that starts, as it must, with the pomp of the March of the Toreadors, segues to Carmen’s Habanera, L’amour est une oiseau rebelle, and ends with the Gypsy Song from Act 2. Waxman manages to work some interesting counterpoint into the finale, along with the usual virtuoso gambit for the soloist.

Ning Feng delivers all these demanding works with the fire, ice, and sugar, in different measures, that they require. His technique is beyond cavil, of course, but he also plays with a purity and sweetness of tone rare among the current crop of virtuosi, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s good to hear from Rossen Milanov again, onetime assistant conductor of my hometown band, the Philadelphia Orchestra. The convergence of Eastern European conductor and Spanish orchestra certainly nails down both musical strains in this program, providing properly atmospheric support to Feng’s virtuoso fiddling. Bright, open SACD sound—with ample bass and very present percussion—helps to seal the deal on this entertaining survey of violin showpieces.

—Lee Passarella

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