Ning Feng: Apasionado
The best thing about this disc is the programme, followed closely by the recorded sound and, a short distance behind that, the soloist, the fiery Asturias players and their conductor. It opens with Zigeunerweisen, Sarasate’s old warhorse, followed by a French composer’s symphonic postcard from Spain dedicated to Sarasate, whose languorous Romanza andaluza succeeds it. With Tzigane, we return to the world of Zigeunerweisen but filtered through the refined ears of another French composer, and end with a potpourri of themes from an opera by another Frenchman whose eponymous heroine is a Zigeunermädchen from Spain, Sarasate’s home country.
Now it just so happened that immediately before his disc arrived for review, some research for another project led me to play for the first time in years Sarasate’s own 1904 G&T recording of Zigeunerweisen (slightly abridged) partnered by his longtime (uncredited) accompanist Berthe Marx. I had forgotten what a wonderful sound document it is, with the composer’s legendary dexterity still intact and – the big difference between him and Ning Feng – his innate charm colouring every bar. The fioritura passages in the lassan section are nonchalantly thrown away, while he brings a sparkling mischief to the show-stopping friska.
Ning Feng (b1982, Chengdu, China) is a multiple competition prize-winner with an iron-clad technique, a dazzling left hand and a firm, rich tone which one cannot help but admire. Here, he also sounds steely, unsmiling and entirely charisma-free. The fioritura is over-deliberate and given inappropriate importance, while the friska is more aggressive than playful. These characteristics permeate the rest of the disc and militate against the generally sunny disposition of the music. If you had never heard Perlman or Repin in the Lalo, Vengerov in Tzigane or the peerless Heifetz in Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy (almost two minutes faster than the newcomer, incidentally), you would sit back and applaud Ning Feng. If, on the other hand, you had, then you might find your attention wandering.