Edouard Lalo's 'Symphonie Espagnole' and Camille Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto #3 were comissioned by violin virtuoso and composer Pablo Sarasate, known for the beauty and sweetness of his tone, the ease with which he played even the highest notes on his instrument, and his stunning technique. Since the great young Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov not only shares these qualities, but adds to them both heart and superb imagination, he is an obvious choice to record these French masterpieces. However, largely because I am well aware of just how much competition Vengerov has from just about every other great violinist who ever lived and recorded, I have balked at buying many of his CDs, especially of very standard works, because I wanted to 'shop around' to find my favorite renditions and not have the many duplicates I do of operas and operatic recitals. I'm sure many classical music lovers have the same problem. Vengerov's jaw-dropping Britten/Walton album earlier this year, however, made me decide to at least listen to, if not actually buy, every CD he records in the future, and if necessary replace them if I like another violinist's rendition better. The other major factor in my decision to buy this CD was my eagerness to hear the great Antonio Pappano conduct purely orchestral as opposed to the operatic and vocal repertory he is more famous for. The partnership of these two brilliant, passionate and charismatic artists was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
And it truly is a partnership. In this expressive, dramatic, perhaps truly `operatic' music, Pappano proves to be just as supportive to instrumental soloists as he is to singers; he and the Philharmonia hang on Vengerov's every note. Considering just how many liberties a violinist can take in these works, that can't have been easy! As usual, Pappano is superb in building tension to dramatic climaxes and giving the music real punch and elan. Even more importantly, one of Pappano's specialties is coaxing gorgeous, radiant sound from orchestral strings sections (most noticeable here in the Saint-Saens) - all the more extraordinary considering he is a pianist and not a violinist! Vengerov indicated in recent interviews that he and the conductor have formed a very ardent mutual admiration society, and this is obvious listening to this album.
Throughout the program, Vengerov plays a 1727 Stradivarius that belonged to the legendary violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (of Beethoven's `Kreutzer Sonata' fame), and he is more than worthy of this magical instrument. Best of all, it is clear that he is having a very good time! Vengerov has played these pieces from his early childhood and as he says in his booklet essay, they evoke strong feelings of nostalgia in him. They also clearly inspire his imagination, his expressivity, and his strong sense of drama.
In the 'Symphonie Espagnole', the violinist becomes a swaggering toreador in the first movement, a sprightly and good-humored seducer in the second, a strong, passionate dancer in the third and a serious, sad man (perhaps in mourning?) in the fourth. The famous final Rondo movement is a triumph of joy and energy, and note also the way Pappano handles the crescendo and decrescendo at its start.
The highlight of the disc, however, is the second movement of the Saint-Saens. This is Vengerov's favorite part of the concerto and he is absolutely sublime, making his violin sing with such purity and sweetness that one may cry. I am reminded of the Largo from the Bach Double Violin Concerto; as Vengerov gets higher and higher and softer and softer, it is as if one is ascending to some higher, ecstatic dimension (as he puts it, 'the music melts little by little, taking us to other planets, stars, spheres'). The contrastingly zingy outer movements of the concerto are played with equal aplomb.
Maurice Ravel wrote 'Tzigane' for the Hungarian violinist Jelly D'Aranyi, who inspired him by her spectacular playing of Gypsy melodies at a party. It is intended as a showpiece and Vengerov more than delivers. From the long, spare, and incredibly difficult solo cadenza (the orchestra doesn't come in for almost four minutes) to the bewildering pyrotechnics that conclude the piece, this Russian violinist obviously feels a strong kinship with the Gypsies this piece evokes, and so does his Italian-British-American conductor.
EMI's sound engineering is at its usual high standard, although some may complain that the violinist is placed too far forward. In addition to Vengerov's comments, the documentation also consists of a fine essay on the three works by Robert Orledge (both in English, French, and German), and portraits of all the composers. It is a pity that EMI provides no biographies of either Vengerov or Pappano.
I am not the expert on violinists and violin repertory that I am the human voice, so unlike some who may review this disc, I cannot say with any degree of authority whether or not it is 'the best'. Nevertheless, Vengerov's (and Pappano's!) renditions of the works recorded here are so superb that they are a perfect introduction for listeners new to the works or those who want them in modern sound, and I imagine that even many who collect violin recordings will find little to fault about them.