LALO: Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21. SAINT-SAËNS: Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61. RAVEL: Tzigane.
Maxim Vengerov, violinist; Philharmonia Orch/Antonio Pappano, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 75932 (F) (DDD) TT: 74:04

LALO: Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21. RAVEL: Tzigane. SAINT-SAËNS: Havanaise, Op. 83. SARASATE: Carmen Fantasy.
Howard Zhang, violinist; Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia/Takuo Yuasa, cond.
NAXOS 8.555093 (B) (DDD) TT: 62:56

LALO: Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21. MANEN: Concierto Espagnol, Op. A-7.
Mark Kaplan, violinist; Orquestra Simonica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya/Lawrence Foster, cond.
KOCH CLASSICS 3-7531 (F) (DDD) TT: 65:02

The poularity of Edouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole is reflected in the large number of recordings currently available. Lalo (1823-1892), in spite of his Spanish name, was born in Lille. After making his living as a violinist and teacher he began to compose. In 1870 the famed Pablo de Sarasate played the young composer's violin concerto so successfully it prompted Lalo to immediately write Symphonie espagnole, actually a five-movement violn concerto, which he dedicated to Sarasate.In its earlier years the custom was to eliminate the third movement, Intermezzo; now all recordings present all five movements. Currently collectors can buy older recordings by Alfredo Campoli, Mischa Elman, Zino Francescatti, Arthur Grumiaux, Ida Haendel, Jascha Heifetz, Bronislaw Huberman, Leonard Kogan, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern and Jacques Thibaud, as well as more recent ones by, among others, Sarah Chang, Tasmin Little, Schlomo Mintz, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman, Vadim Repin, Christian Tetzlaff and Chee-Yun.

All three of the new versions are superb. Vengerov, who has already recorded just about every major concerto for his instrument (except Beethoven's, surprisingl), recreates his spectacular performance of the Lalo given at the Proms in July 2002 in this studio recording made slighty less than a year later. His generously-filled CD also contains a dramatic account of Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3, and Ravel's showpiece is an added bonus on this near-maximum filled CD. Vengerov's rich tone, stunning virtuosity and individual approach are always present. He is given superb support by Pappano and the Philharmonia Orchestra in a recording that boasts extraordinarily fine sonics. This is not a SACD but sounds as if it could be, with a sense of presence and balance. The sensitive microphones occasionally pick up slight extraneous sounds, presumably from the orchestra.

Mark Kaplan's version is competitive with the best and has the unusual distinction of containing the only recording available of Joan (Juan) Manen's Concierto Espagnol, Op. A-7. This composer is represented in the CD catalog currently solely by a song ("Lo frare") sung by Conchita Supervia on Pearl 184 and Miniatures for String Orchestra on Nimbus 5570. Joan Manen, born in Barcelona in 1883, was a fine pianist who played Chopin concertos when he was only seven, later switching to the violin which he quickly mastered. He gave many concerts but was competing with Heifetz, Szigeti and other major violinists of the time. He composed prolifically well into his eighties, his works including operas, ballets and a symphony, and his works for violin and orchestra include Variations on Turkey in the Straw. Dissatisfied with many of his early works, Manen revised many of them in later years identifying them with the letter A preceding the opus number. Concierto Espagnol, written when Manen was in his teens, is dedicated to Fritz Kreisler although there is no indication the famous violinist ever played or even heard of the work. Kaplan gives a detailed positive description of the 31-minute concerto and, expectedly, is generous in praise for the work. However, after a somewhat impressive beginnng, the concerto falls into the commonplace with little thematic interest but plenty of virtuoso episodes for the soloist. Kaplan, the orchestra and Foster do what can be done for Concierto Espagnol, but it's easy to understand why this music isn't better known. Manen obviously felt he filled an important position in Spanish music; before his death in 1971 he wrote a three-volume autobiography.

Howard Zhang, born in 1984, began studying when three years old and when twelve studied for two years with Itzhak Perlman. He's won many competitions and has appeared often in concerts and with orchestras. With impeccable intonaton and totally secure technique Zhang offers first-class performances of the Lalo and Ravel, not as poised as Vengerov's, but highly impressive indeed. The Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, which began as a recording orchestra for Naxos, consists of players from leading Hungarian orchestras. They now give concerts regularly, and are in fine form in these performances. Naxos' sound is extraordinarily vivid, with splendid hall sound. If you're looking for a budget recording of these works you could do no better than this.

R.E.B. (November 2003)