Jenö Hubay's violin concertos -- there are four of them -- have been recorded twice before in the digital era, most conspicuously by Hagai Shaham for Hyperion and Vilmos Szabadi for Hungaraton. Considered the father of the Hungarian violin school, Hubay is best known for the folk-flavored Hejre Kato, Op. 32/4, which comes from his series of single pieces Scènes de la Csàrda. Before 2000, recordings of Hubay's violin concertos were quite rare; during the LP era only the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G minor, Op. 99, was issued in the West, as recorded by Aaron Rosand for Vox in 1972. Needless to say, with this sort of famine turned into a near feast, one can be relatively selective in picking among the various offerings for these works. Naxos has brought out one of its big guns to bear on Hubay in recording English violin sensation Chloë Hanslip in its Jenö Hubay: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; can concertos No. 3 and No. 4 be far behind?
There's a reason these concertos aren't done very often. Hubay's short pieces are great, affording a soloist the opportunity to show off some flash in 6-10 minutes; moreover, these pieces are ripe with the Hungarian folk idiom that seldom fails to please an audience. The concertos are different, however; the technical requirements of Hubay's large-scale works are almost ridiculous, and for the average soloist to keep this level of execution up for a full half hour is as much a test of endurance as virtuosity. While Hubay may have been a great violinist, he was only a fair orchestrator and particularly in the Concerto No. 2 the operetta-styled orchestration can sound a little cloying over time and competes to some extent with the soloist. What Hanslip brings to this project is youth and starry-eyed enthusiasm; her violin blazes with energy throughout this supreme test of her ability; the "Dramatique" concerto (No. 1) is just that. The shorter pieces are pulled off with gusto and aplomb. With Andrew Mogrelia and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Hanslip has a far more sympathetic accompaniment than the ratty band that supports Szabadi on the Hungaraton, though it is not as smooth and sleek as the BBC Scottish under Martyn Brabbins that backs Shaham on Hyperion. Shaham also benefits somewhat by virtue of greater familiarity with the material and the Hungarian violin idiom in general; his performances are assured and confident, whereas Hanslip's are at times impulsive, though not without a certain refreshing spontaneity and sense of discovery that's attractive.
It is no secret that Naxos has an enormous standing catalog, and when new artists come aboard they need to find ways to avoid duplicating what's already in the catalog. With Hanslip's next Naxos album, they really ought to let her record the Beethoven concerto or whatever else she really loves and knows like the back of her hand. Because as good a job as she does on Jenö Hubay: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, it still sounds like a lot of work.