PAGANINI: Introduction and Variations in G on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non me sento.” 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. Duo Merveille (Duet for One). Caprice d’Adieu. BARTON PINE: Introduction, Theme and Variations on “God Defend New Zealand” / Rachel Barton Pine, violinist / Avie AV2374
When I first started listening to these new recordings of the Paganini Caprices, I felt a little disoriented. The sound quality seemed very dry, the violin so close to the microphone, that I thought it would tend to impact the performance quality. Going through my mind was James Ehnes’ superb recording, which for me had just the right amount of “juice” around the violin tone. Yet as I continued listening, I began to follow Rachel Barton Pine’s style and approach more carefully. Although her tempos are just a shade slower than Ehnes’, her articulation is crystal clear and her style is, if anything, much closer to the bel canto ideal which was Paganini’s inspiration.
Pine (which she told me she prefers to be called…her former label, Çedille, insisted on including her maiden name of Barton because that’s the name that made her famous) approaches this music with a more varied feel for rhythm than Ehnes who, good as he is, tended to be a bit more metronomic. She bends notes, introduces occasional light moments of rubato, and otherwise pushes the music in such a way that one begins to hear the “voice” of a great bel canto diva like Kathleen Battle or Marlis Peterson singing these lines. The liner notes tell us that for this recording, Pine played the “ex-Bazzini, ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Jesù violin from 1742, made in the same year and place as Paganini’s own violin. It has the typically rich, full Guarneri tone we have come to expect from such instruments.
If Pine had recorded nothing in her career but the opening Introduction and Variations in G on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non mi sento” that introduces this collection, she would be a major name to reckon with in the violin world. Here she combines the elegance of Menuhin with the drive of a Heifetz, producing a performance that is just perfect in both articulation and musical feeling. Yes, I still wish her instrument were recorded with a little more juice around it, just a bit, mind you, but as the recording continues you become more and more engrossed in what she is doing. Occasionally, as in Caprice No. 4 (the long one marked “Moderato”), Pine even uses a bit of portamento, which is historically and stylistically correct (so there, you HIP fanatics!).
As for the music, it is generally quite good. Of all the violinist-composers between Vivaldi and Ysaÿe, who were major creators (as was, later on, George Enescu), Paganini was by far the most interesting and original. Although he was of course famous for his almost unbelievable command of violinistic fireworks (which nowadays might win him third prize in the Wieniawski Competition), he was also as famous for his command of expression and legato, which is what Hector Berlioz emphasized when he wrote the viola part in Harold in Italy for him. (Regarding the famous story that Paganini refused to play the work because it wasn’t flashy enough, that is true, but he had only looked over the viola part. When he finally heard the whole work in performance, he rushed to the stage afterwards and embraced Berlioz, calling him a “genius,” and remained his good friend until his death.) Some of these pieces are so good that, if you orchestrated them, they could easily stand scrutiny as symphonic movements (i.e., Caprice No. 7 in A minor, marked “Posato,” so well constructed it still holds up today).
Thus there is a fine line—a very fine line—between Ehnes’ equally outstanding performances and Pine’s. Ehnes does not ignore the lyrical side of Paganini, but he doesn’t revel in it as much as Pine does. Pine doesn’t ignore the flashy side, but it’s not the principal motivator of her performances. I found that Ehnes’ recording impresses you in a more visceral way upon first listening, whereas your first reaction to Pine’s might be that she isn’t forceful enough, but upon closer scrutiny it is Pine who stays with you. She has so masterfully worked out the melos of these scores that she almost becomes the music. She must have played, slept with, eaten and drunk this music for years prior to recording it, because it sounds like part of her DNA. The notes indicate that she was introduced to these pieces at age six, but did not perform them until her early 20s, when she played all 24 in a single concert (and has done so several times since). Listen to the way she slithers through the tricky passages of the Caprice No. 16 in G minor, a whole universe of sound in less than a minute and a half. She teases the rhythm and uses judicious slides to enhance the bel canto feeling; and there is even more of this in the Caprice No. 17. There’s so much love in her playing of this music that it becomes infectious.
As Pine used the Introduction and Paisiello Variations as an overture to the Caprices, she gives us the Duet for One and Caprice d’Adieu as encores. The former is undoubtedly one of Paganini’s oddest pieces, using part of the violin in a conventionally melodic manner and part of it like a guitar. I’m not sure how many readers know that Paganini, in addition to playing the viola, was also a first-rate guitarist, but didn’t play it in public or make a big deal of it. (He also toured for some time with a very flamboyant Gypsy guitarist whose style, by all descriptions, was very similar to that of Django Reinhardt.) The latter piece is ebullient and lightweight, just a cute piece to delight audiences without employing too much in the way of fireworks.
The final track is a piece that Pine wrote herself, the Introduction, Theme and Variations on “God Save New Zealand,” for the last concert of her first tour of that country in 2000. It has all the hallmarks of a Paganini piece, suggesting that she might indeed have this music in her DNA as I suggested above! The piece also includes moments of lovely chordal passages in the manner of Fritz Kreisler. Hmm…would it be too much to suggest that she tackle some of Kreisler’s best pieces in an upcoming CD?
One final, personal, comment. Must classical labels put female artists on the covers in ridiculous poses, their heads sideways or upside-down so their luxurious hair can flow across the cover? I mean, what’s the point? I seriously doubt that someone seeing this CD cover online will buy the recording if the music isn’t something they already like or think they may like, and the majority of those attracted to goofy model-like poses normally don’t listen to Bach or Paganini. And someone who likes this music isn’t necessarily going to enjoy seeing this pose every time they reach for the album. So please, Avie, do us a favor and stick to normal poses (the one on her Mozart Concerto album was just perfect), as you would a male artist. EMI indulged in poses just as bad if not worse for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and I doubt if they ever helped sell them one more album as a result.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley