Getting to the Heart of Paganini

Pag vln con front BC99582

PAGANINI: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin / Edson Scheid, violinist / Naxos 9.70264

PAGANINI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-6 / Alexandre Dubach, violinist; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo; Michel Sasson, Lawrence Foster, conductors / Brilliant Classics BC99582

In my review of Paganini’s Caprices as played by Rachel Barton Pine, I made it clear (or hope I did!) that her performances were an interesting excursion, a different “take” on the music using vocal bel canto techniques and applying them to the violin. But if you’re looking for Paganini’s music as he himself probably played it, you need to look elsewhere.

Why? Because Paganini was not only the most astonishing violin virtuoso of his time, he was also an exciting and dynamic player. He attacked the strings of his instrument as if he were trying to break them. As Peter Gutmann put it on his music blog,[1]

Paganini’s violin skill was sensational, perhaps the greatest ever. True, he “cheated” just a bit by flattening his bridge (to facilitate bowing from one string to another), used thin strings (to add brilliance and boost harmonics) and tuned unconventionally (to smooth the fingering of intricate passages). He owed his renown not only to raw talent, but to grueling work spurred by his parents – an overbearing father who starved him into practicing full-time, and an approving mother who viewed this cruelty as fulfilling a dream in which an angel had promised that her son would become the world’s greatest violinist.

To stretch himself, Paganini often wrote pieces even he couldn’t play and then spent months mastering them. Even for today’s luminaries, their challenges are formidable. Among their terrors are widely spaced notes (gliding between the outside strings without sounding the inner ones), a “skipping bow” (divided into up to l8 distinct notes without changing direction), sustaining a lush melody on one string while playing trills or rapid harmony on another, bowing to imitate the sound of flutes and horns, wildly chromatic runs, trilled octaves and arpeggiated guitar-like chords, all to be played with the seemingly impossible combination of furious speed and consummate grace.

Unfortunately, what Paganini accomplished requires extraordinarily hard work from even the most accomplished of violinists, even today; and because today’s violinists are trained to be cautious in performance, most of them somehow miss the sheer excitement of his music. For many years, for instance, I loved Yehudi Menuhin’s recordings of the first two Paganini Violin Concertos because of their charm and grace. Yet although Menuhin dutifully reproduced what was on the printed page, and gave the music some impetus, he lacked the sheer ferocity of the original’s own playing. Most violinists do.

That is why, as an alternate to the Pine recording of the Caprices, I am now recommending the superb 2016 recording by Edson Scheid. But don’t watch Scheid play any of the caprices on YouTube, even though the videos are there, because you’ll be disappointed. He’s as motionless as a statue when he plays, which is nothing like the pacing, tiger-like Paganini. But at least he sounds exciting, which is the whole point of a recording.

As for the concertos, they were given their finest readings ever in the 1990s by Swiss violinist Aklexandre Dubach. Dubach must have spent years mastering this music, because the way he tosses off the most difficult passages is simply astonishing. Moreover, he plays with more élan and somewhat more drive than Menuhin did. He manages to make those crazy passages of rapid, successive pizzicato notes sound as weird and savage as I believe Paganini himself did.

That being said, I didn’t much care for the music of the third and sixth concertos. All three of the discs in the Brilliant Classics set were originally issued singly on Claves, and those releases are still available. I recommend getting Vols. 1 and 2, which includes Concertos 1, 2, 4 and 5. That’s really all you need.

One thing I found interesting was the corollary between Paganini’s violin concertos and the music of Chopin. The Polish pianist-composer wrote his own piano concertos in a similar vein: tuneful but open melodies which allows for the soloist to stretch out and dominate the proceedings. In addition, there’s a tune in the first movement of the first Paganini Concerto that closely resembles the main theme from Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, later adapted for the pop song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.

The performances on these discs are superb, and both are highly recommended.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley



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