Paganini’s Guitar Quartets

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PAGANINI: Guitar Quartets Nos. 1, 2 & 9 / Paganini Ensemble Vienna / Dynamic DYN-CD57912

In addition to these quartets that Niccoló Paganini wrote for guitar, violin, viola and cello, there are also several pieces that he wrote for solo guitar. Viewers of the YouTube uploads of these pieces all speculate that Paganini himself played the guitar, perhaps even started on it before he switched to violin, but the true story of their origin is even stranger.

From Charles Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels (1860):

There was a Spaniard, a guitarist, who traveled for many years with Paganini. This was before the epoch of Paganini’s great rise to official glory.

The two of them led the vagabond life of bohemians, of wandering musicians, of people without ties to family or homeland. Together, guitar and violin, they gave concerts in every town and village through which they passed. And thus they wandered from country to country. This Spaniard’s talent was so vast that he, like Orpheus, could say, “I am the master of Nature.”

Everywhere he went, strumming his strings, making them sing harmoniously beneath his thumb, a crowd always followed, With such a secret, one never goes hungry. They followed him as Jesus Christ was followed. Who could refuse dinner and hospitality to this man, a genius, a sorcerer who had touched the depths of your soul with his most beautiful, most secret, most mysterious songs! This man, I am told, could easily obtain simultaneous sound from an instrument capable of yielding only a succession of notes. Paganini carried their money, and managed their budget, which ought not to surprise anybody.

This Spanish genius of the guitar was in fact Paganini’s inspiration for all of his pieces written for that instrument, and I would go even further than Baudelaire. I would suggest that this “Spaniard” was probably a Gypsy guitarist, for until the boring curmudgeon Andrés Segovia came along in the 1920s, all Spanish guitarists were influenced in one way or another by either Gypsy plays or flamenco guitarists.

Thus when you listen to Dynamic’s previous release of Paganini’s guitar quartets (all 15 of them) or the many Ghiribizzi that Paganini wrote for guitar, you should always have the sound image of a Gypsy or flamenco guitarist in your mind’s ear: the hard, banjo-like downward strokes, the use of terminal vibrato at the ends of long-held notes, in short the kind of playing you can hear on records made by the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Alas, the Paganini Ensemble Vienna’s guitarist plays with a more reticent sound; in fact, at times he is just barely audible; but at least his technique is good enough to keep up with what Paganini wrote for him, and the lead violinist in this group has energy and chutzpah to spare.

But what of that earlier series on Dynamic of Paganini’s complete guitar quartets by the so-called Paganini Quartet? They are also pretty good performances, but not really as lively as this new release. What’s more, the guitarist on them sounds more as if he were playing a lute, which is altogether the wrong sound, and the lead violinist plays with too much vibrato—or perhaps I should say a wider and more noticeable vibrato. I once had an interesting exchange of emails with the late David Sarser, one of the prize violinists in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, and asked him if Toscanini ever asked his string player to use straight tone. He said no, but Toscanini had a keen ear for string vibrato and insisted that all of the NBC string players have a consistently tight, fast vibrato, just enough to add some shimmer to the string sound without being too noticeable. Sarser was very proud of the fact that his vibrato was once measured on an oscilloscope and that it was absolutely, perfectly even to the point of perfection. This was the reason why, in the early years of the NBC Symphony, Toscanini could show off his violins by having 19 of them play in unison on Vieuxtemps’ Ballade and Polonaise or in Paganini’s Moto perpetuo. And a tight, fast vibrato, unlike straight tone, IS historically accurate in this music.

In the second movement of Quartet No. 2, Paganini hit upon a novel idea: give the cellist the lead line while the violin and viola play quick trilled passages above it, and it works. In the slow movement of Quartet No. 9, there are interesting moments where Paganini pivots the harmony from major to minor and back again. In the last movement, at long last, we hear the lead violin playing the kind of breakneck virtuosic music that Paganini was noted for.

Altogether, then, a good album, and I would hope that Dynamic will invite this particular quartet to re-record all of the Paganini guitar quartets.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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