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Capricious Paganini

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Paganini, 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, J. Fischer

(released on September 7, 2010)
Decca 478 2274 | 79'28"

Online scores:
Paganini, op. 1
The 24 Caprices by Niccolò Paganini are a mountain traversed only by the greatest violinists. That they are not exactly engaging listening has relegated them mostly to the status of show-off encore pieces, and they would not merit a place among my recommendations for music that one needs to own. Violinists and aficionados of the instrument, of course, will likely want to own a set of the Caprices -- both to admire the player and dissect his or her faults, to be sure. That is what distinguishes these virtuosic works -- basically études with a healthy dollop of Romantic mustard -- from Bach's solo violin pieces, which may not require as much technical flash, while still being damn difficult, but are much more musically rewarding.

Julia Fischer did not really have anything to prove as a virtuoso, having recently added to her many exploits on the violin some recordings as a pianist, including an upcoming recording featuring herself as soloist in both Saint-Saëns' third violin and Grieg's piano concerto. Needless to say, she acquits herself admirably in her new Paganini disc, giving as much musical interest to the Caprices as one could reasonably expect, as in no. 4's rather gorgeous melancholy Maestoso section in thirds and the rustling tremolo of no. 6 fluttering around a subdued, utterly smooth melody. The technique is not without shortcomings -- like some rather dicey intonation in fast thirds -- but Fischer's E string stratosphere is assured, as in no. 8, and in no. 16 she produces a fairly flawless rush of notes, as well as Mephistophelean chromatic movement in no. 10 (one of my favorites) and pleasing tonal effects like the imitation of paired flutes and horns in no. 9.

Mercifully, Fischer does not observe some of the repeats in Paganini's manuscript, skipping one in no. 7, for example, while observing one in no. 13, then taking a repeat that is struck out in no. 14 -- many of the repeats in the manuscript appear to have been removed by the composer, certainly giving an interpreter freedom to repeat or not as she wants. No. 24 is the best and, not surprisingly, most famous piece of the set, a dastardly set of variations that have been expanded on by countless other composers. When judging a complete recording like this one, it can save one a lot of time to turn immediately to the final track: Fischer's performance is a jaw-dropping tour de force, the best part of this disc. See Fischer's thoughts on playing the Caprices in this video interview.

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Paganini, 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, J. Ehnes

(released on January 12, 2010)
Onyx 4044 | 78'04"
We have been impressed with the playing of James Ehnes many times before, and while he does not always win in every competition of the technical mano-a-mano with Fischer, his recording comes out on top overall. The ricochet bowing of no. 1 ("L'Arpeggio," shown above in the composer's manuscript) is clearer and stronger, the intonation is much cleaner in general, especially in multiple stops, although Fischer wins out in purity of the upper reaches of the E string, where Ehnes can be shrill. Furthermore, there is an almost Gypsy fiddler flair to the playing: more portamento and a throatier, rawer tone that makes Fischer's performance seem almost polite and pretty, a criticism that came to mind when listening to her Bach, too. Ehnes even manages to find interest in the endless octaves of no. 3, no. 7, and many others, which are often pretty boring as played by Fischer, and the section entirely on the G string in no. 19 has an appealing viola-like bark to it. Ehnes takes many of the pieces in fast tempi at an appreciably more rapid pace, although he manages to shave only a little over a minute off Fischer's overall timing.

For some reason Ehnes has returned to Paganini's Caprices after a first recording of the set for Telarc (2003, now heavily discounted), but I cannot comment on it, having never heard it. For that matter Thomas Zehetmair has also recently recorded the complete Caprices, a disc released last summer by ECM: I haven't heard it either, although he also recorded the pieces once before, for Teldec in 2002. If that is still not enough Paganini for you, there is also a new recording by Philippe Quint of Kreisler's arrangements of the Caprices for violin and piano (Naxos), which also has yet to reach my ears.

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