Notes and Editorial Reviews
Thomas Zehetmair (vn)
ECM 2124 (67:24)
The title of Niccolò Paganini’s op. 1—Caprices—suggests a sort of, well, capriciousness, that’s not often—maybe even hardly ever—heard in performances. Ruggiero Ricci, who first recorded them whole unaccompanied (Ossy Renardy had already recorded them with Schumann’s piano accompaniments) set a standard for slashing machismo, and the young Michael Rabin set one not too long thereafter for astonishing perfection. But Paganini himself must have
added something to the mix in his own performances (although not of the caprices, which I believe he never played, at least as a set, in public—he knew his audiences better than that), something that held audiences spellbound and left a lasting impression on musicians as eminent as Liszt, Rossini, and Schubert, as well as on the
, whose fancy he tickled with barnyard imitations. Alexander Markov captured some of the wizardry in his damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead recording (and I remember Paul Zukofsky’s LPs (Vanguard 10093) as offering a real, if quirky, alternative to the mainstream), but Thomas Zehetmair, in his second recording of the works, has upped the ante. In the First Caprice, for example, he combines Markov’s willfulness with Ricci’s cut-and-thrust. Tempos change abruptly (capriciously?), off-the-string passages crackle with static electricity, and double-stops almost crumble in the face of a ferocious onslaught. Rabin’s perfection may be lost in the shuffle, but those who wonder why Paganini made such a deep impression on his listeners may find some clues in just this kind of performance. After all, did Paganini play perfectly? I don’t remember reading “perfect” in descriptions of his playing—reserve that for competition winners, and who knows if Paganini could have won the Paganini Competition?
Zehetmair opens the Second Caprice with a sort of spectral timbre, suggestive of
, but allows the tone to blossom in the middle section, in which he makes sure the melodic design always remains paramount. (He achieves a similar pointing of the tune in the Third Caprice with strong accents, as he does as well in the middle section of the Fourth.) In the return of the first section of the Fourth Caprice, Zehetmair introduces what seem to be improvised changes (he did so as well, he states in the accompanying interview, in his first set), and these also fit well with the personality of a composer who supposedly improvised profusely during performances of the concertos, the written score of which we now consider almost scriptural in its authority. Other violinists, like Milstein, may make a stunning impression in the fast runs of the Fifth Caprice, but Zehetmair virtually hisses and spits at the tops of the scales before swooping down again. The off-the-string middle section brings, however, a slow tempo in this performance that doesn’t enhance the effectiveness of the gymnastics. As in the Second Caprice, Zehetmair begins the Sixth quietly; he ends it similarly, and the Seventh’s opening octaves sound correspondingly bolder and more bracing, and its double-stops ring out stunningly. In the Eighth, he alternates what almost sounds like understatement with rapier-like thrusts. Double harmonics may be the only signature effects Paganini didn’t incorporate into the caprices, but Zehetmair has introduced them, albeit somewhat lumberingly, into the Ninth (Harold Berkley’s edition suggests them), and he does the same thing upon the return of the opening section of the 13th. He plays the dotted rhythms of the 11th with a gusto that could serve as a model for many limper performances, and varies the return of the opening material. Into the 15th, he inserts a fantastic flight of fancy that provides modern audiences with a unique opportunity to hear Paganini’s music as he himself might have approached it; and he imparts an edge to the characteristic Paganinian figures of the 17th and 19th. The familiar 20th also assumes a new character in his performance, perhaps even more revealing than Szymanowski’s piano accompaniment, which mined a vein of harmonic expressivity buried beneath Paganini’s surface. The 22nd and 23rd bring more of Zehetmair’s improvisations, while he plays the 24th, the trickster’s magic kit, straight.
According to the notes accompanying the prerelease, Zehetmair recorded the caprices in December 2007 in the Monastery of St. Gerold; he sounds close-up, with only enough reverberation to keep his sound humidified. In all, it seems that what period-instrument groups did for (or against) Vivaldi, Zehetmair has done for (or against) Paganini, and everyone, from performers, students, and violin aficionados to general collectors, should take note. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
Works on This Recording
Featured Sound Samples
Caprices for Solo Violin, op 1: No 1 in E
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