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Paganini: 24 Caprices For String Quartet

Paganini / Wihan Quartet
Release Date: 06/08/2010 
Label:  Nimbus   Catalog #: 6113   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Niccolò Paganini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Wihan String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 17 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

PAGANINI 24 Caprices Wihan Qrt NIMBUS ALLIANCE 6113 (75:56)

Paganini’s caprices have been recorded on viola (by Emanuel Vardi, rereleased on Cembal d’Amour 129, Fanfare 32: 1) and flute (by Bonita Boyd, Fleur de Son 57940, Fanfare 24:1); William Zinn’s arrangement for string quartet may have seemed inevitable. Stephen Pettitt’s booklet notes relate that he felt inclined to reevaluate these works after Read more hearing them performed by “serious” violinists. I’m not sure who such a “serious violinist” might be, if the early explorers of this literature, like Kreisler, Heifetz, Kochanski, Rabin, Francescatti, or Ricci, don’t qualify. And remember that Robert Schumann and Karol Szymanowski wrote arrangements for violin and piano—and I presume they can be taken as “serious” composers.

In any case, arranger Zinn has robbed the First Caprice of none of its brilliance—and, as throughout, he keeps the quartet’s members on their toes. He distributes the string crossings in the Second Caprice among the four instrumentalists; although here, as elsewhere, he remains closer to the original harmonies and melodies than Szymanowski did, he still creates enough interest to rivet a listener’s attention all the way through. The opening octaves of the Third Caprice have been shorn of their fiendish precariousness; the liquid middle section proceeds at a slower tempo that dulls much of its flashing quicksilver: Harmony and melody alone do not a caprice make. One of my students, a contest fiddler, described the playing of a famous fiddler as “chirpy,” and that’s the way the opening of this arrangement of the Fourth Caprice sounds. So it appears that while at times the arrangement for string quartet may dust off some of Paganini’s intentions, at times it may clutter them.

The opening of the Fifth Caprice comes close to a Gypsy improvisation, such as Sarasate mimicked in Zigeunerweisen . The middle section, stripped of both Paganini’s bowings and the machine-gun tempo at which they’re usually played, lacks much of the solo version’s punch, although the middle section’s chromatically crawling harmonies emerge clearly. At the outset Zinn’s version of the Sixth Caprice assigns tremolos to the lower strings, with pure octaves soaring over them, but the roles later reverse. And occasionally a novel harmony also leads well beyond expectations. The arrangement also shears some of the edginess from the Seventh Caprice’s staccatos. As does the Third Caprice, the Eighth opens with bare octaves—here fleshed out with harmonies in the lower strings. The thicker textures don’t temper any of the caprice’s gnomic grotesquerie; in fact, they amplify the good spirits of the Ninth without diminishing the sense of a dialogue between the upper and lower registers. As in several other caprices, however, the transfer from solo to ensemble shifts the emphasis in the 10th from the stratospheric brilliance of a violin’s staccato to the richer harmonic exposition of four voices. In the 11th, the dark harmonies of the solo part seem to have been brightened—or at least warmed—while the almost freakish impishness of the dotted rhythms in the central section have been correspondingly tamed. The 12th seems crabbed and dark when played by a solo violinist; it may not be brighter when played by quartet, but it sounds more amiable. It ought to, because it won’t tax the violinists so heavily here.

The 13th Caprice has been dubbed “The Devil’s Laugh,” and while perhaps not so much of the Devil remains in Zinn’s version, some of his laugh does (perhaps like the Cheshire cat’s grin). In the 14th Caprice, the Quartet lends the march-like rhythms extra weight. But it interferes with the spun-silver figuration of the 15th. The 16th Caprice, a more straightforward, almost etude-like essay in detaché, benefits from the harmonic and contrapuntal underpinnings the quartet provides. The 17th seems to brim in its solo version with quintessential violinistic figuration, but the quartet version manages to preserve much of its spirit. In the 18th Caprice, Zinn has taken perhaps the most liberties so far in the set, without obscuring the original’s outlines; but in the 19th he has assigned to the violin a virtuosic running passage in the middle, and its effect seems to be enhanced by the added sonorities. Szymanowski provided the 20th Caprice, and the Amoroso of the 21st, with lush late-Romantic arrangements that Zinn’s mirror. The 22nd Caprice sounds as imposing in its new clothes as does the original in its skimpier attire; the 23rd, which still sounds capricious, cavorts with great appeal. The 24th Caprice begins here with a brief introduction, but the music never approaches the carnival-like atmosphere of works like, for example, Paganini’s Balletto Campestre.

If I’ve fallen persistently into the trap of reviewing the music rather than the performances, it’s likely because the writing will capture some listeners’ attention more immediately than do the details of the reading, especially if those listeners refer as a comparison to hours of work with these pieces or a lifetime of listening to various versions. But the performances themselves, which the engineers have enveloped in a rich ambiance, deserve commendation, too, since the arrangements require the discipline of a hair-trigger gunfighter. A less-virtuosic performance than this one, or a performance less imbued with the sense of the fun that Zinn has interwoven, would suffer by comparison with a performance by a “serious” violinist—and these maintain their interest. Warmly recommended, but beware: Violinists may be haunted by these versions in their sleep.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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Works on This Recording

Caprices (24) for Violin solo, Op. 1 by Niccolò Paganini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Wihan String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: circa 1805; Italy 
Date of Recording: 03/2009 
Venue:  Domovina Studio, Prague 
Length: 72 Minutes 15 Secs. 

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