Notes and Editorial Reviews
In 1947, Ruggiero Ricci became the first to scale Paganini's slippery precipice by recording all 24 Caprices (currently available on Istituto Discografico Italiano IDIS 309). Style perhaps didn't matter so much on that initial expedition as simply reaching the top. But he would return to the set many subsequent times in performances, both solo and accompanied, issued variously in LP, CD, laserdisc, and VHS formats (although without, perhaps, ever quite matching the youthful elan of that earliest set), often playing the Caprices from memory and without the benefit of retakes, cuts, and splices. But if they began to seem like his own, that proprietorship was soon challenged by the young Michael Rabin, who recorded almost half of them in 1950,
at the age of only 14 (available on Sony MKH 60894; 23:2). That challenge escalated into a full-blown assault in 1958, with Rabin's brilliant reading of all 24. If Ricci had sacrificed the haunting beauty of Paganini's harmonic and melodic tribute "to the artists"' to bodybuilderlike macho display, Rabin fused it into a technical tour de force in which every note rang clearly even while bearing all the expressive weight his breakneck tempos would allow. Perhaps the difference lay in two incompatible views of Paganini, who, like his famous predecessors and most of his successors, played in a style with which early-20th-century performers eventually lost contact (note Wilhelmj's and Kreisler's arrangements of the First Concerto). Ricci, apparently hypnotized by Paganini's penchant for speed and off-the-string bowings (we know about those through Spohr's disapproval), often ricocheted so crisply that the double-stopped pitches sounded like so much static, and played so precipitously that passages lost rhythmic definition.
Few followed him; later violinists instead revealed, as Rabin had done, more of Paganini's expressive quicksilver (Perlman's performances on LP, digitally remastered in 2000 for EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series—EMI 7243 5 67257 2 0—sound, at the same time warmer and grittier, partly on account of more resonant recorded sound, but they don't generate Rabin's voltage in, for example, the Third Caprice; by comparison with Rabin's, even Accardo's celebrated reading, available on Deutsche Grammophon 429 714-2, seems lamentably earthbound, though undeniably lyrical and convincing on its own terms), while a few, like Paul Zukofsky (issued on LP by Vanguard 1093/4) fastened onto the kind of stark colors that period instrumentalists would later restore in Vivaldi. Rabin had established a landmark, one that has remained undated and undiminished to this day except in recorded sound. But now, EMI, after so many sumptuous digital remas-terings of Milstein's recordings (as well as a collection of Rabin miniatures remastered and rc-released under the original title, Mosaics (EMI CDM 7243 5 67020 2, 22:5), has turned its attention to Rabin's caprices. The jewelbox proclaims the "first release on compact disc of original master tapes"; in fact, the 1958 issue sounds several generations younger. Some of the dryness and flatness that David K. Nelson noticed in the original CD issue in EMI's Michael Rabin, 1936-1972 (CMS 7 64123 2 A; 15:5) has been replaced by an added dimensionality that listeners to previous incarnations would hardly have suspected (Rabin's Caprices also appeared as EMI CDM-64560, supposedly in stereo, in 1993, but the recorded sound didn't approach the new remastering's fidelity). The effect is downright visceral, like having Rabin himself in the room. Few recordings more richly deserve a drink at the fountain of youth. And there's more magisterial Rabin, already available in EMI's six-disc set, notably the Wieniawski First Concerto, which inspired Elman to remark that that's the way the violin should be played, and a stunning Paganini Concerto that would make perfect candidates for a face-lift. But if I had chosen any of Rabin's recordings for an afterlife, they would be just the ones EMI has remastered, particularly the Caprices. One of the greatest violin recordings of all time has just grown a few inches in stature. Absolutely essential.
-- Robert Maxham, FANFARE [7/2001]
reviewing the first CD release of this recording, EMI 67462
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