Caprices of sparkling clarity – Paganini would have been delighted
This is one of those performances that reminds you how redundant the phrase "war horse" can be (and, I suppose, how apt in different circumstances). Take repertoire that has been recorded a thousand times before (OK, not a thousand, but a lot) and approach it with a very personal, in this case gutsy and deeply committed, attitude and what emerges is vital, fresh and above all "real." Terrific.
-- Gramophone [5/2009]
While Heifetz and Milstein played only a selection of Paganini’s caprices (and the composer’s contemporaries hardly played them, if at all), violinists after Ruggiero Ricci (who claimed to have mastered the complete set well after his years as a prodigy) not only play all 24, but play them on single discs and even in single recitals. Has the art of violin-playing developed so much since Paganini’s time?
Tanja Becker-Bender, caught up close playing a 1728 Guarneri del Gesù in the reverberant setting of the chapel of Stuttgart’s Castle Solitude, takes the time to unpack the musical implications of each of these pieces; and while her set can no longer create the almost electric impression of Ricci’s aggressive early attempts (beginning in 1947)—enhanced, of course by their novelty—and may not generate either the sheer astonishment of Michael Rabin’s perfection (who recorded almost half of them in 1950 at the age of only 14—re-released on CD as on Sony 60894, 23:2—or his later, full set for Angel), and may not create the impression of sheer audacity of Alexander Markov’s set (originally on Erato 45502, reviewed by David K. Nelson in 14:2 and re-released on Apex 69987, 32:1), she achieves a level of musical interest that listeners will surely appreciate, especially as the accumulating piles of difficulties become almost jading. The character she brings, for example, to the First Caprice through slight pauses between the recurring sets of arpeggios, the musical sense she imparts to the Second, and the fullness of sound she draws from the Fourth’s chords all suggest that she has studied the caprices as a set of exercises in musical expression and not merely as exercises in prestidigitation. But in the Fifth she demonstrates both the requisite facility in the long runs and the good sense to add enough articulation to make them coherent—and her bow snaps in the middle section, whether or not the she plays Paganini’s indicated bowing (even Milstein didn’t). Her staccato by itself can generate high voltage, as it does in the Seventh and Ninth Caprices. The hard edge she imparts to the 10th Caprice demonstrates that her performances don’t favor the caprices’ lyrical elements at the expense of their brilliance (in fact, the tone she draws itself has a somewhat hard edge, despite the opulence of the instrument’s sound and the reverberant setting). She makes the tops of the arpeggios spit in the 11th Caprice; and reveals a playfulness in the laugh of the 13th that helps alleviate some of the effect of the consistent hardness in her sound, as does her general brilliance in the 15th and 16th.
These performances hardly rush along—whatever risks Becker-Bender takes seem of a very different kind. In the 18th Caprice, for example, she makes no attempt at inordinate speed through the middle section’s incessant and awkward parallel thirds. Nor, on the other hand, does she linger in more expressive passages, like those of the 21st. Her reading of the 24th serves not only to summarize the caprices themselves but her varied approaches to them as well.
At a time when the simple ability to come through the caprices relatively unscathed no longer suffices as a recommendation, violinists need to invest in them something unique—something like Ricci’s machismo, Rabin’s perfection, or Markov’s daring, to differentiate their performances. Becker-Bender’s combination of brilliance and musicianship brings her close enough to the border of that select group that her set can be recommended, despite the plethora of alternatives. And she shows that the caprices can still dazzle listeners, no matter how familiar they’ve grown.