Every age recasts God (and the Devil) in its own image, and how we think about that god/devil violinist and composer Nicolò Paganini today can perhaps best be discerned from the latest recording of his heavenly/diabolical 24 Caprices Op 1, which have delighted/tortured generations of violinists in equal measure.
I think of the various recordings I’ve heard over the years, and how different they all are, not just in terms of musical personality and technique but in the way they capture the musical Zeitgeist. Ruggiero Ricci, Michael Rabin (still among the greatest!), Itzhak Perlman … James Ehnes (his second recording) … Shlomo Mintz et al.
This year, Ning Feng, and now Alina Ibragimova, who both exude personality while for the most part eschewing showmanship (though there is always room for occasional flashes of arch theatricality). This is sprezzatura, the hallmark of every true artist. Another way to describe it is neo-romanticism washed in the waters of decades of historical performance practice.
In recording terms, Ibragimova arrives at Paganini’s Caprices via Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas and Ysaÿe’s Sonatas and finds them flamboyant, challenging, innovative, artistic and with an abstract majesty that eludes easy classification. As for her playing … well, much of that applies, too.
To begin at the end, the famous 24th Caprice in A Minor, the theme and variations, is a near-complete workout for the left hand while neatly summarising just about every technique that’s featured in the previous 23. Ibragimova performs it as such: an operatic postlude where techniques rather than themes are reprised and reframed.
Such as the rapid arpeggios of Nos 1, 5 and 7. The herculean octave playing passim. The double and/or triple stopping in Nos 4, 8, 11, 14, 21 and especially 22 (which you could say pulls out all the stops). The bouncing, skipping and leaping about in caprices like No 2. The imitations of other instruments (such as the flutes and horns in No 9, La Chasse). Drones, trills and scales, scales, scales, sometimes a near-impossible number of notes on one bow stroke.
The fast left-hand pizzicato of No 24 is especially remarkable as it’s believed Paganini developed his facility in this technique through being a guitarist as well as a violinist. But who knows – maybe it was merely a part of his supposed pact with the devil?
One of the joys of listening to a new recording of Paganini’s Caprices is that it also inspires you to return not just to previous recordings of the violin originals but to the numerous famous transcriptions that came in their wake by, 'most notably,' writes the ever-erudite Jeremy Nichols in his excellent booklet essay, 'Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninov and Ferruccio Busoni'.
I could also add guitarist Elliot Fisk’s transcendental transcription of the whole set for guitar. If you haven’t heard it (MusicMasters, 1992), you don’t know what you’re missing out on.
Likewise, until you’ve heard Ibragimova’s compelling, insightful accounts of these endlessly fascinating pieces by an endlessly fascinating composer, you don’t know what you’re missing out on.