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Hyperion Records

CDA67763 - Paganini: 24 Caprices
Salieri's Dream (1996) by André Durand (b1947)
© André Durand / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: January 2007
Chapel of Castle Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany
Produced by Reinhard Geller
Engineered by Reinhard Geller
Release date: March 2009
Total duration: 79 minutes 42 seconds


'A sparkling, cleaned-up version of Paganini, sounding the more amazing for its polish and clarity, and bringing into focus the poetic, romantic sensibility that enthralled the composer's contemporaries. I can't remember hearing the flute and horn imitations in the Ninth Caprice more persuasively performed, and in No 21, marked amoroso, Becker-Bender manages to retain a tender, intimate tone where many of her rivals equate amorousness with crude intensity. The more brilliant passages are just as successful … I'm sure Paganini himself would have been impressed and delighted' (Gramophone)

'If anyone is ever likely to convince you that there is more to Paganini's music than Rossini-in-technical-overdrive melodramatics, it is Tanja Becker-Bender … Becker-Bender gives the Italian's coruscating roulades more room to breathe, characterising each caprice as though it was microcosmic masterpiece of musical expression' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This superb new recording … these are marvellous performances, full of freshness and vitality, technically accomplished yet spontaneous sounding and highly expressive … Becker-Bender's imagination really shines through in those of a more picturesque nature … another exceptional release from Hyperion' (International Record Review)

24 Caprices

Paganini’s 24 Caprices Op 1 were considered simply unplayable by most contemporary violinists, but the composer himself bestrode their difficulties with contemptuous ease. A forerunner and inspirer of his younger contemporaries Chopin, Liszt and Berlioz, Paganini was the archetype of the virtuoso performer. His technique was so phenomenal, and his saturnine presence so magnetic, that he was popularly believed to be in league with the Devil. He communicated a new vision of what the violin could achieve.

Virtuoso violinists are plentiful these days, but the challenges posed by the Caprices are still daunting and it is a rare performer who can achieve such insouciant brilliance in this repertoire as the young German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender has in her debut recording for Hyperion.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The most famous violinist in history, Nicolò Paganini did not start to play the violin before the age of seven. His first instrument was actually the mandolin, and he was subsequently to be very proficient on the guitar. Born in Genoa on 27 October 1782, he was originally taught by his father, an overbearing man who practically starved him into continuous practising after Paganini’s mother told him of a dream in which an angel had promised their son would become the greatest violinist in the world. He made prodigious progress, studying with the theatre violinist Cervetto and the maestro di cappella of Genoa Cathedral, Giacomo Costa. But it was a visit to Genoa in 1794 by the dazzling Polish violinist August Duranowski that inspired him to attempt technical feats on the instrument that had hitherto been unknown in Italy. At the age of twelve he was taken to Parma by his father, and there he mainly studied composition with Paer, as he seemed to have already absorbed everything that could be known about violin playing. He received encouragement from Kreutzer and studied the violin works of other composers, notably Pietro Locatelli’s L’arte del violino, and this along with his own experiences of writing music inspired him to push further the limits of violin technique.

Paganini moved to Lucca with his brother at the age of eighteen, where he was shortly appointed to be the leader of the new national orchestra. When this was replaced by a court orchestra to serve the Princess Elisa Baciocchi (later Grand Duchess of Tuscany), who had been installed by her brother, Napoleon Bonaparte, as ruler of Lucca, Paganini was relegated to the second desk, but he was soon appointed as the court’s solo violinist. It was during this period that he started experimenting with the effects he could obtain by restricting himself to just two strings—and eventually to the G string only. At the same time he developed methods that would aid his virtuosity: as well as using unconvential tunings to simplify the fingering of intricate passagework, he flattened the bridge to make it easier to bow from one string to another, and used thinner strings that increased the brilliance of the sound and allowed higher harmonics.

Dissatisfied with the limitations of musical life at Lucca, Paganini abandoned the city in December 1809 to carve out a career as a solo instrumentalist. He travelled widely in Italy, and stunned audiences by his flamboyant and mesmerizing technique and appearance. He began to attract international attention, but he was comparatively unsuccessful in playing music by other composers and seems to have been reluctant to quit his native Italy until he could compose a repertoire that would display his performing skills to his satisfaction. It was in this situation that he started to compose the works for which he is now remembered, including the First Violin Concerto, which he premiered in Naples in 1819. The following year the publisher Ricordi issued Paganini’s first six opus numbers, beginning with the 24 Caprices Op 1. These were considered unplayable by most contemporary violinists.

After he had established himself both as a composer and as a phenomenal performer, in 1828, Paganini crossed the Alps with his son Achille and the boy’s mother, the singer Antonia Bianchi. Thus began the tour of Vienna, Prague, Germany, Paris and London that made his fame immortal. His repertoire was almost exclusively of his own compositions—unusual at the time—and he played entirely from memory. In fact, Paganini’s European career was relatively short. Though he found fame and fortune his health suffered seriously and he returned to Italy, settling for a time in Parma. However he resigned his post there and instead became involved in a doomed—because illegal—scheme to open a gambling casino in Paris. By the mid-1830s his concert-giving career was more or less over. Afterwards he became a dealer in musical instruments, and towards the end of his life lost his voice almost completely because of a paralysed larynx. He died in Nice in 1840; since he had refused the Last Rites during his illness he was refused burial in church, but in 1845 his remains were transferred to Parma through the good offices of the Duchess Marie-Louise of Austria and buried there two years later. Finally in 1876 they were transferred to his last resting place in Genoa.

A forerunner and inspirer of his younger contemporaries Chopin, Liszt and Berlioz, Paganini was the archetype of the virtuoso performer. His technique was so phenomenal, and his saturnine presence so magnetic, that he was popularly believed to be in league with the Devil. He communicated a new vision of what the violin could achieve. But perhaps if Paganini had not been such an extraordinary performer his achievements as a composer would have been appreciated more. In fact he was very far from being obsessed with technical brilliance for its own sake. He was an enthusiastic player of chamber music, particularly the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, while he recognized the genius of Berlioz, who famously wrote Harold in Italy for Paganini to play—on the viola. (Paganini declined to perform it, but gave Berlioz 20,000 francs for the piece.)

It is a nice question which composer wrote the most striking ‘opus one’. Beethoven’s three piano trios and Brahms’s C major Piano Sonata both have good claims, but Paganini’s 24 Caprices may well deserve the palm, being not merely the composer’s first published work but, in themselves, a publication that revolutionized the nature and technique of the instrument for which they were written. Although they were printed in 1820, Paganini is believed to have written them comparatively early in his career, probably between 1801 and 1807. They were his only publication for unaccompanied violin, and there is no record of his having performed them in public. Bearing a general dedication ‘To The Artists’ (A gli Artisti), they are a distillation of almost all his favourite techniques (though not his notorious harmonics) in phenomenally taxing musical contexts. Each Caprice explores different characters and personalities and extends the violinist’s technique in highly imaginative ways. In this sense they are technical studies—like the Mehrstimmige Etüden of his disciple Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (recorded on Hyperion CDA67619). Nor were they the first example of such an étude-cycle for the violin: Paganini was obviously familiar with the collection of 24 Capricci that Locatelli had written as cadenzas for the twelve concertos in L’arte del violino.

Even for present-day violinists, the challenges posed by the Caprices are daunting. These include wide-spaced notes to be played on the outer strings of the violin without sounding the strings in between, sustaining melody on one string while playing rapid harmonies or trills on another, imitations of other instruments, huge numbers of notes to be played in a single bow, not to mention rapid, highly chromatic figuration, trilled octaves and guitar-like chords—all of which may be required to be played at breakneck speed with the most elegantly stylish delivery. Despite the fact that there are twenty-four separate works, Paganini does not use them to cover the twenty-four available keys in the manner of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, nor does he apportion them systematically. The Caprices in minor keys tend to be concentrated towards the beginning of the collection, and certain tonalities are more favoured than others—there are five Caprices in E flat major, for example, and three in A minor, including the celebrated No 24. But each Caprice is complete and self-sufficient, no more requiring an accompaniment than J S Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas—though in fact both Schumann and Szymanowski made versions of some of them with an accompanying piano.

Caprice No 1 in E major (Andante) is sometimes nick-named ‘L’arpeggio’, for obvious reasons. It contrasts chordal writing with a display of balzato (leaping) bowing, the bow ricochetting across all four strings. A development section in the minor introduces descending scales in thirds. This Caprice is modelled on No 7 from Locatelli’s L’arte del violino and thus, in a sense, establishes the tradition within which Paganini intends his Caprices to be viewed. Caprice No 2 in B minor (Moderato) then focuses on détaché playing; it demands wide stretches crossing over the strings and extensions in left-hand technique. Next, Caprice No 3 in E minor (Sostenuto – Presto) opens with a rather grave introduction in octaves, again requiring extension of the fingers of the left hand. After a more rapid middle section the Sostenuto music returns.

Caprice No 4 in C minor (Maestoso) displays various kinds of double-stopping, while Caprice No 5 in A minor (Agitato), a popular encore showpiece, is a kind of rapid cadenza whose outer sections frame a passage of whirlwind scales that demonstrate spiccato bowing. Caprice No 6 in G minor (Adagio) presents an eloquent melody over a left-hand tremolo on the string below it, while Caprice No 7 in A minor (Posato) opens with an imposing passage in octaves, followed by an exhibition of flying staccato. Much of Caprice No 8 in E flat major (Maestoso) is concerned with passages played in thirds, some of them formidably difficult.

Caprice No 9 in E major (Allegretto) has earned the nickname of ‘La chasse’ (‘The hunt’). At the start of the piece the violin’s A and E strings are played sul tastiera (on the fingerboard) in order to imitate the sound of a flute (Paganini’s marking is imitando il Flauto), while the G and D strings are meant to imitate that of a horn (imitando il Corno). Musically it is essentially a study in double-stopping, with passages of ricochet (bouncing staccato) in the middle section. A different kind of staccato, played martellato (hammered) is the principal focus for Caprice No 10 in G minor (Vivace), while in contrast the expressive Caprice No 11 in C major opens with solemn chords (Andante) enclosing a Presto middle section. Caprice No 12 in A flat major (Allegro) features passages of rapid tenths, played across the strings; a chromatic descent in thirds prefaces and follows a rapid central section played at the point of the bow.

Caprice No 13 in B flat major (Allegro) has gained the popular epithet ‘The Devil’s Laughter’. It begins with passages of scale-like double-stopping at a moderate speed, but a central section of very rapid runs exercises left-hand flexibility and shifting of position as well as détaché bowing in the right hand. Caprice No 14 in E flat major (Moderato) is a robust study in march-time, requiring its chordal writing to be attacked evenly but with panache; while Caprice No 15 in E minor (Posato) begins with expressive playing in octaves that leads to flamboyant arpeggios in the high register and passages of flying staccato. The rapid semiquaver patterns of Caprice No 16 in G minor (Presto) are contrasted across high and low registers.

Caprice No 17 in E flat major (Sostenuto – Andante) juxtaposes a simple tune in double-stopped sixths on the G and D strings with florid demisemiquaver runs and figuration on the A and E strings. There is an extended, famously difficult central section in octaves. Caprice No 18 in C major (Corrente: Allegro) has a fanfare-like introductory figure on the G string played in numerous different positions, and a central section built upon rapid scales in thirds. Considerable bowing control is called for in Caprice No 19 in E flat major (Lento – Allegro assai), while Caprice No 20 in D major (Allegretto), in its central section, resourcefully employs the D string as a bagpipe-like drone, which forms the underpinning to a sweetly lyrical melody played on the A and E strings. The beautiful opening and closing sections exploit wide-spaced double- and triple-stopped chordal writing.

Caprice No 21 in A major (Amoroso) opens with an almost operatic melody (the marking Amoroso perhaps suggests we should imagine a love scene) played in double-stopped sixths, which is followed by another scintillating display of up-bow staccato. Caprice No 22 in F major (Marcato) has outer sections of grandiose chordal writing, with martellato bowing in the central episode. Caprice No 23 in E flat major (Posato) is a more episodic display piece, demonstrating a variety of techniques, preparing the way for the twenty-fourth and last Caprice.

The climax of the whole cycle is the famous Caprice No 24 in A minor (Quasi presto). In contrast to the simple ternary or binary forms of the other Caprices, No 24 is elaborately structured as a theme, eleven variations and finale. The theme is Paganini’s most famous, and has been subjected to countless variation-works by, among others, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Blacher, Lutoslawski and Andrew Lloyd Webber. This is because it is essentially a brilliantly conceived harmonic skeleton, which exerts an irresistible appeal to be clothed in flesh of musical substance, as Paganini himself does throughout. This splendid work not only sums up the technical challenges of the previous Caprices but adds two new ones—a scintillating section played only with downward bow-strokes and another that alternates fast bowed notes with plucked ones in the left hand, at astonishing speed.

Calum MacDonald © 2009

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