Hyperion Records

24 Caprices, Op 1
probably composed between 1801 and 1807; printed in 1820; dedicated 'A gli Artisti'

'Paganini: 24 Caprices' (CDA67763)
Paganini: 24 Caprices
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67763 
No 01 in E major: Andante 'L'arpeggio'
No 02 in B minor: Moderato
No 03 in E minor: Sostenuto – Presto
No 04 in C minor: Maestoso
No 05 in A minor: Agitato
No 06 in G minor: [Adagio]
No 07 in A minor: Posato
No 08 in E flat major: Maestoso
No 09 in E major: Allegretto 'La chasse'
No 10 in G minor: Vivace
No 11 in C major: Andante – Presto
No 12 in A flat major: Allegro
No 13 in B flat major: Allegro 'The Devil's Laughter'
No 14 in E flat major: Moderato
No 15 in E minor: Posato
No 16 in G minor: Presto
No 17 in E flat major: Sostenuto – Andante
No 18 in C major: Corrente. Allegro
No 19 in E flat major: Lento – Allegro assai
No 20 in D major: Allegretto
No 21 in A major: Amoroso
No 22 in F major: Marcato
No 23 in E flat major: Posato
No 24 in A minor: Tema con variazioni. Quasi presto

24 Caprices, Op 1
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.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2009

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67763 track 17
No 17 in E flat major: Sostenuto – Andante
Recording date
1 January 2007
Recording venue
Chapel of Castle Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany
Recording producer
Reinhard Geller
Recording engineer
Reinhard Geller
Hyperion usage
  1. Paganini: 24 Caprices (CDA67763)
    Disc 1 Track 17
    Release date: March 2009
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