PAGANINI: 24 Caprices, Op. 1 – Augustin Hadelich, violin – Warner Classics 

PAGANINI: 24 Caprices, Op. 1 – Augustin Hadelich, violin – Warner Classics 0190295728229, 81:07 (1/12/18) ****:

Augustin Hadelich serves us a set of the complete Paganini Caprices in rousing, masterly fashion.

Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year and the Warner Classics Award Winner 2015, Augustin Hadelich (b. 1984) performs one of the several “Everests” of the solo violin, the 1820 Paganini Caprices (rec. March 2016 – July 2017) from WGBH, Boston.  Hadelich plays the 1823 Ex-Kiesewetter Stradivarius, an instrument thoroughly contemporaneous with the composer. Its resonant, piercing tone has been captured with stunning presence by Producer and Editor Antonio Oliart.

Speculation has it that Nicolo Paganini (b. 1782) began composing his set of 24 Caprices around 1805, completing the set in 1820 for publication, one of only five opera he released for public consumption, if only to convince the world that he alone could perform his music. Beyond the sheer volume of technical effects Paganini achieves within his arsenal—double-stops, agonizing speed, harmonics, ricochet effects, pizzicato in both hands, staccato runs, up-bow staccato, cross-string arpeggios and scales—the man himself courted intriguing theatrical effects that became legend throughout Europe. German poet Heinrich Heine in one account described Paganini as “looking as if he had risen from the underworld,” given the gaunt, cadaverous mien the composer deliberately cultivated.

Hadelich executes each of the 24 Caprices with suave grace that rarely calls attention to itself, except as brilliant, lyrically-driven music.  Much of the Paganini arpeggio technique and virtuosic traces itself back to Locatelli. Paganini’s consistent application of the tonic degree of each sequence followed by its parallel minor has become known as “Paganini’s Rosalia.” The staggering girth of the No. 5 in a minor alone might justify the price of admission, with its vaulting scales and arpeggios in spiccato, and a middle section that demands whirlwind speed. But the pyrotechnics start much earlier, in No. 1 in E Major, which calls for elastic ricochet four times, up and down, and upon each of the four strings! The No. 6 in g minor proffers a chorale in grim tones, in three-voice trills. The persistent tremolo trill certainly alludes to the Devil’s Trill of Tartini.  Another chorale-effect permeates No. 11 in C Major, followed by a quicker “jig” section that leaps in bravura style. A joyous élan suffuses No. 7 in a minor, set in potent octaves that evolve into free “flying staccato” runs. This caprice has a kindred spirit in No. 15 in e minor, with its own, blistering demands. We ought not to overlook the longest (to perform) of the set: the No. 4 in c minor, marked Maestoso, presents an extended study or “poem” in Italian melancholy, descending even further into the labyrinths of thirds and tenths.

The more popular items, like the rondo, No. 9 in E Major, “The Hunt”, requires Hadelich to play with the bow over the fingerboard to produce a flute tone, along with imitation horn effects on the low strings. We of the keyboard well know the Liszt version of this beguiling caprice. The hunting-horn motif recurs most sonorously in No. 18 in C Major, but here played on the violin’s lowest string. Hadelich himself labels No. 10 in g minor “devilish” for its sweeping use of up-bow staccato effects that virtually jab one’s ear off.  Among the more fiendishly difficult, No. 12 in A-flat Major has Hadelich alternate very fast between a high melody line and bass line in long strokes, so his right hand becomes duly punished. The disarmingly brief No. 16 in g minor proffers a moto perpetuo, chains of 16ths that begin with offbeat accents.  The No. 14 serves us a marche miniature in E-flat set in multiple, “symphonic” voices. No. 13 in B-flat, a favorite of Heifetz (in the Ferdinand David arrangement with piano), enjoys an angular, sliding melodic line that abruptly becomes a punishing etude with jabbing accents. In its mock-symphonic opening, the No. 17 in E-flat Major provided Heifetz with another of his favorites, what Hadelich its “cat’s meow” figures that pulsate in classically arranged metric groups beset by punishing slides.

The final set of five caprices seems to concentrate on the refinement of all the bravura lyricism that precedes it: No. 19 in E-flat tests Hadelich’s left hand, its capacity to jump and to ring out both acerbically and lushly in short, piercing figures. The work on the lowest string provides clear evidence of the resonance of Hadelich’s throaty tone, a step away from the viola’s voluptuous sonority. No. 20 in D Major, marked Allegretto, sets us a rustic, ternary musette, the melody over a drone bass, while the middle part delivers fervent trills.  Paganini marks No. 21 in A Major “Amoroso,” since he wants Hadelich to intone a gondolier’s song that will rival Mendelssohn for an operatic aria condensed into a small space.  The two caprices – in F and E-flat – that precede the mighty No. 24 in a minor “merely” explore, further, double-stops and octave manipulation. A stirring theme and variations, this last caprice has become its own bête célèbre around the musical planet. Each variant challenges the fingers in its own way, with the ninth of the set’s asking for pizzicato alone. Despite the universal appeal of this famous caprice, one needs only to audition Hadelich’s opening foray into No. 22 in F to appreciate the cleanliness of his attack.

A fine excursion into one of the pillars of the violin art, this by Hadelich, so place the disk right next to those by young Rabin, mature Ricci, and perhaps Midori for masters of this virtuoso idiom.

–Gary Lemco

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