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Ricci american 4841988
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Ruggiero Ricci (violin)
Complete American Decca Recordings
rec. 1961-70
Stereo recordings
ELOQUENCE 484 1988 [9 CDs: 472]

Ranked as one of the great violinists of his time, Ruggiero Ricci had an international career spanning some seventy years. This longevity was matched by a discography equally impressive; he made over 500 recordings on many different labels. He began as a child prodigy, making his debut in San Francisco in 1928 at the age of just ten. From then on a glittering international career beckoned. In 1947 he made history, being the first to record Paganini’s complete 24 Caprices in their original solo form. He died in 2012 at the grand old age of ninety-four.

This collection of the Complete American Decca Recordings is one of two box sets recently issued by Eloquence. The other is a 20 disc set titled Complete Decca Recordings of British derived recordings. A fair proportion of the latter I’m familiar with, but the American Deccas are for me, generally, a first encounter. After initially making some 78 recordings for Vox, Ricci was signed up by British Decca who were pioneering their ‘ffrr’ (Full Frequency Range Recording) system. Between 1961 and 1970 he set down nine albums for Decca's American division. All, apart from one, were recorded in New York, and all are in stereo. Issued in their original covers, several could be classed as ‘concept albums’.

Tully Potter, in his accompanying booklet notes, sets the context of the first recording in the collection, that of the 1964 inscription of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Ricci enlisted his brother George to arrange the pick-up orchestra of “all the best commercial players”. They named themselves the Stradivarius Chamber Orchestra, and included ten Stradivari violins. Ricci, himself, was required to play a different Stradivari for each concerto (‘Spanish’ 1677 for Spring, ‘Theodore’ 1690 for Summer, ‘Archinto’ 1721 for Autumn and ‘Ex-Kreisler’ 1734 for Winter). He also directed the performances. It’s an enjoyable and nicely paced reading, which benefits from matching articulation between soloist and players. My one criticism regards Ricci’s fast and relentlessly unvaried vibrato, which can be tiresome, especially in the slow movements.

Aside from the Vivaldi, there are only two other concertos with orchestra in the set, and they’re housed on CD 2. Max Rudolf directs the Cincinnati Symphony in this 1964 recording. It’s the only one in the collection not set down in New York but rather at Cincinnati Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. In the Paganini Second Concerto the artist is on home turf. It’s the eleven minute Saint-Saëns Concerto No 1 in A major, composed for the Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate in 1859, which is the main focus of interest. It makes a change from the more frequently played and recorded Third Concerto. The confident opener makes way for a soulful Andante. Dazzle and panache inform the final reprise. Rudolf is a sympathetic partner.

The Bach Sonata and Partita cycle is not the only one he recorded. The other one I’m familiar with is that from 1981 on Unicorn-Kanchana, though there are individual sonatas and partitas scattered throughout his discography, both live and studio. The one we have here dates from 1967. Tully Potter considers it his best. Well, I certainly prefer it to the 1981 cycle in terms of technical fluency and intonation. These are big-boned and muscular readings with careful attention paid to dynamics. The dance movements are particularly successful, each with a convincing rhythmic spring in its step.

One of the highlights of the set is the CD devoted to Pablo de Sarasate; it really is a gem. This is the sort of repertoire Ricci excelled in. His partner is Brooks Smith, Heifetz’s long-time accompanist. Centre stage are all eight Danzas españolas, which is a treat as I hadn’t heard Vito or the second Habanera Op. 26 No. 2 before. All are dispatched with great aplomb and admirable dexterity. In the well-known Zapateado the left-hand pizzicatos and harmonics truly sparkle, and Playera glows like rich velvet. The Introduction et Tarantelle contrasts some soaring lyricism with jaw-dropping virtuosity.

Brooks Smith also partners Ricci in the Fritz Kreisler album. The album was issued in mono and stereo in 1961. The violinist performed a tribute concert to Kreisler around the same time. The elder statesman couldn’t attend due to ill health; he was to die in 1962. Ricci shares his memories of Kreisler that same year in a 25 minute interview ‘Meet the Masters’ situated at the end of the disc. Issued separately, it helped promote the album. Whilst Ricci rises unhesitatingly to the technical challenges of the music, certain pieces lack the grace and Viennese charm that come so naturally to Elman and Szeryng; one example is Liebeslied which falls short of nuance, rubato and inflection. It feels too straight for my taste.

The ‘Glory of Cremona’ was originally issued on LP in 1963. In 1993 it was released on CD for the first time. Ricci performs fifteen pieces on fifteen Cremonese violins. The instruments feature violins made by Antonio Stradivari, Joseph Guarnieri, del Gesu, Andrea Amati, Nicolo Amati, Carlo Bergonzi and Gasparo da Sálo. The listener can thus savour the individual character and personality of each fiddle and compare their sound. Sometimes the differences are only subtle, sometimes more striking. Leon Pommers provides admirable support on the piano. At the end of the disc, Ricci plays the opening six bars of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 on fifteen different instruments.

CDs 8 and 9 are titled ‘Bravura’ and ‘Violin Plus 1’ respectively. The former presents the sort of music Ricci excelled in and became famous for – virtuoso showpieces. Some pieces are for solo violin and others have piano accompaniment, with Leon Pommers doing the honours. Each piece is the perfect vehicle to show off the violinist’s magnificent technical arsenal – staccato, spiccato, double stops, harmonics, you name it, its all there. Mention is made in the notes of a 1998 interview in which Ricci was asked which piece was the most challenging. Wieniawski’s Variations on the Austrian Anthem was his reply, adding “without question”. Needless to say, it sounds horrendously difficult.

‘Violin Plus 1’ features duos with various instrumentations – harpsichord, harp, guitar, soprano voice and violin. David Nadien, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, is the second violin in Prokofiev Sonata for Two Violins. This, and the Paganini Sonata, were the only works on the disc I’d previously encountered. The other pieces are true rarities. Potter makes a pertinent comment in the notes when referring to this disc stating “It is typical of Ricci’s restless questing for new repertoire”.

These elusive recordings, gathered here for the first time in superb remasterings, are warmly welcomed. They’re bolstered by the insightful liner notes. The cache of beautifully produced photographs is an added bonus.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf


CD 1
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Concertos for Violin, Strings and Continuo, Op 8 Nos 1–4 ‘Le quattro stagioni’ (The Four Seasons)
Stradivarius Chamber Orchestra
Recording Location: New York, USA, 20–21 July 1964

CD 2
Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840)
Violin Concerto No 2 in B minor, Op 7
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Violin Concerto No 1 in A major, Op 20
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Max Rudolf
Recording Location: Cincinnati Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, 13 October 1964

CD 3
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Sonata No 1 in G minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1001
Partita No 1 in B minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1002
Sonata No 2 in A minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1003
Recording Location: USA, 31 January 1967, 6 February 1967 (Sonata No 1, Partita No 1); 2–3 February 1967 (Sonata No 2)

CD 4
Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No 2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004
Sonata No 3 in C major for Solo Violin, BWV 1005
Partita No 3 in E major for Solo Violin, BWV 1006
Recording Location: USA, 2–3 February 1967 (Partita No 2); 31 July, 2 August 1967 (Sonata No 3, Partita No 3)

CD 5
Pablo de Sarasate (1844–1908)
8 Danzas españolas
Introduction et Tarantelle, Op 43
Caprice basque, Op 24
Serenata andaluza, Op 28
Brooks Smith, piano
Recording Location: New York, USA, 5–8 September 1961

CD 6
Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962)
Praeludium and Allegro ‘in the style of Pugnani’
Siciliano and Rigaudon ‘in the Style of Francoeur’
Chanson Louis XIII and Pavane ‘in the style of Couperin’
Rondino on a theme by Beethoven
Variations on a theme by Corelli ‘in the style of Tartini’
Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice, Op 6 (for solo violin)
Caprice viennois
Tambourin chinois
Schön Rosmarin
La Gitana
The Old Refrain
La Chasse ‘in the style of Cartier’
‘Meet The Masters’ – Ruggiero Ricci interviewed by Victor Alexander*
Brooks Smith, piano
Recording Location: New York, USA, 7–8 September 1961 (Kreisler); 1962 (interview)

CD 7

Jean-Antoine Desplanes (1678–1760)
Pietro Nardini(1722–1793)
Larghetto [Adagio] (from Violin Sonata No 7 in B-flat major, arr. David)
Antonio Vivaldi
Preludio (from Violin Sonata in C minor, Op 2 No 7, RV 8)
Niccolò Paganini
Cantabile e Valser, Op 19
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Adagio (from Piano Sonata No 4 in E-flat major, KV 282, arr. Friedberg)
Dimitry Kabalevsky(1904–1987)
Improvisation for Violin and Piano, Op 21 No 1
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsy (1840–1893)
Mélodie in E-flat major, Op 42 No 3 (from Souvenir d’un lieu cher)
Francesco Maria Veracini (1690–1768)
Largo (from Violin Sonata in A major, Op 2 No 6)
Maria Theresia von Paradis(1759–1824)
Jenő Hubay (1858–1937)
Violin Solo, Op 40a (from The Violin Maker of Cremona)
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Andante (from Flute Sonata in B minor, HWV 367b. arr. as ‘Larghetto’ by Hubay)
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Romance in A major, Op 94 No 2 (arr. Kreisler)
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Hungarian Dance No 20 in E minor, WoO 1 (arr. Kreisler)
Hungarian Dance No 17 in F-sharp minor WoO 1 (arr. Kreisler)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Lied ohne Worte, Op 62 No 1: Andante espressivo ‘May Breezes’ (arr. Kreisler)
Max Bruch (1838–1920)
Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor, Op 26 (excerpt) – Played on 15 different violins
Leon Pommers, piano
Recording Location: Decca Studios, New York, USA, 26–28 June 1962

CD 8
Pietro Locatelli (1695–1764)
Capriccio (from The Harmonic Labyrinth, Op 3 No 12)
Niccolò Paganini
Introduction and Variations on ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ for solo violin
Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1812–1865)
Airs Hongrois Variés, Op 22
Franz von Veczey (1893–1935)
Caprice No 1: Le Vent
Henryk Wieniawski (1835–1880)
Les Arpèges – Variations sur L’Hymne Autrichien (No 6 of L’École moderne, Op 10)
Niccolò Paganini
Variations on a theme of Joseph Weigl
Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst
Variations on ‘The Last Rose Of Summer’ for solo violin
Niccolò Paganini
Variations on ‘God Save the King’ for solo violin, Op 9
Leon Pommers, piano
Recording Location: New York, USA, 11 January 1968 (Locatelli, Ernst: The Last Rose of Summer, Paganini: God Save the King), 18 June 1965 (Paganini: Nel cor più non mi sento, Wieniawski), 27–28 October 1965 (Ernst: Airs Hongrois Variés, Vecsey, Paganini: Variations on a theme of Joseph Weigl)

CD 9
Antonio Vivaldi
Sonata in A major for Violin and Continuo, Op 2 No 2, RV 31
Kenneth Cooper, harpsichord
Camille Saint-Saëns
Fantaisie for Violin and Harp, Op 124
Gloria Agostini, harp
Niccolò Paganini
Sonata No 12 in E minor for Violin and Guitar, Op 3 No 6
Rolando Valdés-Blain, guitar
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Suite for Voice and Violin
Lee Venora, soprano
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op 56
David Nadien, violin II
Recording Location: New York, USA, January–March 1970

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