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Nicolo PAGANINI (1782-1840)
24 Caprices for solo violin, Op.1 (1837)
Michael Rabin (violin)
Recorded at Studio A, Capitol 46th Street Studios, New York City, Sept 1958, ADD
Great Recordings Of The Century
EMI CLASSICS 5 67986 2 [72’07]


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This is an interesting inclusion in EMI’s GROC series. They have chosen the present recording over the other obvious contender from their archive, Itzhak Perlman’s highly praised version from 1972. Having listened through the disc, I can only applaud their choice, for whatever the Perlman’s merits, this is a very special document from a very special performer.

To those of us keen on music generally, but not particularly violin aficionados, Michael Rabin was as much a name referred to by other violinists as anything. The fact that it was referred to with the utmost respect, not to say awe in certain quarters, always made me keen to hear what all the fuss was about, and this legendary recording of the Paganini Caprices is the best possible memorial to his art. It has been available before, but has surely now found its true home in this series.

Rabin was born in 1936 into an intensely musical family. His father was a long-serving first desk violinist with the New York Philharmonic, and his mother a respected pianist who taught at the Juilliard. His talent was obvious from the start, and he had a lot of high profile early exposure, debuting at age 9 and even recording a number of these very Caprices at the tender age of 12. He went on a punishing schedule of tours in his twenties, embarked on a series of recordings for EMI in the 1950s (of which this is one) and was effectively burnt out by the 1960s. The critical acclaim cooled, the ill health that had dogged him got worse, and there were even allegations of drug abuse. The tragedy ended in 1972, when he died following a fall at his New York home. He was 36.

Hearing him at the peak of his powers, in 1958, gives one an idea why so much was expected of him. The technical control is truly astonishing, and it is allied to a keen intellect and such a passion for the music that criticism is almost useless. He is incapable of producing an ugly tone, even in the most fiendishly difficult passages – and there are many in these works. When Rabin made his recording, playing the set as a whole was a fairly recent development. They were generally given in small groups, played as encores, or even spiced up with piano accompaniments. But they make excellent listening as a whole cycle, such is the variety and marvellously dare-devil invention on display. It needs a performance to match that invention, and Rabin revels in the virtuosity. Examples abound throughout; indeed, every single piece has something about it that makes you sit up and take notice, and Rabin’s tonal palette and bowing ensure that monotony never sets in. Listen to the fiery scale work of No. 5 in A minor and the way he copes with the difficult turns in No.14 in E flat. This is a true master at work. The set rounds off with another A minor, the most famous of the lot and the piece that inspired a whole generation of composers (Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninov among them) to adapt it in various guises. It makes a fitting conclusion to a stunning recital.

Recording quality is extremely good, with only a trace of tape rumble and faint pre-echo to show its age. Informative notes are by Tully Potter. There is much competition now in the catalogue, with the above-mentioned Perlman, as well as Salvatore Accardo, Leonidas Kavakos and Naxos’s excellent Ilya Kaler being highly praised. But Rabin is special, and there can be no better tribute to one of the century’s most gifted, and ultimately most tragic, musical prodigies.

Tony Haywood

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