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Ruggiero Ricci. Decca Recordings 1950-1960. Original Masters.
DECCA ORIGINAL MASTERS LIMITED EDITION 475 105-2 [5 CDs 74.06 + 66.28 + 65.43 + 72.19 + 69.47]


24 Caprices Op.1
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in D major Op.6
London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in B minor Op.7 La Campanella
London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Sonata for Violin and Piano in E flat Op.18
Carlo Bussotti (piano)
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)

Sonatas; Six Sonates Progressives: Nos. 1-6 J99-104
Carlo Bussotti (piano)
Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908)

Concert Fantasy on Carmen Op.25
Zigeunerweisen Op.20
London Symphony Orchestra/ Piero Gamba
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Havanaise in E Op.83
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in A minor Op.28
London Symphony Orchestra/Piero Gamba
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)

Symphonie Espagnole in D minor Op.21
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)

Sonatas for solo Violin: Op.31 No.1 and No.2
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Solo Violin Sonata in D Op.115
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari
Ruggiero Ricci (violin)
Accompaniments as above
Recordings made between 1950 and 1960

With a number of singles, twofers, boxes and ancillary historical retrievals to his name Ruggiero Ricci stands as one of the elite. Now retired, he can look back on his achievements, some documented here, with a degree of pride. But Ricci, ever-combative and revealing, would doubtless bristle at the mere thought of contemplative sentimentality. He stood up for what he believed, in life, and on record, and did things because they were there to do. Like mountain climbers or Saharan explorers Ricci trod new ground, ventured afield, took chances, gave of himself. Not all the ventures were well received and not everyone responds to Ricci’s visceral humanity, his Huberman-like daring to compromise tonal beauty in the interest of characterised drama. But then Ricci is a one-off, a product of a complex and difficult childhood, through which he has emerged toughened and outspoken, and whose early adulthood proved equally difficult to manage. But survive he has and this Decca 5 CD box testifies to Ricci’s daring and imagination and to his extravagant resources of musical adrenalin.

The first CD gives us his 1950 cycle of the Paganini Caprices, the first such on disc (Renardy’s earlier cycle has the inauthentic piano accompaniment). Decca’s acoustic was not overly sensitive to the violinist but Ricci’s fearless bravado triumphed over such trifling problems. Whilst Ricci has built up a commanding reputation as a virtuoso gymnast of the first order these are not technically unimpeachable performances though the extent to which they fall from grace in this respect is trivial when set against such stunning playing. In the Octaves study, No. 3, his vibrato is obtrusively prominent – against which one can note that the melody in the Thirds study is scrupulously maintained, that the Fifth Caprice is magnetic, and that Ricci at all times manages to sustain the contrastive properties of these exceptionally complex pieces with an intense vibrancy and musicality. Whenever I come to review the Caprices invariably I turn first to this venerable set – not because he is invariably superior technically to today’s players (a number are more scrupulous in this respect) but for his sheer power of communication and sculpting of what in other hands tends toward academic or motoric projection. Collectors should note that the Italian label Dynamic has reissued the Caprices in their 10 CD box tribute to the violinist, as has Pearl where it’s coupled with the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Sargent. That’s the best bet for a single CD edition.

His reputation as a Paganinian precedes him so naturally the second disc is given over mostly to his Concerto recordings. The First – both are with the LSO and Anthony Collins and recorded in 1955 – is particularly the victim of some rather thin orchestral string tone but Ricci’s surmounting of the Sauret cadenza is thrilling and only has one or two spots of weakness. They play the Collins-edited tuttis. Ricci makes a big sound in the Adagio even if there are a few moments where there is a certain colouristic limitation in his phasing. The Allegro maestoso of No.2, with its cadenza this time by pianist Artur Balsam, has some devilishly fine playing and there’s real lyric generosity in the slow movement complete with some pellucidly executed trills. The avalanche of left hand pizzicati, chromatic octaves and double harmonics in the finale are executed with tremendous panache. This disc concludes with Ricci’s foray into Ravel’s Tzigane. Accompanied by Ansermet – dramatic and intense, though not over emoted.

The third disc brings surprises to those who think of Ricci only as a finger-busting gymnast. The Strauss Sonata with Carlo Bussotti, a fine pianist who recorded with Szigeti, shows Ricci in a ripely Romantic sonata - maybe unusual territory to some. There is a slightly nasal quality to his tone here and some rather wavery vibrato, but he’s never afraid to coarsen his tone in the heat of battle. He shows a wide range of tone colours in the second movement and relaxes with deft timing for those moments of lyrical introspection and Brahmsian cantilever in the finale. The 1953 recording shows no noticeable residual tape hiss. I’m glad that Decca has mined other little-known Ricci recordings such as the six Weber Sonatas. I’m not aware that there has been a reissue of the Sonates Progressives since those initial 1954 releases. He’s partnered once more by Bussotti though the balance rather favours the violinist, and there’s something of a constricted room ambience to this set. There are a number of standout moments in the course of these little and very attractive works; the luminously expressive Romanza of the F major for instance or the bleak, seesawing vibrato-less terror of the Adagio of No. 2 in G major. Though he has a big personality Ricci is capable of considerable delicacy and moments of lightness – as witness the wit of the Rondo Vivace of No. 4 in E flat major (aided and abetted by equally distinguished music-making from Bussotti) or the veritable charm of the longest movement of any of these Sonatas, the Largo-Polacca of No. 6.

Ricci had a good discographic relationship with one-time childhood prodigy conductor, Piero Gamba. The Carmen Fantasy is all vocalized, evocative colour and vibrant intensity whilst Zigeunerweisen is full of flair indeed. He teamed up with Ansermet for the Symphonie Espagnole, a generally convincing traversal. The second movement is bold and flavoursome with Ansermet shaping detail finely and the Andante is truly prayerful and elevated even if Ricci’s sinewy vibrato does impart a certain edge to it all. The Rondo finale is joyful and ebullient.

The final disc gives us another example of his concerto prowess (the Khachaturian) and solo works, for which he was famous, but once again the selection is judicious. A number of recordings in this boxed set are noted as first international CD releases and this is the case with the Hindemith and Prokofiev Sonatas. He plays the little Op.31 Nos. 1 and 2 of Hindemith. The first is crisply done with an attractive Intermezzo and a real Prestissimo last movement but the Second is even better. His playing in alt – demanding and repeatedly – is notable and his intonation doesn’t buckle in the second of the four movements. His playing here is strong-minded and powerful. The constant strumming pizzicati of the third movement are well judged and in the finale, based on Komm, lieber Mai he presents the tune with folk like simplicity before embarking on the variations with technical polish and architectural understanding. When it comes to the Prokofiev his displays ebullience and a roughened tone in the Moderato opening movement and handles the finale with a firm and flexible drive.

The last piece is the Khachaturian Concerto, a recording made with the LPO and Anatole Fistoulari in July 1956. The first recording of the Concerto was the famous one with Oistrakh and the composer in 1944 (available in Britain at the time on Decca 78s). Shortly after that came Louis Kaufman’s incredibly fast recording with Rachmilovich in 1946 but Ricci’s came just in time to precede Kogan and Monteux’s sensational ’58 disc, made in Boston. Compared with the Oistrakh and the Kogan, Ricci is, perhaps surprisingly to those who have assumed him a speed merchant here, rather sedate when it comes to tempi. His is an approach long on atmosphere and lyricism but, at times, rather missing out on the one thing Ricci usually provides which is daredevil panache. He’s a full two minutes slower than Oistrakh in the first movement, a minute and a half slower in the second and half a minute slower in the finale. These matters of tempo demonstrate that Ricci’s priorities here are clarity of exposition and a generally unhurried approach to inner part writing – and matters such as the dialogue between the soloist and the clarinettist in the first movement cadenza for example. The expressive drama at the crest of the second movement, with its powerful brass-led writing, is the more noble and coursing because of the slightly slower speed. Ricci’s passagework in the finale is clear and biting and plenty of orchestral detail is allowed to register. As befits Ricci’s imperturbable individuality this is an individual reading and unusually relaxed.

As a conspectus of Ricci’s Decca recordings from a single decade this splendid set strikes an innovative balance between his canonical Paganini and the equally adventurous, though much less well known, Hindemith and Prokofiev. It covers the concerto and solo repertoire and gives us a glimpse of one of his sonata partnerships. Above all it reminds us constantly of the questing musicianship and provocative tonal resources of a musical and discographic pathfinder.

Jonathan Woolf


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