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Nicolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
24 Caprices, Op 1 (1817?)
Massimo Quarta (violin)
recorded in Studio A, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, 9-12 November 2002
CHANDOS CHAN 10276 [79:28]

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Incredibly, these Caprices were published in 1820, long before Schubert or Beethoven died. Like the Chopin Études which they inspired (indeed, to some degree, like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier of a century previous) they are technical exercises that transcend the pedagogic limitations of their genre. They do not have the emotional range (or even the depth) of the Chopin, but they cover as much ground, technically, and range far and wide in terms of musical material - including a lot of decorative chromaticism and ambitious figuration which must have seemed aggressively inventive in its day. Their greatest claim to fame, of course, is Caprice No 24 - the ‘source’ of Rachmaninov’s celebrated Rhapsody, of the Brahms Variations, Op 35, and the Lutoslawski set for two pianos.

We have here abundant double-stopping, harmonics, complex ornamental passage work, and fantastic combinations or juxtapositions of pizzicato and bowing. So it goes without saying that these pieces require nothing less than the technical dexterity and flair for which Paganini himself was famous. And that’s asking a lot! Massima Quarta’s technique is phenomenal. Everything is perfectly in tune, and musically perfectly formed. There is nowhere on the entire disc where one feels remotely uncomfortable, lest some pyrotechnical feat should misfire, be misjudged in any way, or fail to make its musical point. Similarly, there’s nothing on this disc which significantly departs from Paganini’s expressive instructions, or fails to capture the music’s essential character.

So, a top recommendation? A confident recommendation, yes. But you’ve only got to sample an artist such as Perlman (on EMI CDC5 67237-2) or Accardo (on DG 429 714-2) - or even Ilya Kaler on Naxos 8.550717 - and experience an additional dimension, absent here, to realise that Quarta exhibits a coolness, a slickness, which amounts to understatement. It is perhaps an ungrateful thing to say, but everything comes across as so easy, and apparently so familiar to him, that the element of bravery, of obstacles overcome, is missing. The expressive extremes which this music encompasses can be more fully explored than they are by Quarta, who seems so often to engage an expressive mode from without (as if switching something on) rather than ‘live’ it from within. These observations are personal, and not easy to quantify or illustrate: and they will not matter to everyone. The counter argument is that these pieces are so impossibly taxing, and plumb only moderate depths anyway, that, whereas high levels of technical accuracy are a sine qua non, over-characterisation in such music is intrusive, and ultimately self-defeating.

Whatever one’s eventual conclusion, this is undeniably extraordinary music, and extraordinary violin-playing. And, as you’d expect of Chandos, the recording brings the violinist into your living room.

Peter J Lawson

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