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Niccolò PAGANINI (1782–1840)
Twenty-Four Caprices Op. 1 (c.1805) (arranged for viola by Emanuel Vardi) [76:51]
Emanuel Vardi (viola)
rec. ca 1965
CEMBAL D’AMOUR CD129 [76:51]
Experience Classicsonline

These epoch-making performances were originally issued on Epic SC 6049 in 1965. They were recorded by violist extraordinaire Emanuel Vardi who performs his own arrangements of the Paganini Caprices playing one fifth lower than the original key. He remains, as Cembal d’amour reminds us, the only violist to have set down all twenty-four and an additional symmetry resides in the fact that Vardi was inspired to take up the viola after hearing William Primrose’s own viola performance of two Paganini caprices, recordings that the Scotsman made for Columbia in 1934.
After listening to Primrose play a couple of Caprices for him, Mischa Elman sat thoughtfully for a while then pronounced; “Must be easier on the viola.” Well, one wonders what he would have said to Vardi who plays all twenty-four; possibly he’d have been so astounded that he’d have said nothing at all. This feat of prodigious virtuosity and astonishing pluck – allied to a violist’s indomitable will – is one that set the standard for violists.  In this respect he followed his eminent predecessors Tertis and Primrose who both strove for greater renown and respect for their instrument through commissions and transcriptions. Primrose’s was the exemplar in Paganini; Vardi took things to their logical if perhaps extreme conclusion. 
Vardi had played all twenty-four caprices on the violin and had publicly played a number as a violist. But he’d avoided others, such as 1, 4 and 6 fearing them too demanding. It was George Ricci, Ruggiero’s cello playing brother, who encouraged Vardi to record the complete set. Clearly George shared his brother’s dare-devilry when it came to the repertoire. Thus the recordings were made in Vardi’s studio in his home in New Jersey. He says the tape was leased to Epic and released in the early sixties. Maybe they were recorded in the early sixties then; I’m pretty sure they were actually released in 1965. In any event in his notes Vardi’s happy to put some myths to rest. Yes, he did use his 17-inch Dodd viola and no he didn’t “cheat” with a smaller instrument. 
Vardi’s studio was a rather boxy sounding one – the sound is consequently rather cramped and brittle.  And had he had access to a professional studio and recording engineers of course the sound would have been more ingratiating. Time for retakes would have ensured that those moments when he’s out of tune would have been remedied. But against that this is really one of those “Giant Leaps For Man” recordings. No.4 is sustained with legato dignity and amazing depth of tone. The fanfares of Nine are strongly projected and bowed.  A retake may have compromised the rugged masculinity and fearless bravura of Sixteen, gloriously spontaneous sounding. The voicings of Twenty emerge intact. Comparison with his hero Primrose in 13 and 5 shows the different tonal qualities of the two men. In Thirteen Primrose’s bowing is much lighter and wristier – the articulation is considerably less pressured. Primrose is more elegant, daintier. Vardi by comparison favours a more rugged timbral terrain – his bowing is rougher, more plangent. In No.5 similarly he is slower and has greater tonal depth than Primrose’s lighter, by comparison almost Gallic playing.  This was of course the pre-Heifetz Primrose.

So a box of rugged delights here. The fingered octaves of No.17 are dealt with something approaching aplomb – outrageous - and the whole set, abrasions and all, is a testament to Vardi’s instrumental command and tightrope walking skills.
There is a small tracking problem with my copy – track 1 temporarily segues into track 2 but rights itself eventually.
This heroic undertaking returns to the catalogue more than forty years after first seeing the light. It stands as a beacon of daredevilry.
Jonathan Woolf


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