Pierre RODE (1774 – 1830)
24 Caprices for Solo Violin [77:03]
Axel Strauss (violin)
rec. St John Chrysostom Church, Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, 17 – 20 January 2008
NAXOS 8.570958 [77:03]

Another disc in the tried and tested successful series by Naxos documenting the byways of 19th century violinist/composer repertoire. The featured composer here is the early 19th century French composer Pierre Rode. Yes he was born in 1774 but his music and its impact is that of the succeeding century. Although some of his other works for violin are now being revived his name and fame really rests on the cycle of 24 Caprices for Solo Violin recorded here. This is because they remain a staple of most budding violinists’ training regime, more complex than the comparable Kreutzer Etudes yet less forbidding than the famous Paganini Caprices. But because they have always been considered as pedagogical works they have been neglected by the wider musical world either in concert or recording.

The violinist here is Axel Strauss, another winner of an international violin competition that Naxos seems to be able to produce by the score. He is an excellent player and these studies – for they are really studies – present him with not one moment’s difficulty. As mentioned above, these contain a fraction of the complexity and technical intricacy of the Paganini works but that being said to be able to play them with the total assurance and poise that Strauss has is extremely hard. However, as a listening experience, I did not find this to be as rewarding as other discs in this series have proved to be. The problem lies with the repertoire. Rode succeeds in fusing technique with musicality but each Caprice is designed to focus on one aspect of the violinist’s art. This is further reflected in the fact that Rode follows a strict cycle of the 24 major and minor keys. So we start in C major, follow it by its relative minor (A) and then move around the cycle of fifths – G major/E minor and so on. The sense of it is that Rode, in 1815, was seeking to reinforce what any self-respecting violinist ought to be able to do. Paganini, just five years later in 1820 (the date of publication of his 24 Caprices not their probable composition) sought to break the bounds of what it was thought a violin could do. That is why these later pieces hold a fascination for both players and listeners – it is music on the edge. Paradoxically Strauss’s total command underlines this sense of relative musical sobriety. Don’t think for a moment that this is easy music to play – I blanch at the memory of struggling with the double trill exercise of Caprice No.23 in F major – Strauss’s nonchalance here is fantastic: even-ness of tone and absolute equality of the running thirds the key. I’m struggling with why this disc did not quite delight me as it might. Part of it is that Strauss chooses tempi in the main that are absolutely ‘correct’ as far as the use of this music as study material is concerned. He presents the music immaculately but with relatively little ‘intervention’. The other available recording that has been made of these works is by that most masterly of violinists Oscar Shumsky. From memory I seem to remember it was originally released on a very specialist label but I know it is still currently available on EBS. I’m not the most objective of critics here because I did work for Oscar Shumsky when he returned to the concert platform in the UK in the mid-1980s and ever since he has been one of my musical Gods. On timings alone Shumsky is usually faster, sometimes by just a few seconds but often by considerably more. But that is not the key. Try the Caprice No.19 in E flat major. I choose that one because you can hear Shumsky playing it on the following link on YouTube: Shumsky plays Rode Caprices 19-20. Strauss is beautifully poised, almost Classical and technically beyond reproach. Shumsky is immediately far more interventionist, rubato generously applied, little portamenti slides into notes, a far more resinous tone produced by his famous Stradivarius violin. This is romantic playing. You will know in an instant which of these equally valid approaches you prefer. On the Shumsky disc you are listening to a masterful player - although one that late in his career is not as technically flawless as Strauss who is interpreting the music. Strauss on the other hand is presenting it. The acid test for me has been that in listening to the Naxos disc in a single sitting my attention has wandered, on EBS I am riveted. As you might have guessed by now I strongly lean towards the older recording. It was the world premiere recording of the complete caprices and was a project driven by Shumsky’s passion for the music. That is what I hear and love in his performance – I would urge collectors to seek it out.

But please do not take this as a criticism of the new well-filled disc. Naxos is to be praised for the consistent quality of this strand of their recording programme. The St. John Chrysostom Church has become their chamber music venue of choice in North America. The production team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver now know the technical set-up there to produce recordings there that combine excellent detail set in a warmly resonant acoustic. Certainly Strauss’s 1845 Pressenda violin sounds superb. I hope that Naxos return to him to play other ultimately more substantial music. Bruce Schueneman’s liner-notes are interesting and informative although I would disagree with him that the Kreutzer Etudes do not merit similar treatment – Shumsky recorded them too and again his performance was revelatory. My only real – and rather trivial – gripe is that I dislike the use of poor conjectural portrait paintings of the composers on this series’ covers, they look cheap and undistinguished and do the discs no service. For those studying these caprices this is an excellent reference disc and at the price valuable for all those interested in this strand of repertoire. For something all together more revelatory albeit at a significantly higher price seek out Shumsky.

Nick Barnard