Pierre Rode’s name is credited as one of the great representatives of the classical French violin school along with Rodolphe Kreutzer and Pierre Baillot. This movement was initiated by the breathtaking demonstrations of technique by Giovanni Battista Viotta in the 1782-83 season in Paris, and is a milestone in the development of modern violin performance.
The extensive booklet notes for this release by Bert Hagels are an education in Rode’s career and times. As a composer he wrote extensively for his instrument, including 13 concertos, sets of variations and string quartets. The Caprices en forme d’études, first published around 1815, are his most important work for solo violin. These are of course études or studies in every sense, covering every didactic aspect of violin technique, but they have also been long recognised as being among the best études in a musical sense. They are not arranged in terms of ascending difficulty, but arranged according to the cycle of fifths, alternating between major and minor. In this way they provide a more satisfying musical experience than one might at first have expected, and with other similar tonally arranged examples such as Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier at the back of one’s mind there is a great deal to get one’s teeth into with this cycle.
The Caprices are filled with variety, both as a cycle, and within certain etudes, which can begin with an expressive slow introduction and then move on to the technically tricky fast leaps, energetic rhythmic material, contrasts of articulation, double-stopping and the like. The pieces’ frequently ritornello based structure are more often than subordinate to a sense of inventive improvisatory fantasy, and there is no sense of a procession of technical studies in the academic sense.
There is a small amount of competition in the catalogue for these pieces, and the Naxos recording with Axel Strauss was recently examined on these pages (see review). Nick Barnard also introduces the Oscar Shumsky recording which I’ve also seen around, and has to be an interesting prospect. It’s a shame that this has been spread over two discs, reducing this release’s competitiveness in terms of price, but you’ll be glad of a short halfway break and in terms of quality there is no sense of being short-changed. Early music specialist Elizabeth Wallfisch is a remarkable performer and plays these works with a great deal of style and panache. The ‘period’ feel is present, but while vibrato is reduced it is certainly not absent, and its more sparing application at moments of expressive emphasis is a source of extra contrast. There are certainly no technical obstacles as far as she is concerned, and the 1750 Petrus Paulus de Vitor violin used is presented in a richly resonant acoustic without losing detail. Indeed, with remote-key pieces such as the Caprice No.9 and 10 you can hear rather an overdose of chiming open strings between the notes being played. Wallfisch also enjoys a certain amount of portamento, sliding between notes in certain passages. This is not overdone, and I don’t consider it beyond the realms of stylistic credibility, but some may consider this an issue. Wallfisch plays with charm and wit, and this is indeed a set of violin solos which is well worth having to go along with the more ubiquitous and exhibitionist 24 Caprices by Paganini.