Niccolò PAGANINI (1782 – 1840)
The Paganini Caprices arranged for String Quartet (arr. William ZINN)
24 Caprices [75:56]
Wihan Quartet
rec. Domovina Studio Prague, Czech Republic, March 2009
What is the function of an arrangement? Historically it was a legitimate way of bringing otherwise unavailable music into wider public knowledge. Composers such as Schumann or Mendelssohn added piano accompaniments to the Bach solo violin works both to give the repertoire wider circulation as well as sharing their own compositional insights into the working of Bach’s mind. Today, with almost the entire repertoire available in multiple versions from authentic to enthusiastic what does an arrangement add to the sum of all human knowledge? In this particular instance I would have to say very little. That is not to say for a moment that this is not a well arranged and well performed disc because it is but I don’t really know why so much effort was expended creating it.
I first came across the name of William Zinn about 35 years ago. Back then there was literally nothing published for String Quartet except standard quartet literature. As I played in a quartet that needed repertoire to perform at weddings and parties we were always on the look-out for anything ‘light’. The first book of quartet arrangements (of Scott Joplin rags) I bought in 1975 was by William Zinn. Whatever his ‘serious’ arranging and performing credits it is in this field as a classical pops arranger he remains best known. In the intervening time the background string quartet has become one of the few areas of growth in the professional music field. To serve that need there has been an explosion in the quantity of published arrangements. Should you now wish you can buy everything from The Planets, Star Wars, even Mahler 5 arranged for quartet. Obviously, the function there is to play a familiar melody that people enjoy hearing – there is no sense of giving new insight. I could certainly imagine hearing one or two of these Caprices as an exciting and exhilarating encore at a concert. Whether a disc of all 24 really measures up is a matter of taste.
The Wihan Quartet is an experienced and talented group in the best traditions of Czech String playing. The fact that they won the coveted first prize - and the audience prize - at the well respected London International String Quartet Competition in 1991 is evidence enough of their quality. Individually they are fine players but, in choosing to stare down both barrels of the 24 Paganini Caprices they are facing some of the hardest string music ever written. Recently I had the great pleasure of reviewing James Ehnes’ new recording of these works in their original solo version. That is a magnificent recording in many respects but the element of it that lodged most firmly in my mind was the effortless technical grace that Ehnes has. The gives him that miscroscopic extra bit of time to give the illusion of ease to all he plays. The leader of the Wihan Quartet plays all the notes he is given for sure but the extra effort is palpable. Add a rather close recording set in a resonant acoustic as well as three extra parts thickening the instrumental texture and it all makes for a rather unrelenting musical experience. I have to disagree with the liner-notes of Stephen Pettitt. He writes; “[this arrangement] is no longer about a single performer showing off. It’s about the notes and the music that lies between them … the impression his [Zinn’s] arrangement gives is not so much a matter of arrangement but of discovery”. The pleasure in listening to this piece is surely the balance a great performer (such as Ehnes) finds between the technical challenge and the musical goal. Lowering the technical barrier upsets that balance and for me reduces the fascination. Also, I have to say I find the arranging never less than competent but rarely inspirational. A valid case could have been made for a quirkily extreme version but this sits resolutely in the field of solid transcription. Yes, Zinn has to add supporting harmonies and occasional counter-melodies but not once did I sense profound new insights being offered. The addition of the three extra players fattens out the music and it loses the fantasy element and rhythmic freedom that graces the best of the solo versions. The many quick passages – well played though they are – have more of a bludgeoning effect when all four players are giving it their all. Try the very first caprice or for that matter the famous twenty-fourth. The opening is undoubtedly impressive but less … well … capricious. Don’t forget that these are works originally written sometime before 1820 at the Classical/Romantic cusp – this version pushes them into a high romantic sound-world which is a style the musical content is not able to support for much of the time. Given just how hard this music is and essentially how well the quartet play – I do find it rather aggressive playing too much of the time though – I feel rather mean-spirited not warming to this disc more.
Nick Barnard
It all makes for a rather unrelenting musical experience. ... see Full Review