Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Violin Concerto No 2: III. Rondo ‘La Campanella’ (arr. Kreisler) [5:54]
Introduction and Variations on ‘Non piu mesta’ from Rossini’s La cenerentola (arr. Kreisler) [12:34]
Moto perpetuo (arr. Kreisler) [4:16]
24 Caprices: No. 13 in B flat (arr. Kreisler) [4:06]
24 Caprices: No 20 in D (arr. Kreisler) [2:54]
Le streghe (arr. Kreisler) [12:13]
24 Caprices: No 24 in A minor (arr. Kreisler) [6:34]
Introduction and Variations on ‘Di tanti palpiti’ from Rossini’s Tancredi (arr. Kreisler) [11:47]
Philippe Quint (violin); Dmitry Cogan (piano)
rec. 28-30 June 2008, Glenn Gould Studio, CBC, Toronto, Canada
NAXOS 8.570703 [60:15]
Here is a meeting of two unlikely minds: Niccolò Paganini, the ultimate showman, the first rock star, the man who brought virtuoso solo playing to new, undreamed-of heights, and Fritz Kreisler, the suave gentleman with a genius for salon music and miniatures. And yet Kreisler arranged a series of Paganini’s works for violin and piano, both works which were originally for orchestra (like ‘La Campanella’ or ‘Le streghe’) and works which were originally for violin alone (like the selected caprices). This is a recital consisting entirely of such arrangements, and Paganini fans will want to have it, but its appeal will also extend to violin aficionados generally.
Alongside Hyperion’s “Romantic Concerto” series, the less evocatively named Naxos series “Nineteenth Century Violin Music” is one of the greatest gifts to violin enthusiasts in many a year. Announced in 2007, the series aims to include major (and, frankly, minor) works by the likes of Charles-August de Bériot, Pierre Baillot, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Jenő Hubay, Antonio Bazzini, Jan Kalliwoda, and Ferdinand David, as well as the complete works of Henri Vieuxtemps and Pablo de Sarasate. Grammy-nominated violinist Philippe Quint has been an enthusiastic member of the project, having previously recorded a slate of Beriot concertos. Now, with the Paganini/Kreisler transcriptions, he reaches an intriguing medium between the famous and the obscure. This is familiar music in an unfamiliar frame.
Some works are more popular than others: ‘La Campanella’ and the twenty-fourth caprice are justly legendary, while the somewhat long-winded variations on Rossini tunes have been consigned to the footnotes of music history. Philippe Quint tackles them all with freshness, dazzling technique, and a tone which is a little brighter and thinner than I like. He cannot make satisfying the structures of the variations (which were, frankly, built to show off Paganini’s skills to best advantage), but he can dispatch their double stops, multiple extended harmonic passages, and occasional expressive demands seemingly without any difficulty. As I write this, I am listening to the Moto perpetuo and wondering not just how anyone can play this music, but how anyone can make it sound so easy.
The twenty-fourth caprice is one of the most interesting tracks: Kreisler could not help but write some variations of his own! The booklet helpfully explains which of Paganini’s variations have been replaced by Kreisler’s new inventions, which are all worthy of joining the originals - and some of them are tougher to play: try 0:53!. Pianist Dmitry Cogan even gets his own mini-variation (2:18), a welcome moment at the surface after spending most of the disc submerged beneath a sea of virtuosic violin writing. Is it just me, or do the capacious chords of that little piano solo invoke another composer associated with this tune: Rachmaninoff?
The Caprice No 20 in D begins as a surprisingly lyrical, lovely invention thanks to Kreisler’s (and Cogan’s) singing piano accompaniment, and Quint squeezes every bit of romance out of the main theme. The central section is still a ferocious technical challenge for the violin. Le Streghe (“Witches”) doesn’t sound very devilish until its conclusion, but it is witty and gives Quint plenty of chances to show off. The ‘I Palpiti’ variations close the recital, beginning with another chance for Cogan to reveal his sensitive playing style, before Quint delivers the gorgeous main tune and shrugs off several minutes of adventures in the violin’s highest register.
The sound is good, but I have heard some of Philippe Quint’s other discs on which his violin playing is presented in a more flattering light. Here the tone is a bit too bright, too thin, although it got better when I cranked up the volume. There is one poorly-done edit, at 7:58 on ‘Le Streghe.’ One more production note: this is one of the first Naxos discs to not have any white space on the cover. The trend began a few months ago, with (I think) the Alfredo Casella series, and seems to be expanding as it goes along. Maybe in a few years’ time the old white covers with little paintings and Times font will be gone. That really would leave me irrationally nostalgic.
But back to the disc at hand: if you are not very passionate about Paganini, or the violin in general, I do have to warn that much of this music originally consisted of brazen showing-off and Kreisler did not get in the way of that goal. For the mere casual fan of virtuosic violin pieces, the recital can be hard to enjoy in one sitting.
On the other hand, if you love the music of Paganini, or if you are collecting the Nineteenth Century Violin series, you will definitely want to hear this recital. The best all-around recital of Paganini music arranged for violin and piano probably remains Pavel šporcl’s on Supraphon with pianist Petr Jirikovsky. It features arrangements by a number of tinkerers and has fuller sound. šporcl has a more genial tone but, especially as šporcl does not play ‘La campanella’ or the twenty-fourth caprice, there is room for the two albums on one shelf. Violin aficionados are strongly advised to follow that course and listen to both.
Familiar repertoire heard in a new light, but mainly for connoisseurs.