There is no doubting Julia Fischer’s special talent, but this recording of Paganini’s 24 Caprices is also a litmus test of her maturity as an artist. For a long time seen as one of the almost insurmountable feats of violin playing, this is the kind of music which can provide all of the show-off sparks which prove a violinist’s prowess. Fischer has said herself that, at a young age, she felt she’d become a ‘proper violinist’ after performing one of these pieces in front of an audience for the first time, but she has come a long way since then.
Describing the music of the caprices as a ‘musical poem’, Julia Fischer’s approach to this recording was to leave the technical challenges aside, putting the priority on examining the score, and finding the message in Paganini’s musical ideas. That this is a technical tour de force pretty much goes without saying, and there are very few places in which one feels Fischer’s technique is stretched in any way. The musical communication here is however pretty superlative. Fischer does succeed in making one forget that these are ‘etudes’, and the mind’s eye is filled with associations. There is plenty of the flavour of grand opera in many of the caprices, and effects such as the unison strings which open the Caprice No.3 for instance, have a very orchestral feel. This is perhaps also a reason why the more lyrical numbers, such as the Caprice No.11 are so very strong, the deeply expressive opening contrasted with real shining wit further on.
Yes, the music is all here and beautifully expressed, the technical mountain climbed and defeated in style. For us collectors it is not so much Paganini who needs to be defeated, if that’s the right word, but for each violinist preparing to record the 24 Caprices there is the spectre of Itzhak Perlman, whose EMI recording is the classic reference which has to be at the very least approached in terms of sheer style and panache. Julia Fischer is not quite as spectacular as Perlman, not quite as all-embracingly ‘nailed’ at every point, but this is not to diminish her qualities and achievement in this recording. She has given this set of the 24 Caprices a personal feel, and a heightened sense of vibrancy and musical life which transcends technical showmanship, and for this I am very grateful indeed. Her own ideas are to be found in little subtleties and inflections all over the place, but the most obvious to many will be the use of a mute in the Caprice No.6. Recording the piece both without and, ignoring its absence in the score, with a mute, Fischer states “the one with the mute clearly sounded better and more logical.” She further remarks, correctly in my view, “why shouldn’t a composer who spent his whole life exhaustively exploring the possibilities of violin playing... not also have used a mute?” This is always part of the point when it comes to the written music which would have been played by its composer. Who can say what they did to vary their own compositions, what ‘of the moment’ inspirations came along on the way, what innovations or even bad habits didn’t develop over the years. One thing on which I would bet good money, such artists didn’t and don’t do the exactly same thing every time, and the haunting sonorities of the Caprice No.6 with mute would very likely have been adopted by Paganini as a Halloween special, even if he hadn’t come up with the idea himself.
The recording itself is set in a pleasantly resonant acoustic, the violin close up and detailed, but not uncomfortably so. At nearly 80 minutes this might have been a challenge to listen to, let enough play, but Julia Fischer’s inventiveness and style all make for a narrative which carries one along very nicely. She is awake to the relationships each caprice has to the next, and the flow of the cycle has a sense of logic and pace which is convincing enough. The famous final Caprice No.24 has indeed a sense of arrival and closure, and is not just another set of variations. Some of Fischer’s moments in this are the kind to raise goose-pimples, and her light and subtly varied touch is a delight throughout this recording. Even if you have Perlman and feel this won’t beat it, think again. This isn’t about ‘beating’ anyone but is all about the music, which you may find yourself discovering anew. I bet she doesn’t really play in those shoes though.
No. 1 in E major: Andante ‘L’arpeggio’ [1:47]
No. 2 in B minor: Moderato [2:50]
No. 3 in E minor: Sostenuto - Presto [3:19]
No. 4 in C minor: Maestoso [6:14]
No. 5 in A minor: Agitato [2:46]
No. 6 in G minor: [Adagio] [5:59]
No. 7 in A minor: Posato [3:51]
No. 8 in E flat major: Maestoso [3:01]
No. 9 in E major: Allegretto 'La chasse' [3:11]
No. 10 in G minor: Vivace [2:17]
No. 11 in C major: Andante - Presto [4:32]
No. 12 in A flat major: Allegro [3:18]
No. 13 in B flat major: Allegro ‘The Devil’s Laughter’ [2:27]
No. 14 in E flat major: Moderato [1:18]
No. 15 in E minor: Posato [2:47]
No. 16 in G minor: Presto [1:37]
No. 17 in E flat major: Sostenuto - Andante [3:47]
No. 18 in C major: Corrente. Allegro [2:33]
No. 19 in E flat major: Lento - Allegro assai [3:10]
No. 20 in D major: Allegretto [3:53]
No. 21 in A major: Amoroso [2:59]
No. 22 in F major: Marcato [2:48]
No. 23 in E flat major: Posato [4:44]
No. 24 in A minor: Tema con variazioni. Quasi presto [4:28]