A new scientific study has apparently concluded that "the world's leading violinists cannot tell the difference between (a Stradivarius) and a modern instrument ... Despite antique Italian violins having a reputation for being tonally superior to anything that can be bought today ... famous soloists could not distinguish them from new instruments in blind tests ... (and) six out of the ten violinists even preferred the contemporary versions" (The Times, 8 April 2014, p.20).
Those unnamed "famous violinists" notwithstanding, when Kristóf Baráti, the Hungarian-born soloist on this re-release of recordings that first appeared a few years ago on the Berlin Classics label, plays the 1703 "Lady Harmsworth" Stradivarius, I can only report that its warm, rounded sound is very pleasing indeed. Mind you, I suspect that, given Baráti's self-evident empathy with the music and his technical skill, I might have equally enjoyed hearing him play these scores on a toddlers' plastic toy instrument. Don't take just my word for it: no less an authority than Ida Haendel has described him as "the most talented violinist of his and many generations ... a true soloist", while, in 2010, the jurors of the sixth International Paganini Violin Competition in Moscow awarded him the top prize.
These are two accomplished and very enjoyable performances in a field that is certainly not short of impressive recordings. Paganini's flashy, crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics are delivered with great accuracy and considerable style, but my own ears, at least, were more particularly drawn to the relaxed, lyrical passages which sometimes fail to make much of an impression in other accounts. Baráti is not one for grandstanding for its own sake and is evidently anxious to demonstrate that there is more beauty and even delicacy in this music than we are often encouraged to discern.
Such an observation might make it seem as if these are somewhat small-scale performances - and in some ways they are - but conductor Eiji Oue cleverly pitches his orchestra's finely-executed support at an appropriate level. As a result, Baráti and the Hanover players fit together exceptionally well as a team. It is somewhat ironic that, as Ulf Brenken's useful booklet notes point out, that may not have been Paganini's original intention, for he and his audiences expected the spotlight to be very much on the solo violin. How amazing an occasion it must have been, as Schubert himself attested, to watch and hear Paganini perform his own music live in that fashion. That said, for repeated and more considered listening at home, the more artistically integrated approach on the disc under review is surely an equally valid, or perhaps even better, option. The disc's engineering team has created a suitably warm and enveloping acoustic that flatters the artists' particular conception of these works. Anyone looking for sensitive, very well executed and expertly recorded accounts of these scores need look no further.
Those looking for a more extrovert, in-your-face approach to the music might also want to seek out Salvatore Accardo's often overlooked second cycle of the Paganini concertos where he both took the solo part and conducted the Orchestra da Camera Italiana (EMI Classics 5 57151 2). With that important balance between soloist and orchestra properly established and maintained, both Mr Accardo and the orchestra go on to play for all they are worth in their invariably thrilling, seat-of-your-pants accounts.