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Niccolò PAGANINI (1782–1840)
Paganini Rediscoverd
Sonata a Preghiera 'Mosé' MS23 for violin and piano (first recording with re-discovered introduction) [9:54]
Three Ritornelli for two violins and cello MS11 [11:52]
Six Preludes for Solo Violin [5:18]
Rondò for violin and cello MS63 [0:59]
Capriccio (Andante) for solo violin MS54 [1:05]
Grande Concerto in E minor for guitar MS75 [35:58]
Luca Fanfoni (violin)
Luca Ballerini (piano), Daniele Fanfoni (2nd violin), Luca Simonici (cello), Fabrizio Giudice (guitar)
rec. Palazzo Tursi, Violins' Hall, Genoa, Italy, 30-31 March, 2 April 2015
DYNAMIC CDS7672 [65:02]

A useful and interesting disc that throws light on the seldom-explored chamber music repertoire of Paganini away from the famed 24 solo violin Caprices. Most clearly it reveals Paganini as an innovator and genius as far as exploiting the technical potential of the violin is concerned but very limited as a composer of music of enduring worth once the pyrotechnics have been stripped away.

Of especial interest here is that violinist Luca Fanfoni is performing on one of Paganini's own violins; the famed 1743 Guarneri del Gesù 'Il Cannone'. This was the instrument that Paganini used for much of his career bequeathing it to the city of Genoa on his death. Remarkably, the city has ensured that the instrument remains in perfect playing condition and it can be heard on several other recordings including an entire disc from the brilliant jazz violinist Regina Carter. Fanfoni proves to be a worthy heir and it is impossible to listen to this disc and not applaud the sheer scale of the act of learning over an hours-worth of such technically demanding music. I also like the fact that he plays with - one imagines - Paganini-like bravura and attack. There's no treading on historic eggshells here. He plays this priceless instrument as though it were fresh from the workshop and fully deserving its 'cannone' nickname which Paganini gave it to reflect the power and brilliance of its sound. In passing, I see that Dynamic have produced another disc featuring this instrument with Salvatore Accardo in 2000. Accardo plays a mixed recital - curiously no Paganini at all. Likewise they have recorded Massimo Quarta playing the concertos on the same fiddle.

The recording for this CD was made in the violins hall in Genoa - presumably in part for security and safety reasons. It is a good if not exceptional recording venue; possibly slightly over-resonant. The Dynamic recording is good with the solo instrument always prominent but given a slightly different perspective over the three days of recording depending on the accompaniment involved. The disc implies that the only premiere recording is that of the opening Sonata a Preghiera 'Mosé'. Even here, the premiered element is the introduction which was known to exist in a set of orchestral parts but without the solo element. The liner details the discovery of the missing early sections in a library in Parma - where Fanfoni teaches and Paganini is buried. This is one of the works Paganini wrote to be performed entirely on the lowest string of the violin. From the opening the intensity of tone Fanfoni produces is quite remarkable even if slightly wearing over the near ten minutes of the work. Indeed, regarding the disc in general, an hour of pure violinistic display is something of a challenge even in as skilled and committed hands as here. The thematic material for this work comes from Rossini's opera of the same name and along with the Grand Concerto and the Six Preludes embodies the virtuosic brilliance of Paganini's writing. Indeed much of the interest of this disc is being able to hear how he moved from the essentially classically-influenced early Three Ritornelli to the early Romantic brilliance of these later works.

In the Ritornelli Fanfoni is joined by another violin and cello. The music is particularly slight and for the lead/solo part some of the least demanding music Paganini ever wrote. The major musical disappointment is just how little dialogue Paganini seeks to generate between the three instruments. The second violin and cello are given very basic accompaniments and no more. Simple double-stopping and arpeggiated figurations fill in the harmonic line and little else. The two players here do all they can with their very limited parts; cellist Luca Simoncini has a lovely easy warmth to his playing. This is music that has an operatic/divertimento flavour - passingly attractive but lacking any particular personality or depth. A comment here about the disc's frustrating presentation: the liner has interesting session photographs including some valuable close-ups of the violin and is written in the original Italian with a slightly wayward English translation. Rather curiously, nowhere does the liner name the violin except in passing in the titling of a single photograph. Nowhere is any technical information given about the violin, the strings or bow used or indeed its current condition. Is this disc played at modern pitch for instance? I think it is. If so, it would have been good to know whether any adaptations were made to the violin to allow for the higher tensioning this would require. The omissions continue: the second violinist is a young player - Daniele Fanfoni. I assume he is related to Luca Fanfoni; he also studied in Parma but why not say so. Also of interest to violin fans - and again mentioned only in passing - is the fact that the younger Fanfoni plays on a copy of the main violin. To quote from the web: "When in need of repair, Il Cannone would be sent to the workshop of Jean Baptiste Vuillaume (1798–1875) in Paris, the greatest luthier of his day. Not only did Vuillaume repair the Guarnerius, but he also made an exact replica. The copy was so precise in every detail of construction and appearance, that not even Paganini could distinguish one from the other. It was not until Paganini noticed subtle differences in tone that he could identify the original. Paganini presented the copy to his student, Camillo Sivori." Sadly the music allows the listener almost no opportunity to compare and contrast the two instruments for themselves. Why on earth Dynamic does not flag up this rare and rather special opportunity I do not know.

After the musically thin gruel of the ritornelli there is considerably more red musical meat in the Six Preludes for Solo Violin. The liner mentions that these works are listed as "doubtful" in the Moretti-Sorrento catalogue of the composer's works. Each of the six are sub-minute virtuoso studies and again brilliantly dispatched by Fanfoni. There are two more brief fragments which Paganini seems to have tossed off as gifts to the great and the good - people he met on his triumphal tours. Again they both stress the display element but are little gems. Little is not the word that can be applied to the longest work here, The Grande Concerto in E minor. This exists in an orchestrated form as the sixth violin concerto but we are given the original version here for violin and guitar. The title 'sixth' is misleading since this is again an earlier work which sits stylistically between late classical and early romantic poles of Paganini's compositional style. The opening movement runs to over twenty-two minutes which makes it Paganini's single longest opening movement. All the technical tricks are on display - complex double-stopping, ricochet bowing, stratospheric writing of ridiculous intricacy all given the bravura treatment here. I am sure there are some modern players who can produce performances of even greater sanitised perfection than Fanfoni but I like very much that he gives performances with a big personality, bags of character and plenty of technical address. His attentive and skilled accompanist is guitarist Fabrizio Giudice. The guitar is given a lengthy solo introduction to the work and has other 'solo' passages but as soon as the violin enters the guitar is reduced to a very subsidiary role. That said, the Dynamic recording is actually rather good at maintaining a balance between the two instruments where the guitar is audible and has an attractive warmth and bloom to its sound. Both players make the best case for the work but I do find twenty minutes plus of unrelenting virtuosity rather draining. That being the case the four minute simple Adagio that follows is something of a balm - and very beautifully played here. The closing Rondo has the benefit of being half the length of the opening movement which feels about the right duration for another musical sampler/testbed for what Paganini discovered was possible on the violin.

Dynamic have produced various recitals and collections over the years of Paganini's works. Indeed I would suggest that they have recorded more Paganini than just about any other company. That said, a disc such as this - even where repertoire can be found elsewhere - is by definition unique. Add the 'presence' of Paganini's favourite instrument and a committed and intelligent performer and this has real value. If only Dynamic had taken a little more time with the presentation and I could find greater musical depth in the actual compositions I would be happy indeed.

Nick Barnard


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