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Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
24 Caprices Op.1
Sueye Park (violin)
rec. Studio Acusticum, Piteå (Stora salen), Sweden, 2016 BIS BIS-2282SACD [82:41]
The last time I reviewed the Paganini Caprices for this Web site was in 2009, when the player on this new disc was just nine years old. Here we are at the end of 2017, and for her debut disc—nothing else is listed on the discography page at www.sueyepark.com—the still young South Korean violinist Sueye Park has chosen those same Caprices in all their staggering complexity and technical demands. The fact that a label as respected and esteemed as BIS have elected to be the platform for such a debut is a considerable accolade in itself. They have also lavished on Ms. Park an SACD recording of considerable sophistication and length. Clearly she knows these pieces well. She relates in a personal note in the booklet a request from a promoter that she should play the complete Caprices in a single concert when she was just fifteen—which one presumes she did.
Now in that story there lies a concern. To be blunt, playing (not to mention listening to) all of these pieces in sequence in concert does not make, to my mind, very good musical/artistic sense. So it slightly surprises me that a player of Ms. Park's undoubted ability is advised by those around her to present a concert which almost by definition falls into the realm of freak show. Paganini's composition of these works as a vehicle for his own superhuman technical display is well-known but I doubt he ever considered for a moment playing all in one concert. There can come a point where the listener is bludgeoned into submission by yet more technical marvels. Let us be clear: Ms. Park plays with an assurance and a technical address that few achieve on the violin after a lifetime of dedicated practice and study, let alone barely a dozen years. However, once one accepts that she—and indeed many other virtuosi—can play all the notes very well, I find myself wondering what else she can currently offer in terms of depth of insight and musical sensitivity. My 2009 review was of the quite remarkable James Ehnes on Onyx. In the midst of all my superlatives the key theme of the review was that he transcended just the technical aspect of these Caprices, and time and again made the case for them as pure music.
It gives me no pleasure to say this but in every single instance comparing Park to Ehnes leaves the younger player trailing far behind in terms of subtlety, insight and general musical sophistication. This is such a recurring theme from my listening notes that there is no point in going through the Caprices one by one, comparing and contrasting. There is, to my ear, simply no competition. Even by the measure of pure technique Ehnes is more fluid and fluent, more capricious if you will, and he wears his remarkable technique more lightly. Too often I felt Park was making technique the centre of the music rather than the servant of it.
Looking again as Ms Park's Web site reveals a repertoire that is stuffed with pretty much all of the big core repertoire. In fact what stands out is that, apart from a couple of virtuoso novelties, she only plays the big core repertoire and apparently no chamber music at all. I am sure the latter is not true but that is certainly how the site presents her to the world. So clearly she is a young player promoted as a big hitter. All the time she can play with the level of technical solidity she displays on this disc; while she is young, I am sure she will be very successful. Just to be sure that I was not suffering from a left-over legacy of infatuation with the Ehnes disc, I compared stalwarts such as Salvatore Accardo from his complete 1970s survey of Paganini's concertante violin works on DG alongside the Caprices and also Ilya Kaler's traversal for Naxos. It is some mark of the advancement of the technical side of violin playing—and possibly also the advances in editing!—that, alongside Park, Accardo does not seem to have a technique quite as bullet-proof. That, however, is a matter of degree. Again the older player displays a level of understanding and nuance in these works that is simply beyond Park at this time in her career. Much the same can be said of Kaler as a more mature interpreter.
Plotting the career path of a young virtuoso is very tricky. Looking at British players in the not that distant past, it strikes me that such violinists as Nicola Benedetti or Chloe Hanslip got things pretty much spot on. They are both players fully able to play all of the big works probably from a young age but they have forged a path for themselves which embraces both the standard and the lesser known facets of the repertoire. On one level I am sure Park is, and should be, delighted with this disc. BIS presents it with all the usual quality: excellent SACD engineering, and a well-written and interesting liner notes by Julian Haycock. The 1739 Guarneri that Park plays sounds magnificent, and, as mentioned before, there is never a doubt throughout the entire disc that she is a formidable player of the violin. But I really hope that from this point forward she is given the opportunity to display her great talents as a musician rather than the technician whom this disc promotes.
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