PAGANINI – 24 Caprices for Solo Violin
Martin Riseley (violin)
St.Andrew’s-on-theTerrace 2010 Series of Concerts
Sunday 14th March
Niccolo Paganini’s Op.1, the set of 24 Caprices for solo violin, remains the ultimate test of virtuosity for a violinist – these pieces explore almost every aspect of violin technique, and remain a unique example of performance art which has subsequently continued to inspire both composers and performers. Robert Schumann described Paganini’s effect upon the musical world as “the turning point in the history of virtuosity”, and the greatest composers of the succeeding age, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and Schumann himself were suitably inspired by the Genoese master’s brilliance to use his themes as the basis for some of their own compositions.
The Caprices are wonderfully varied in mood, and by no means stress virtuosity at the expense of melody or poetry – in general the earlier twelve are more “technical’ in that they use the idea or innovation as the basis for the work’s substance, whereas the later twelve tend to focus more on the musical, rather than technical ideas in each of the pieces, using the latter as a means rather than an end in itself. Having said that, the degree of technical difficulty exerted by the pieces throughout remains fairly much on the transcendental level, requiring a response from any performer that encompasses both mechanical and musical brilliance.
Violinist Martin Riseley exuded an attractively boyish confidence upon taking the platform, and with little ado launched himself and his instrument into a fearsomely bristling tumblewhirl of notes, most of which were in tune! The hit-and-miss count flashed and flickered throughout, but in fact, it was generally the high-lying stand-out notes, usually at the stratospheric ends of phrases that were most at risk, the player’s energy and determination taking the attack to the rapid-fire arpeggiations, and tossing the scintillations of melismatic flourishes everywhere. Whether it was the player or this listener I’m not entirely sure, but the degree of approximation regarding intonation seemed more pronounced in the first half-dozen caprices than in the remainder – either it was increased ear-tolerance on my part as the recital went on, or the player had “warmed up” during the first quarter and was now hitting his notes more truly. Probably it was a little of both – the “baptism by fire” of those first half-dozen pieces I thought at once scarifying, exhilarating and somewhat coruscating; so much so that, when the recital’s second quarter began I’d “settled into” the composer’s sound-world and the kind of sound that the violinist was making, and was feeling more in tune with what I was hearing.
Martin Riseley began his second “quarter” with the untitled piece marked “staccato”, a piece whose initial melody is legato with staccato phrase-ends, before fiendish staccato work is capped off by glissandi at the ends of each statement. Even more fiendish was the Maestoso No.8, with double-stopping at the outset leading to a kind of “reverse-pitching”, playing higher notes on lower strings! No.9 was a hunting-horn Rondo, in which the thematic content took precedence over the virtuosic display, even with the “ricochet” (throwing of the bow) displays; while No.10 featured a devilish trill that “spikes” the music, brilliantly thrown off. The Romance and Tarantella No.11 was great fun, the latter played with a lot of energy and clean intonation, flashes of brilliance alternating with juicy-sounding tones. At this point the violinist expressed the wish for an extra finger, checking his pockets for the freak of nature that would make his task easier – as well he might when faced with the demanding Allegro No.12, which called upon the player to use two strings, one the “pedal” note, the result seeming of an order of difficulty that would defeat all but the deftest technicians, the music sounding ungratefully atonal in places.
Ample compensation was provided after the interval by the attractively sardonic No.12 Allegro, the “Devil’s Laugh”, a descending passage in thirds after each melodic statement engendering a feeling of mocking irony. The following Moderato’s “Hunting-horn” calls and rhythmic trajectories were nicely evocative, while the Pesato No.16 readily brought to mind Liszt’s keyboard pyrotechnics, with its octaves, thirds and sixths. Liszt would have responded strongly to the following Presto No.16 as well – a dark, agitated and pungent expression of troubled feeling – but instead chose to transcribe the following Sostenuto-Andante, which appears in his “Paganini Etudes” set, the middle section of which here was a breakneck whirl of octaves, returning to the theme, but with rapid fingerings and bowings in the concluding flourishes – impressively played! Just as commanding was Martin Riseley’s realisation of the “Corrente Allegro” No.18, with its relentless descending scales in thirds, capturing the daring of it all, even if not absolutely note-perfect.
The last selection of six began with a veritable circus act, the Lento-Allegro assai No.19 featuring a kind of “high-wire” performance on a single string, followed by a veritable grounding of sombre tones in the Allegretto No.20, whose drone bass note gave an eerie effect when set against the opening hymn-like tune, and whose vigorous central dance brought strong, forthright playing to bear on the music. I would have called the romanticism of No.21 tongue-in-cheek rather than the programme note’s “cynical”, as evidenced by the rapid scampering dissolutions of agitation at the end of each “stanza” – a piece more difficult than at first apparent, judging by the intonation difficulties in places. Just as demanding sounded the next piece, with its rolling tenths beginning and rounding off the music with a skitterish middle section. No.23 presented a call-to-arms presented in octaves, with a passionate gypsy-fiddle section demanding rapid scale-like passages jump from octave to octave, frenzied energies that dissipate and finish the music on a wistful, almost dying note, brilliantly realised.
The most famous of these pieces (think of Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninov) came last – first the plain theme, then rapid arpeggio decorations, followed by octave doublings, and a wonderful “Will-o’-the Wisp” dancing episode, with descending thirds and ascending sixths, as well as the notorious left-handed pizzicato (its only appearance in the whole work). Martin Riseley’s performance of all of this was, in a word, staggering, by this time hitting his straps consistently and, though obviously tired, maintaining what seemed like superhuman energy levels to realise the music’s different voices and underlying momentum.
Reading back over what I’ve written has made me realise the extent I’ve described the music, perhaps more than I’ve focused on the actual performance – I think that’s the outcome of playing that’s stressed the importance of the music at least as much as the actual execution of it – there may be even more brilliant violinists than Martin Riseley around, but certainly, on this showing none more musical.