Paganini Violin Concertos 1 and 2

Ilya Grubert, violin
Constantine Orbelian
Moscow Chamber Orchestra

Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 6 in D Major / 36:15
Violin Concerto No. 2, Op 7 in B Minor / 30:28

In an age suspicious of virtuosity for virtuosity's sake, it is hard to understand the myth-making triggered off by a technique the like of which no-one in the early nineteenth century had ever heard before. "Paganini is the turning point in the history of virtuosity," wrote Schumann; but, being at the crossroads, history's most dazzling violinist had to endure the legends invented by superstitious listeners to explain such a phenomenon--among them, according to Liszt (who only repeated the rumours in order to discredit them), the fancies that "he had dedicated his soul to the Evil One, and that the fourth string of his violin was made of his wife's intestine which he himself had cut out." His fantastically lugubrious appearance only intensified the fictions; but the fact of the matter is that--again to quote Liszt's fair-minded obituary--"Paganini's god...was never any other than his own gloomy, sad 'I'" -- an "I" mad about money and women (though never to the degree of forming a lasting attachment), who rejected the wonderfully imaginative solo viola role Berlioz had written especially for him in Harold en Italie on the grounds that there were "too many tests" and who was, by all accounts, a poor exponent of other men's music on the rare occasion he departed from his own scores.

In those, too, there is little of the demonic. A suggestion of it in the twenty-four Caprices, Op. 1 was enough for others--among them Liszt, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninov--to spin a supernatural musical hold out of it. The six violin concertos, on the other hand, are benign showcases for Paganini's special brilliance--a brilliance that clearly went deeper than mere tricks and manners--with their roots in Rossini and bel canto. The First Concerto, now the most popular, may have been composed in 1811, according to the Belgian critic and acquaintance of Paganini, F.J. Fetis, but the first recorded performance dates from 1819. His playing of it certainly dazzled a high-paying London audience in 1831, and the orchestra, too--the players were so astounded that no-one noticed for some time that a candle had set fire to the music on one of the stands. The very premises of the solo-versus-orchestra set-up were Paganiniesque in the extreme: the orchestral parts were written in R flat, the solo part in D with the instrument tuned up a semitone to gain extra brilliance. This is the technique of scordatura, which Paganini did not invent, but made very much his own. (The present recording adopts the usual practise of transposing the orchestral parts into D major.)

In performance, however, there is no excess cleverness to mar the plain-sailing charm of this modestly inventive concerto. The symbal-laden orchestral introduction to what one London commentator described as the "grand military" opening movement presents two closely related Rossinian themes; when it finally enters, the violin leaps and plays attractively around the first and relaxes without undue elaboration into the second before flying off into a chatter of double stopping. After some minor-key reflection, the development takes on the character of a rondo, with the more lyrical of the two themes interwoven with a new, brilliant idea. The slow movement, though songful enough, is surprisingly curt and hardly plumbs cantabile depths, bearing out Paganini's proud boast that he tailored his music specifically to his own abilities; according to one observer there were several players alive at the same time who could excel him in "simple, deeply moving, beautiful playing." The finale returns to the first movement's vein of bubbling, Italianate good humour, with noticeably more demands in the double-stopping department and an emphasis on stratospheric writing, much of it to show off violin harmonics.

The Second Concerto follows the blueprint of the First, but in this Allegro maestoso Paganini places less value on invention, more on a minor-key sense of dramatics and greater display for the soloist; what purely musical value it has rests with another Rossinian theme -- cousin, perhaps, to the first major theme of what we know as The Barber of Seville -- brought into play as second subject, and the surprisingly wayward woodwind chords that introduce it. The Adagio this time is pure bel canto, once the violin enters after a dynamically and instrumentally varied introduction (upon which it is eventually to elaborate). The movement, however, which has best stood the test of interpreters other than Paganini himself -- and various more elaborate homages, including most famously Liszt's in the third of the Etudes d'execution transcendante d'apres Paganini -- is the Rondo now known (like Liszt's study) as La campanella, owing to the little bell echoed by the soloist on each refrain. Here, it is only in the rondo-sequence Paganini marks "trio" that display triumphs over substance -- though the virtuosity required is stupendous indeed, requiring pure double harmonics and rapid pizzicati.

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