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CD Review

Niccolò Paganini

Naxos 8.550717

Caprices, Op. 1

Ilya Kaler, violin
Naxos 8.550717
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DGG 429714
Salvatore Accardo, violin
Deutsche Grammophon Galleria 429714-2
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EMI 67237
Itzhak Perlman, violin
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 67237-2
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I remember watching a television program about the Pittsburg Symphony when Previn was the conductor and this particular episode also included Perlman. One of my students at the time swore that Perlman had sold the use of his legs to the devil so that he could play like this. At that time I was also much taken by his playing. During one shot in Perlman's apartment he said that he often practiced playing while watching baseball games on television. This stuck with me as my appreciation of Perlman's playing cooled under what I hear as lack of involvement in the music. In this recording, in particular, I got the feeling he's showing off and it's all technique. That is, he's playing all of the notes and missed the music.

I'm still not sure what it was that stimulated my desire to listen to Paganini's caprices. It had something to do with it going along with the book I was reading at the time. It was about Lincoln (the novel by Gore Vidal) and I got to thinking that the "characters" in the book might have listened to this music in theaters (or even the White House???…probably not given that from what I know of Lincoln's taste in music it was probably more of the minstrel show type…although it's just possible that a violinist might have played some of these at a minstrel show) So I decided to pull out that and the other one in my collection, the one by Kaler.

The first thing I noticed is my head looking up and pausing in my reading of the novel whereas before it was just there in the background. Yeah, especially in passages #2, 4, 6 and 21…I found myself thinking…oh, there is music here…up to now I'd decided Paganini was among the mediocre composers…all flash and no beef…listening to 4 of his six violin concertos I decided he actually wrote one concerto five times…each has its Rossini debts paid and it's all show and no depth….but here, now, I was beginning to question that decision. Kaler impresses each note with feeling….gypsy like…as if he's telling a story and not just playing notes.

I have this theory that unless you've heard three interpretations of a piece of music you don't really understand the music. So I decided to order a third recording and after some searching decided on Accardo's. I had other recordings by him and thought him good. Well, more flair and no depth. I'm like wtf???…is there something about Paganini's music that it has to sound like fluff???…

Obviously Kaler has a better feel for this music than the better known players. Still, I decided to take this essay further. A good friend of mine, Jerry Jenkins, plays violin (along with guitar and mandolin) and makes violins. So I took him the Kaler and Accardo recordings and asked his essay of them. A week later I stopped by so he could string my guitar and I could read his thoughts. and he said, "I listen to music and perceive three things about what I am hearing. Number one is a technical approach. This means the player is merely hitting the notes perfunctory – with no passion in the playing. Number two is an artistic approach. This means there is passion in the playing which can be achieved in several different ways. For example, the player can come in slightly ahead or behind the beat or the player can slide into or out of the note (vocally or instrumentally) the player can add a blues effect, etc. Number three is to play or sing a rhythmic pattern that simulates the piece (song) but is not written in the score. This type of music interpretation does not occur often in classical music ( I need to teach Jerry about Stokowski here). So, to combine these three factors suitably will make, at least for me, the most enjoyable interpretation."

Listening to Kaler and Accardo I heard the following. Kaler exhibited more strength, crispness and forcefulness in all registers. Double stops on bowed instruments are especially melodious and Kaler's great – not weak and shaky as were many of Accardo's. This is a technical consideration mentioned above. The power shown by Kaler was his manifestation of the artistic application. I felt his music but did not necessarily "feel" Accardo's.

A final note, the Kaler has the best sound. It has a depth and resonance lacking in the others who sound a tad shrill with no air around the notes.

Copyright © 2012, Robert Stumpf II

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