Paganini: 24 Capricci – Zehetmair (ECM New Series 2124)


Niccolò Paganini
24 Capricci

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Recorded December 2007, Monastery of St. Gerold, Austria

The 24 Caprices for Solo Violin by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) will forever be the Italian composer’s most vivid mark left on the classical landscape. Born in Genoa, Paganini grew to fame through a rigorous touring schedule and established himself as one of the leading violinists of his generation. Chronic illness, coupled with his promiscuous lifestyle and ill-conceived treatment for a bout of syphilis in 1822, contributed greatly to his physical decline, finally catching up with him in a state of destitution. His incendiary technical prowess and eccentric compositions were such that some believed him to be in commiseration with the Devil, hence the sometimes outlandish nicknames appended to certain high points of his oeuvre. Despite his seemingly sensational life, Paganini’s music is the most immediate medium through which to communicate with this mythical figure of violinry. And what better way to experience it than in the chameleonic grip of Austrian virtuoso Thomas Zehetmair in the gorgeous acoustics of the Monastery of St. Gerold, and all under ECM’s prudent gaze.

Here’s a violinist who isn’t afraid to tear through the crunchy layer of No. 1 with the ravenous abandon of a starving beast.The throaty call of No. 3 turns to liquid gold in his hands, and No. 5, with its astonishing runs up and down the fingerboard, is nothing short of enthralling. The otherworldly trills of No. 6, dramatic leaps to the violin’s most piercing registers in No. 7, swaying double stops in No. 8, and deftly executed harmonics of No. 9 all bring a feverish improvisatory fervor to the fore. No. 10 runs like a deer that has escaped the hunt that preceded it. No. 13, known as “Devil’s Laughter,” enchants with its mockery. Zehetmair displays an uncanny grasp of the technical demands at hand: the triple and even quadruple stops of No. 14 fly of his bow with the ease of a practice scale, and the détaché-laden No. 16 dazzles with its speed and fluid execution of the challenging octaves in the middle section. No. 17 is like a conversation between a highly agitated provocateur and two twins in agreement, while the lilting double stops of No. 21 cry out with unparalleled desire. And then there is No. 24. Perhaps the pinnacle of Paganini’s entire output and often believed one of the most difficult pieces ever conceived for the instrument, it has been taken up by a host of composers and performers, including such diverse talents as Yngwie Malmsteen, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Eliot Fisk, and Benny Goodman. Throughout its compact four minutes, Zehetmar blasts through eleven variations of its opening theme, plus a finale. His handling of the notorious pizzicato passage is particularly noteworthy in this relatively straightforward rendering. While there are more somber invocations to be had—such as those of Nos. 2, 4, 11, and 20—they always seem to be usurped by Paganini’s penchant for the dramatic, exploited here to colorful effect and leaving us thoroughly out of breath by the time we reach the end.

Zehetmair has boldly taken the Caprices and peppered them with his own distinctive embellishments, a task akin to adding a hundred figures to a Bosch triptych: there just doesn’t seem to be any room for them. And yet, he pulls them off with such grace and gusto that I cannot help but smile at his achievement. Even so, he is quick to remind us these aren’t showpieces but “improvised character pieces” that speak to the depth of their creator’s musical reach. This, coupled with a belief in the authenticity of the moment, is woven into every fiber of Zehetmair’s bag of tricks. Only rarely do I use the word “definitive” to describe a recording, but in this case any other adjective seems inadequate.

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