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Formidable Technique: Paganini/ Violin Concerto No. 2

The MHS Review 405, VOL. 12, NO.9• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Paganini was, in his day, regarded as the greatest of all violinists, possessed of technical skills that the ignorant and superstitious suspected to be owing to some diabolic pact. Of course no one now living heard him or knew anyone who did-he died not quite 150 years ago-and it is quite possible that today the concert­-master of your local symphony might be able to fiddle rings around him. But there is no doubt that in his own time he was uni­que and therefore rightly regarded as a star.

From the beginning of his career, Paganini was as besieged by groupies as the veriest modern superstar (game-show host or guitar plunker). One of the first was Napoleon's sister, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Paganini "eloped" with a girl from the Genoa slums and nearly killed her trying to terminate the resultant pregnan­cy. He had a son by a singer from Como, whom he left behind in Venice (taking the child). A German baroness divorced her husband for him, and became a recluse when Paganini failed to seal the supposed bargain. He planned an elopement with his manager's daughter, which was foiled by her father.

One would suppose that some sort of physical attraction, some sort of Darwinian selection must have played a role in such relationships. Apparently not! Most reports and pictures of him indicate he was cadaverous, ugly as homemade sin, and perhaps double-jointed. Apart from such possible drawbacks, he suffered from tuberculosis, syphilis, and colitis. In attempting medication, he had rotted his teeth out, and his breath would have brought down the walls of Jericho sans trumpets. No wonder people yearn for wealth and fame: Paganini had both.

Ah, well! His performing genius probably explains it all. His talent as a composer was not so certain. Though his works supplied many greater composers with thematic material, there were charges of superficiali­ty and charlatanism. About the only large-­scale Paganini work one heard in my younger days was an arrangement by Fritz Kreisler of part of the First Violin Concer­to. Thirty-odd years ago, in an appendage to the article on the composer in Grove's V, editor Eric Blom, admitting the super­ficial glitter, says, "They have a quality and character all their own and are as strange­ly independent of the general musical idiom of his time as is the music of Berlioz among his contemporaries."

The New Grove Dictionary (1980) shows a whole new attitude when it speaks of Paganini's "great compositional gifts," his "technical imagination," "remarkable intelligence," and "ceaseless experimenta­tion." Of the violin concerti the writer (Boris Schwarz) says "they are well con­structed, with a fine balance between technical display and musical material,'' ad­ding that, of concerti in the French mold, they surpass in scope and brilliance anything that had been written before. In recent years as many as six have surfaced, and Salvatore Acardo was the first to record the whole set.

The second edition of the Penguin Stereo Record Guide praises Accardo's "formidable technique, marvelously true intonation and impeccable good taste and style." I might add that he makes one as conscious of the lyricism of this work as he does of its technical difficulties. (The Se­cond Concerto is perhaps best known from Liszt's piano version of the third move­ment, La campanella--"The Little Bell." Paganini speaks of the section as including an "obbligato bell," but he is talking about violinistic effects.)

Review for Paganini/ Violin Concerto No. 2 Page 1

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