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Virtuosity (and More) in the Spotlight: Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 5

The MHS Review 408, VOL. 12, NO.12• 1988

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Frank Cooper


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His violin's strings were wound from the intestines of the mistress he murdered; his odd walk resulted from years of imprisonment during which his legs were chained apart by a crossbar; his talent was obtained by bargaining his very soul with the Devil--such were some of the rumors which circulated during Paganini's lifetime. True, he was a physical wreck, experiencing fits of nervous tension and crippling indigestion, and he did contract tuberculosis. His emaciated face looked skeletal; his beady black eyes and stringy black hair contrasted eerily with his yellowish skin. He walked in a peculiar wide-legged way and bowed stiffly, like a marionette. And he did play the violin like the very Devil himself.

The rumors, of course, were nonsense, but the public loved them. Paganini's playing, however, was a fact. Everyone was awestruck. The romantics--writers, painters, musicians--were dumbfounded. Then they went wild with praise. Hugo and Berlioz wrote reviews that left readers agape; Delacroix painted a celebrated portrait of the specter performing. Paganini became a superstar, history's first. Audiences crowded his concerts, paying the highest prices ever charg" ed for admission. Fashionable women, overcome by the supercharged emo­tion and technical exploits of his play­ing, swooned and were borne out. Liszt, Alkan, and Schumann dashed to their pianos to try to captures some of his effects. Paganini's bizarre inven­tiveness for the violin inspired not on­ly new heights of virtuoso demands in musical composition but new careers built upon the cult of virtuoso performance of which he was the original high priest.

The course of music changed. At the hands ofVieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Ernst, Sarasate, and other violinists to come, bows would set sparks flying with the new virtuosity. Although horsehair would bum and fray, and strings would pop, no subsequent star ever topped Paganini's achievement nor toppled his legend. He, like Liszt, remains today the veritable symbol of his instrument and his music the em­bodiment of its utmost capabilities.

Of Paganini's excoriatingly difficult works only a handful appears in the active repertoire. Two of the rarest are now available for our members via this release. Sumptuous in its aural presence and splendidly accurate in its stylish performances, this recording offers modern ears the chance to assess and delight in the celebrated Sonata for the G String (not mistress­-derived!) and last Violin Concerto. The Sonata is really a set of variations on Haydn's Emperor's Hymn, known to many of us who were alive during· Nazi times as Deutschland uber alles. Its 15-and-a-half minutes fairly sizzle, not because of the theme (which is no­ble, broad, slow), but because of the goings-on around and through it. No wonder the Viennese audience which (in the emperor's presence) heard the Sonata's premiere 160· years ago almost blew the roof off with its cheers and applause!

Paganini's last Concerto has a long, complicated, and fascinating history beginning 150 years ago. However, it came to be performed for the first time in the 20th century only in 1959. Suffice it to say that the work's almost 40-minute length contains melodies as suave and sophisticated as anyone could want and an abundance of technical feats that is beyond descrip­tion in this space.

Messrs. Accardo and Dutoit bring to this amazing project no end of ac­complishment. Let me urge you to hear it for yourself.

Review on page 61

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