Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) was called “The Devil’s Son,” and “The Witches’ Brat,” with regards to his “supernatural” abilities as a violinist. The “Satanic” accusation is one that never seems to lose its luster in explaining the extraordinary talents of some musicians. In the Twentieth Century, both Robert Johnson and Jimmy Page were said to have sold their souls as well.
Paganini set the template for what we would recognize today as the decadent rock-star lifestyle. In his time, he was as famous for his womanizing and gambling skills as he was for his playing. Complications from syphilis and a host of other health problems acquired along the way took him prematurely. But he left behind an astounding body of work.
I mention the travails of Paganini’s life not to sensationalize it, but to provide context. The man who many claim was the greatest violinist who ever lived continues to exert a powerful impact on classical music. His contributions to the form were truly revolutionary. Witness the variations on his “A Minor (No. 24),” by such masters as Lizst, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff, to name but three.
That caprice (piece of music) is taken from his most famous work, 24 Capricci For Solo Violin, published in 1820. Mastering the Capricci has long served as the equivalent of a PHD for violinists. They are among the most challenging pieces ever written.
Although the majority of the Capricci fall into the moderato (moderate) tempo, Paganini seemingly filled every bar with as many notes as possible. Frank Zappa composed some similar pieces for guitar, and titled them with variations on “The Black Page.” This was because the sheet-music contained so much ink as to render it’s appearance nearly pure black.
Possibly the trickiest of the 24 is “B-Flat Major (No. 13).” Nicknamed “The Devil’s Laughter,” this is a stunningly complicated work, and a great example of why people were in such awe of Paganini’s talent.
“A Minor (No. 5)” is notable not only for it’s complexity, but for the influence it has exerted on heavy metal guitarists. Yngwie Malmsteen based his entire career on this sound, while Steve Vai used “No. 5” as the text for his guitar solo (as Satan) in the film Crossroads.
With the recent 24 Capricci, world-renowned violinist Thomas Zehetmair interprets them for a present day audience. While Zehetmair does not stray from the original compositions, his background in New Music does add nuance to his readings.
Zehetmair first recorded the Capricci some 15 years ago, on a now deleted Teldec disc. Revisiting them today, his playing has taken on more personal inflections than on the previous set. This undoubtedly reflects his familiarity with the material, as well as his own continued growth as a musician.
As Zehetmair himself mentions in the liner text: “You can only capture ten percent of any piece on paper in musical notation. There are in fact thousands of different ways of playing any single written note.”
Listening to 24 Capricci in one sitting is an almost overwhelming experience. It is not very surprising at all that this music frightened some of Paganini’s contemporary audiences. They remain shockingly complex. While the Capricci have been recorded by countless artists over the years, I highly recommend this ECM New Music set both to the neophyte, and the experienced listener.
Thomas Zehetmair is an extraordinary talent, and listening to his 24 Capricci is a powerfully rewarding experience. Let’s just hope nobody starts any rumors about his own “deal with the devil.”