Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices are among the handful of great works for unaccompanied violinist—the others include the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, the Ysaÿe Six Sonatas, and the Bartòk solo Sonata—and any player of significance will want to record them at some point in their career, as a declaration of their talent. In the last year or so three of the most impressive violinists in the world today have released their own takes on these technically herculean pieces: Thomas Zehetmair on ECM2124, James Ehnes on Onyx4044, and now Julia Fischer on Decca 478 227-4. This hour-long set of pieces are comparable with the Chopin piano Études, or the Liszt Transcendental Études in terms of their monstrously challenging demands on the player, and it might be thought that such difficulty precludes individuality of interpretation, but these three versions show radically different approaches. Zehetmair takes account of Paganini’s legendary persona in his highly charged, wildly flamboyant reading; his performance is rich with grand gestes, a channelling of Paganini the showman …or possibly Paganini the Devil. As he admits in his liner notes, Zehetmair addresses issues of performance practice: while Paganini does not notate many harmonics or colouristic bowing techniques, Zehetmair feels that he would almost certainly have included all sorts of on-the-spot embellishments when performing these works. As Zehetmair says: “There’s no getting away from it, in Paganini’s music there has to be something of the circus ring”. James Ehnes, by contrast, offers an intimate and thoughtful set of performances, almost introverted at times, and with serious concern for textual fidelity. This is Paganini as chamber music. Ehnes’ performances are technically utterly solid, almost obsessive in their precision, and when he does cut loose the sense of contained eruption is palpable.
Julia Fischer manages to find an entirely convincing middle ground: her performances are fantastical without being ‘possessed’. She also takes into account issues of performance practice and allows certain small departures from the score, such as using a mute for Caprice No. 6. As the liner notes observe: “Contrary to her usual practice, for this recording she hasn’t insisted on unswerving fidelity to the printed page”. Her interpretations have a warmth and human scale, a lightness of touch that is mid-way between the bravura energy and flightiness of Zehetmair and the earnest introspection of Ehnes.
When making a decision about which of these diverse readings to buy, personal temperament is an unusually significant factor. In my view, Zehetmair has treated the musical text as highly rhetoricised, as consisting of quasi-improvised material that has latterly been notated (as organists frequently do). Ehnes’ reading seems to me to attempt to cast even the decorative elements of the music—scales, arpeggios—as motivic. He accords musical significance to every component of the musical utterance. Fischer has adopted the less tendentious approach, it seems to me, of allowing the bravura elements to act as flourishes interjected into the musical argument. All three performances being beyond criticism musically and technically, which version the listener chooses can only be a matter of taste.
In postscript, it might be worth remembering that Paganini, as mediated through the intellects of such composers as Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninov, had an incalculable effect on Western classical music, far beyond the intrinsic merit of his works, and for this reason alone his Caprices are well worth exploring. They are also exquisite music in their own right.