Violinist Rachel Barton Pine traverses Paganini’s ground breaking set of 24 Caprices with reverence for the bel canto – or “beautiful singing” – style of the composer’s generation. Playing on the ‘ex-Bazzini, ex-Soldat’ Guarneri del Gesù violin from 1742 – made by the same Cremona-based maker in the same year as Paganini’s own violin – Rachel channels the composer’s own technical wizardry as well as his love for beautiful melodies. Rachel was first introduced to Paganini’s Caprices at the age of six. In her early 20s she gave her first performance of all 24 Caprices in a single concert, a feat she has accomplished several times since.
AB: “Bel Canto” is usually used to describe works on the opera stage. Why did you use it for the title of your new CD?
RBP: Well, you know, I think one of the things that people forget about Paganini is that he was a contemporary of the great Italian opera composers like Bellini and Rossini and Donizetti and Verdi and that’s really the musical language in which he was composing. And so that same lightness of touch and brilliance and, you know, the same sort of way that the musical lines are shaped is really inspired by the great singers of the day.
You also play violin in a heavy metal band. Did Paganini’s rock-star persona draw you to his music?
Well, you know it is so interesting ’cause, you know, the more sensational aspects of his personality are certainly what’s come down to us and this legendary, larger than life persona. But that wasn’t the whole of his character. He was also a devoted single father. He had many acts of generosity to colleagues and strangers and, you know, so it was definitely a more complex picture than just this guy who was womanizing and gambling, and, you know, selling his soul and all of that good stuff. But definitely his persona has inspired a lot of rock musicians of today. It’s interesting because when you think of, you know, virtuosity on the electric guitar and shredding and all of that,you know, it’s all about sort of going farther than the Romantic era. Classical affect of, you know, just the muscular fiery approach. But Paganini was actually a bit earlier than that. And, you know, this bel canto idea of everything, of everything, of all of these flourishes being done effortlessly. You know I think he doesn’t want you to be out there sweating and moaning and groaning as you’re playing this stuff. He wants it to be done with delicacy and with taste. So it’s actually not very heavy metal at all in a kind of a way. Though there are certainly exceptions to that like, you know, in the middle of Caprice #13 and Caprice #10. And yeah…There are definitely some fiery moments, but there are also just beautiful and lighthearted moments even.
You’ve played all 24 Paganini caprices in one concert. How exhausting is that?
Well, actually just a couple of days ago I performed the complete 6 Bach sonatas and partitas again and I think there is, you know, an intellectual and stamina exhaustion for the Bach–the Paganini especially. Now on my recording I wanted to be, you know, respectful of the composer and play every repeat that he indicated because he is very specific about where he wants repeats and where he doesn’t. But in concert, you know just for the stamina of the performer and the listener, I am a little more judicious with the repeats and, you know, only do certain ones so actually the concert is a normal concert length. It’s not like doing the 5 Mozart concertos or the 6 Bach sonatas and partitas where you’re essentially doing a concert and a half. So you’re only standing out there on stage for a normal amount of time; but certainly, you know, it’s very tiring for your arms because you’re operating at a faster speed than you normally would so it’s like extreme aerobics or something.
Did you draw on historical information on Paganini’s performance techniques for your performance?
Yes, you know, Schumann described his tone as being very thin. And one of the interesting things about what Paganini did is he played on an instrument that was actually made in the same year by the same maker as the violin that I am privileged to borrow, a 1742 Guarneri del Gesú. Paganini, of course, would have still been using gut strings which I do not do because I figure it is hard enough to play in tune on metal strings. But one of the biggest interesting differences that he had is he used what’s called a transitional bow which is an early modern bow made out of pernambuco wood like we have these days but not as heavy as our current type of bow. It was lighter and springier. And I actually did use a transitional bow–an antique–for this recording and it made all the the difference in the world. A lot of his triple stops on up bows or funny, you know, double down bouncing bow kinds of things. It really made everything pop. And so that was really eye opening to do everything that he did using that piece of the equipment that he had because it really did work better.
Paganini throws most of his virtuoso techniques into his caprices, doesn’t he?
Yeah, well it’s interesting ’cause, well, the 24 Caprices are pretty comprehensive in terms of, you know, just all the crazy things that he does on the violin there. A couple of significant omissions– he doesn’t do any harmonics—those whistle tones that you can get out of the instrument whereas he uses harmonics frequently in others of his works. And while he has a bit of left hand pizzicato, plucking the violin with the fingering hand in his 24th caprice, he doesn’t do what he occasionally does in a couple of the hardest moments of other works where he has the left hand plucking while the bow is simultaneously singing which is a very, very difficult thing to do. It’s like, you know, a hundred times worse than rubbing your head and petting your stomach. So he does, indeed, include those effects in his Nel cuor più non mi sento variations, his set of virtuosic variations on that pizzo solo aria. Of course, he has his duet for one which is really the hardest of the whole bunch where the violin is pretending to be two characters simultaneously–a violinist and a guitarist accompanying itself. In fact, it’s actually written on two staves which is pretty wild. That thing is just a real finger twister but also a beautiful piece of music.
That’s the amazing thing about Paganini’s 24 Caprices is, you know, of course they are a catalog of all the pyrotechnical tricks you can do on the instrument. But that actually is almost secondary to what he’s really doing which is expanding the violin’s range of tone colors and, you know, characters and just the expressive qualities it’s capable of and creating such an amazing array of different moods and different feelings coming out of the instrument.