Saturday, November 15, 2008

Paganini: 24 Caprices Performed by Michael Rabin

Today's post is about not one, but two of history's greatest violin prodigies, and one of the most challenging collections of classical music ever written for the violin.

Nicolo Paganini, our first prodigy, was not only the greatest violinist who ever lived, he can also be thought of as classical music's first rock star, with worldwide fame, groupies, mistresses, and stupefied audiences of weeping and crying fans, some of whom were convinced that Paganini was under the control of Satan himself. I like to think of him as a 19th century version of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
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Michael Rabin, violin (1936-1972)
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)
24 Caprices For Solo Violin
EMI Classics, 1958/1993
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On the other hand, our second prodigy, Michael Rabin, never made it to his 36th birthday. Widely seen as one of the 20th century's most gifted violinists, he died in a freak accident in his New York City apartment--he slipped on the floor and hit his head on a chair. Fortunately, Rabin left for posterity this highly-regarded recording of Paganini's most difficult violin works.

Perhaps to use the word "difficult" to describe these compositions is a grievous understatement. Paganini's 24 Caprices are so physically and technically demanding to play that professional violinists have to take particular care when practicing them to avoid injury. It's even been speculated that Paganini had hyper-extensible joints, or may have even had Marfan's syndrome, otherwise he would not have had large enough and flexible enough hands to perform these works.

And herein lies the problem. Much of this is CD is what I consider "boop bleep" music, a technical term dating from my days playing from my Arban's Method for Trumpet practice book. The Arban, the bane of teenage trumpet players everywhere, contains countless etudes and musical works designed to help the musician learn control and finesse by playing technically, often preposterously, demanding exercises.

Think of the 24 Caprices as an Arban composed for gods. Even a musician completely ignorant of the subtleties of the violin will be able to tell that this music is preposterously difficult. You could argue that these caprices are so far beyond the normal capabilities of the violin that even a world-class musician like Michael Rabin sounds strained, off-key, and at times just plain bad, playing them.

This music is challenging, yes; but it doesn't sound like it's any fun to play, and it is decidedly not beautiful. Contrast the Caprices to the unstrained and beautiful music by Chopin or Schumann, both of whom wrote music that was not only beautiful and emotionally compelling, but also designed perfectly for the capabilities of the piano.

I understand and appreciate why impossible-to-play music like this exists, but it should be relegated to practice rooms, not concert halls. The violin is difficult enough to play as it is.

Are there Paganini fans out there who differ in their views? I'd love to hear a compelling argument for why this is great music.

A brief final note: In addition to a link to today's CD, I've also included a link to a boxed set of violinist Michael Rabin's collected works for those readers interested in learning more about this brilliant prodigy who died all too early.





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