Monday, December 8, 2008

Midori Plays Paganini's 24 Caprices

"Paganini's music is virtuosic for the sake of virtuosity," a relative of mine, a professional viola player, once said, "and it has no musical substance whatsoever."

We return to Paganini's 24 Caprices to hear the renowned violin prodigy Midori try to tackle these preposterously difficult works.
Midori, violin (b: 1971)
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)
Paganini: 24 Caprices
Sony Classical, 1989
When I listened a month ago to Michael Rabin trying his best to play the Caprices, it was immediately obvious, even to me as a non-violinist, that these works are so technically challenging that even world-class musicians cannot play them cleanly.

Midori, however, with her ferocious technical prowess, attacks these works with more success and better results than Michael Rabin. She may not sound entirely effortless, but she gets these notoriously difficult exercises done with a relatively minimal number of stray and off-key notes, and, quite frankly, she makes Rabin sound average by comparison. And note that Midori was only 17 when she recorded her CD of the 24 Caprices, while Rabin was a comparatively ancient 21 years old when he recorded his Paganini.

And in case you think I'm being overly harsh in my judgment of either violinists' performances, note that both of these CDs are studio recordings--both Rabin and Midori had the opportunity to do take after take of any or all of these caprices until they got them as close to perfect as they possibly could. The fact that almost every caprice on both CDs has stray or off-key notes just proves how impossibly hard this music is to play.

Moreover, it brings into question, arguably, the artistic merit of these compositions. Even after hearing these works played by a much better violinist, I still can't help but continue to call this stuff "boop bleep" music--my personal term for musically bankrupt, ego-crushing etudes designed to torture students until they learn finesse and technical skills on their instruments.

Two more quick points:
1) One of the more amusing reviews of this Midori CD on Amazon mocked Henry Roth in his book Violin Virtuosos for using the word "impeccable" to describe the Michael Rabin performance of the Caprices, suggesting that Roth redefined "impeccable" to mean "being able to play 90-95% of the notes in tune." If two of the modern era's best violin prodigies can't make the Caprices sound effortless or even graceful, then no human can. Ergo, Paganini cannot be human.

2) A final note on comparing these two recordings: it's easy to argue that the Midori performance of Paganini's 24 Caprices is far, far better then Michael Rabin's. In fact, it's even a bit painful to go back to the Rabin CD after hearing Midori's much higher quality work. I had originally thought that Paganini's Caprices were so difficult that Rabin's recording was as good as a human (even a prodigy) could do. Apparently, not all prodigies are created equal.

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