The Paganini Caprices on Viola

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The Paganini Caprices on Viola

Postby scottslapin » Fri Apr 27, 2012 2:24 pm

"This is an excellent set of recordings of the Paganini Caprices, performed with great virtuosity and grace. They are inspiring to listen to, and inspire not a little envy within me. He makes it all sound so easy, although we all know otherwise.... There is educational value in these recordings as there are many violists who impose limits on what they can/cannot do...My recommendation is that they should be in every violist's library... I am familiar with the Emanuel Vardi recordings, and I would go so far as to recommend Scott, over and above the former... Excuse me, but I have to now get back to practising!!!" -Julian Fisher, violist in the Journal of the Canadian Viola Society in 2008.

"One thing is certain: all viola players will have to hear both: Vardi's because we have always heard our elders rave about it, and Slapin's to remind ourselves that not all great players belong to the distant past."
-Carlos Maria Solare, violist and reviewer for the Journal of the American Viola Society (Vol. 25, No. 1)
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Paganini, a violinist and occasional violist, wrote the Caprices as technical studies. Some of them happen also to be great concert pieces. Paganini himself only performed a few of them in public, and on violin. Technically, they range from fairly difficult to extremely difficult. To pull all of them off on the violin is already pushing violin and violinist to the edge of what's possible. On the larger, less responsive viola, it is really stretching the limits.

I studied with Emanuel Vardi, the first violist to have recorded all 24. What a stunt! Without his having 'opened the door', I can't imagine I would have attempted such a project. Made in the mid 1960's, Mr. Vardi's recording was still the only one available when I recorded them more than forty years later.

Many work well as concert pieces: Numbers 5, 10, 13, 16, 20, 24 are good examples. William Primrose performed and recorded a few of these (with some short-cuts and a couple with piano accompaniment), and they made a real splash. These caprices have musical appeal. They're hard, but with work, they can be tamed to be compatible with the viola and sound like music to just about anyone. You can hear me playing nos. 3 and 24 on the soundtrack of the Bolivian film SirwiƱakuy, and the film is not about a viola player playing difficult etudes! They were chosen for their musical value.

However, there needs to be some context. An entire book of the most awkward etudes around isn't meant for a general audience. If each caprice is evaluated only as a concert piece, I don't believe no. 8 fares well. Wickedly difficult to keep in-tune, there arenxt any great melodic treasures to be discovered, just a lot of scales and double-stops in the most unresponsive parts of the instrument. No. 1 isn't much better, and there are other ones that have patches that are less of musical interest and more of deliberately awkward etude writing. Part of the fun is seeing whether the performer makes it to the end or not!

When Mr. Vardi's cycle was originally released in the 1960's, there was a review in the Saturday Review (Jan. 30, 1965), "With Vardi, one is constantly conscious, and properly admiring, of the effort he applies to overcoming difficulties, but there is, all too seldom, the sense of a total musical feat...one suspects that the results will be stimulating primarily to other viola players."

I think this last line is a fair appraisal of the Caprices as a whole on viola. Those that work well as concert pieces will be of interest to the casual listener, and the rest will be of interest mainly to violists who have studied them as etudes. Rewriting sections in order to transform a difficult etude into a more pleasing showpiece is certainly a valid approach (and a common one when making transcriptions. There's a reason some caprices sound easier on guitar, cello or sometimes viola-- they've been rewritten.) For this CD of all 24 however, I chose to leave them as is: the most difficult set of etudes there is for viola. They are simply down a fifth from the violin edition, and within those parameters, I tried to make as much music out of them as possible.

After Mr. Vardi's death in 2011, the American Viola Society commissioned me to write Capricious, a viola trio which references 12 of the 24 Caprices. Capricious was premiered at the New York Viola Society by Shmuel Katz, Ann Roggen and Brenton Caldwell. In 2012 at the International Viola Congress in Rochester, NY, Tanya, Ila Rondeau and I performed it on the final concert of the congress.
Last edited by scottslapin on Sat Nov 02, 2013 12:09 pm, edited 6 times in total.
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