Paganini / Violin Concertos 1 & 2 / Menuhin – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

More of the music of Niccolò Paganini

Violin Concerto 1 & 2 / Menuhin

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame

Another remarkable Demo Disc from the Golden Age of recording, in this case 1961, with the benefit of more modern mastering from the ’70s, a combination that works wonders on this title, as you will hear from both of these White Hot sides.

The sound is so transparent, undistorted, three-dimensional and REAL, without any sacrifice in solidity, richness or Tubey Magic, that we knew we had our shootout winner with this copy.

It simply could not be beat: no other copy excelled in so many areas of reproduction whilst striking the ideal balance between soloist and orchestra.

Some may prefer Rabin’s more exciting performance for the first concerto that we offer on Angel; I don’t deny that he plays the hell out of the piece. Certainly both performances have much to offer. This record differs from the Angel record in that it offers both of Paganini’s most famous concertos for the violin.

The illusion of disappearing speakers is most attractive here, pulling the listener into the space of the concert hall in an especially appealing way.

Side One

A+++, dynamic and lively, with violin pyrotechnics of the highest order. So full and rich too.

Listen to the big cymbal crash close to the opening — no two copies got the cymbals to sound the same, and this one got them best.

Side Two

A+++. Listen to how correct the strings and woodwinds of the orchestra are here. We are not big fans of EMI as a rule, but if more of them sounded like this one we sure would be!

Vinyl Issues

Almost no copies in our shootout played better than Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus, a fairly common experience with like-new ’70s EMIs. Click on the Sonic Grade tab to read about the specific playing condition of this copy.

VTA and the Violin

Experimenting with the VTA for this record we found a precise point where it all came together, far beyond whatever expectations we may have had, to reveal a violin floating between the speakers, an effect that as audiophiles we appreciate for the magic that it is. The sound of the wood of the instrument became so clear, the harmonic textures so natural, it was quite a shock to hear a good record somehow become an amazing one. All it took was a little work.

With the right VTA setting we immediately heard more harmonic detail, with no sacrifice in richness. That’s the clearest sign there is that your setup is right, or very close to it.

What to Listen for (WTLF)

This is an excellent turntable setup disc. When your VTA, azimuth, tracking weight and anti-skate are correct, this is the record that will make it clear to you that all your effort has paid off.

What to listen for you ask? With the proper adjustment the harmonics of the strings will sound extended and correct, neither hyped up nor dull; the wood body of the instrument will be more audibly “woody”; the fingering at the neck will be noticeable but will not call attention to itself. In other words, as you adjust your setup, the violin will sound more and more real, honest and emotionally powerful.

And you can’t really know how right it can sound until you spend time experimenting with all the forces that affect the way the needle rides in the groove. If you are serious, and thorough, and approach your work scientifically with notepad in hand, two to three hours should do the trick.

Without precise VTA adjustment there is almost no way this superb pressing will be able to do what it is so clearly capable of doing. There will be hardness, smear, sourness, thinness — something will be off somewhere. With total control over arm and cartridge setup, these problems will all but vanish. (Depending on the quality of the equipment of course; we must all work within the limitations of our hardware, room treatments, electrical quality and all the rest.)

Other recordings — popular vocals, heavy rock, classical piano, small combo jazz, big band — are also important for setup and tweaking. Never rely exclusively on one record; it’s too easy to make the mistake of optimizing the sound of a single disc at the expense of others. When your setup is right, practically all of your best recordings should sound better. (There may be an exception or two, and it’s important to figure out why they are not working with the new settings. Rather than ignore them, it’s best to go back to the drawing board.)

We harp on so many aspects of music reproduction in the home for a reason. When you’ve done the work, records like this become nothing less than GLORIOUS.


Edward Moore on Paganini

Paganini’s impact on nineteenth century music cannot be overestimated: he set an entirely new standard of technical virtuosity; he was among the first musicians to champion the music of Berlioz (having commissioned, but never performed, Harold in Italy); and the inspirational effect that his works would have on the young Franz Liszt — who set out to duplicate Paganini’s achievements on the piano — would alter both the course of music and the life of the young Liszt forever.

Paganini’s own compositions, including an unidentified number of violin concertos (some six are extant) and numerous chamber works, have more or less been abandoned. The concertos are written in the Italian operatic style of the day, oscillating between lyric charm and ferocious technical display, and are the only works of his which remain in the repertory (though many of the shorter works, by comparison, are gems and deserve to be played more).

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 6

Side Two

Concerto No. 2 in B Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op.7

Violin Concerto No. 1

Description by Edward Moore Paganini’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 is a virtuosic tour de force and reveals not only Paganini’s incredible technical ability, but also his melodic sensitivity and skillful exploitation of dramatic structure.

Like many of his other works, this concerto takes inspiration from the musical language of Gioachino Rossini’s operas, which were extremely popular at the time. Paganini originally composed the Concerto No. 1 in the unusual key of E flat major, in order to achieve a more brilliant tone for the violin. However, since modern concert pitches are much higher than was the norm in Paganini’s era, the standard modern version of the piece is transposed to the key of D major, which also makes the very thin E string of the violin less susceptible to breakage (Paganini often broke several strings during a single concert performance).

By modern standards the technical demands of the concerto are only moderate, but in Paganini’s time they were considered tremendous, and many contemporaries branded the piece “unplayable.” This, of course, served as valuable publicity that helped Paganini become the most popular soloist of his day. The work is indeed a catalog of such flashy techniques as extended arpeggios, left-hand pizzicati, rapid runs in thirds, fifths, and even harmonics.

The work is more than a mere virtuoso showpiece, however. Paganini’s concerto is filled with elegant melodic themes, and there are moments of striking beauty. One legend holds that Paganini composed the main theme of the second movement on a one-string violin while languishing in prison under suspicion of a murder he did not commit. Such legends grow up naturally around the dynamic (and, some said, demonic) Paganini, but they also reflect the appeal and mystique of his music.

Paganini’s aura of mystery was amplified by his refusal to allow his works to be published during his lifetime, making it impossible for his rivals to study and master his techniques. The Concerto No. 1 was published only after his death, and it soon became a fixture in the repertoire of lesser virtuosos who were as adept, more or less, in the technical department, but not nearly as musically compelling as Paganini. Fortunately, many great twentieth century soloists have concentrated on the musicality of the piece as much as the virtuosity.

Violin Concerto No. 2

Paganini composed his second violin concerto about eight years after the first, when his fame as a virtuoso soloist had been fully established. It is perhaps for this reason that the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2, in B minor, Opus 7 — subtitled “La Campanella” (“The Bell,” after the persistent use of a triangle in the famous theme of the final movement) — focuses more on pure melodic content and thematic development than virtuoso flourish.
Indeed, in this piece, perhaps more than any other, we see Paganini’s virtues as a composer shining forth. Of course there are technical displays, but the focus is on the unity of the concerto and its effect as a dramatic, indeed operatic, piece of music.

Paganini had an immense fondness for Italian opera, especially the music of Rossini (who in turn rejoiced that Paganini had not become an opera composer). Rossini’s influence is especially marked in the opening movement of the Concerto No. 2, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

However, the rondo theme of the final movement is its most interesting feature. This brilliant theme has a marked gypsy feel, and is a fine example of pure virtuosity harnessed to the service of a grand musical idea. The theme was used by pianist-composer Franz Liszt in his influential Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini.

The overall structure of the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 is very precise, with each theme either presaging or echoing another, and echoes of the work resound in many later concertos of the Romantic era.

Artist Biography by Blair Johnston

The remarkable international career of Niccolò Paganini — regarded in legend as the greatest virtuoso violinist ever — did not begin until relatively late in life. Born in Genoa in 1782, Paganini received his first musical instruction from his father, a devoted amateur musician. Niccolò’s rapid progress on the violin, however, was such that his father (who was in fact a mandolinist, and thus little suited to train his precocious son) was soon compelled to send his son to Giacomo Costa, maestro di capella of the Cathedral at San Lorenzo, for further study. Although he quickly gained some local fame and even embarked on a minor tour of Italy in 1797, it would be many years before Paganini consented to perform outside his native land.

Paganini began composing seriously after his initial tour of Italy in 1797. He performed little during the initial years of the nineteenth century, preferring instead to devote his time to composition and romance (happily combining the two when he met a Florentine noblewoman, to this day anonymous, with a passion for the guitar). In 1805 he resumed his active musical career, accepting the directorship of the orchestra at Lucca, and in 1813 he embarked on a series of concert tours throughout the Italian peninsula.

In 1825, after nearly 30 years of intensive practice and self-scrutiny, Paganini felt he had developed his skills sufficiently to put them on display for all of Europe, and he left Italy for an extensive European tour (Vienna debut 1828, Paris 1831, London 1831). His astounding technical prowess amazed audiences of the day, and many fanciful legends arose to explain his remarkable abilities (one of the more popular held that he was in league with demonic powers, a legend rather supported by his gaunt, pale features). He died in 1840 from cancer of the larynx, having all but ended his concert career in 1834.

Paganini’s impact on nineteenth century music cannot be overestimated: he set an entirely new standard of technical virtuosity; he was among the first musicians to champion the music of Berlioz (having commissioned, but never performed, Harold in Italy); and the inspirational effect that his works would have on the young Franz Liszt — who set out to duplicate Paganini’s achievements on the piano — would alter both the course of music and the life of the young Liszt forever. Paganini’s own compositions, including an unidentified number of violin concertos (some six are extant) and numerous chamber works, have more or less been abandoned. The concertos are written in the Italian operatic style of the day, oscillating between lyric charm and ferocious technical display, and are the only works of his which remain in the repertory (though many of the shorter works, by comparison, are gems and deserve to be played more).