Paganini / Violin Concertos 1 & 2 – Expensive Heavy Vinyl Trash

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Another in our ongoing series of Random Thoughts on issues concerning (usually old) records. 

Had I paid good money to buy this pressing in the hopes of hearing the supremely talented Yehudi Menuhin of 1961 tear it up on Paganini’s legendary first two concertos, I can tell you one thing: I would be pissed.

Where is the outrage in the audiophile community over this kind of trash? I have yet to see it. I suspect I will grow quite a bit older and quite a bit greyer before anyone else notices just how bad this record sounds. I hope I’m proven wrong.

Screechy, bright, shrill, thin and harsh, it’s hard to imagine worse sound to be subjected to from this piece of Heavy Vinyl trash.

NO warmth. NO sweetness. NO richness. NO Tubey Magic. In other words, NO trace of the original’s (or the early reissue’s) analog sound. I may own at most one or two classical CDs that sound this bad, and I own quite a few. I have to wonder how records this awful get released. Then again, the Heavy Vinyl Buyer of today is not known for his discrimination; if he were Sundazed and Analogue Productions would have gone out of business many years ago.

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).

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