(1782 – 1840)
24 Caprices, Op.1


NAXOS 8.550717
[79:18] budget-price

Selected recordings for comparison:
Michael Rabin: EMI Classics CDM 764560-2 (mid-price)
Ruggiero Ricci: DECCA 440 034-2 (mid-price)

by Ong Yong Hui

“He’s a comet! For never did a flaming star burst more abruptly on the firnament of art or excite in the course of its universal ellipse more astonishment mixed with a sort of terror before vanishing forever”

Hector Berlioz

Portrait of Paganini from around 1830 The Paganini Caprices (Italian: “Capricci”) are the ultimate etudes (studies) in the solo violin repertoire, one of the most technically demanding works composed for the instrument. In terms of its value as musical pieces, the title “Capricci” is really an apt description of the music.

Most of the Caprices highlight a particular violin techinque, such as cross-string arppegios for the first one and whirlwind scales for the fifth one. But it is an exercise composed with great imagination, and they express a gamut of ideas that always interesting.

I always have a sense of anticipation before listening to the First Caprice, because it is such a suitable start for the whole set of Caprices (don’t know about the Satchi advert). Kaler starts well and injects momentum to it compared to Ruggiero Ricci’s and Michael Rabin’s performances which are totally clear but sound laboured. The Second Caprice, in contrast, has Kaler playing short staccato notes at a moderate tempo, while Ricci does it smoothly and at a fast speed that is exciting to listen to.

In the Third Caprice, Kaler’s is the slowest I have heard. He makes it sound grave in nature, a very unique interpretation that is also very acceptable, very much unlike the dramatic way Rabin grabs the listeners attention with his account. In No.5 though, he lacks impact that this encore showpiece demands.

Ilya Kaler Capriccio No.9 caught my attention when he played the main theme repeat at the end in harmonics to imitate the sound of flutes, something I have not heard in other recordings. It is certainly an adventurous endeavour for Kaler (left) to try double-stopped harmonics with staccato bowing, and he accomplishes the feat commendably.

There are also some other Caprices that should be singled out for special mention. The Eleventh Caprice is totally moving and beautiful, as is Caprice No.20. In these two Caprices, all three- and four- note chords are done as gently as possible, ‘smoothed’ out in a way to prevent them from breaking the continuity of the melody.

The Fourteenth, one of my favourite, is played with much force and panache, the chords attacked confidently and evenly to build into a rousing march. I haven’t heard any 24th Caprice not well played generally, and Kaler does not disappoint too, though again, his version is the slowest I have heard so far.

Overall, this makes for a very satisfying version of the Caprices to have. Kaler tries to give each Caprice a suitable interpretation to make more of the music then just notes, though I feel that sometimes it seems like an attempt to invoke a mood which is not there. This is not ‘bad’ interpretation, maybe just inappropriate.

Some of the Caprices, like the 24th, with its variations on the quirky theme, are meant as an outright show of virtuosity and should be played as such in my opinion. For a totally electrifying and dazzling recording that is totally unsympathetic to the music, get Michael Rabin’s version for a contrast against Kaler’s.

In Singapore, Naxos CDs can be easily ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place) or HMV (The Heeren).

Ong Yong Hui likes to be lulled to sleep by Schubert and to jump up from bed with Vivaldi.

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241: 12.7.1998 Ong Yong Hui


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