There is something to be said for old technology. Take our landline phone, for example. The handsets must be all of twenty years old. Although their screens are fading and the keypads are worn to the point where the numerals are barely discernable, we doggedly cling to these dated relics of yesteryear. One reason we are reluctant to replace the handsets is the ringtone jingle – the theme from Paganini's celebrated 24th Caprice. Composed early in the 19th century by the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini, this signature musical gem in A minor is arguably one of the most recognizable and catchy themes in all of music. Kudos to the Panasonic engineer whose ear for a classical icon led to its inclusion as a standard offering on Panasonic phones of that era.
Violin recordings of Paganini's Caprice No. 24 are legion. Heifetz probably did more to promote the work in the 20th century than anyone, starting with public performances in Russia at age nine, playing the Auer arrangement with piano accompaniment. His mastery was committed to disc in a seminal 78 rpm recording made in London in 1934 and subsequently captured on film in a later live performance.
Today, virtuoso performances on video are standard fare, for example that of Alexander Markov. Other renditions cover the gamut, from Hilary Hahn's double feature with Milstein's Paganiniana to an arrangement for violin and orchestra featuring David Garrett in a video evoking Paganini the rock star.
The Caprice has provided unprecedented scope for multifarious composers and performers to exercise their compositional and transcriptional imaginations.
Piano adaptations abound, and it is on these we will focus here. They open a whole new universe of harmony, counterpoint and rhythmic embellishment of Paganini's original theme and variations. In the process these keyboard creations have stretched the concept far beyond anything that Paganini could have imagined.
The piano, of course, adds dimensions denied the violinist – disposition of theme and variations between left and right hands, and opportunities to enrich the harmonies. I've selected some of the most memorable keyboard inventions from the piano literature, in the hope that these will offer string players a broader appreciation of this unique icon of the violin literature.
Hewing close to Paganini's original 24th Caprice format is Liszt's Etude No. 6 (composed in 1838, revised in 1851). Franz Liszt, as we know, was powerfully influenced by Paganini, to the point where he completely revamped his approach to pianism. It is therefore not surprising that he would compose his own set of variations on Paganini's fetching theme. In so doing he applied his signature grand pianistic style to the etude, while simultaneously artfully weaving the theme into both left- and right-hand parts with much layering of the harmonies. A latter-day performance executed with prowess equal to Liszt's challenges is that of Alexander Lubyantzev:
While published originally as a set of etudes, Studies for Pianoforte: Variations on a Theme of Paganini, the famous Brahms variations of 1863 in two sets broke out of the mold of mere Caprice transcription, while also exploiting major pianistic technical challenges no less formidable than those of the Liszt Etude. These are perhaps the most popular of the adaptations to be found in the piano literature. The era of recorded music is laced with memorable renditions of this work. In the 20th century, they range from the landmark 1929 recording by Wilhelm Backhaus to the gloriously expressive and poetic 1997 interpretation by Evgeny Kissin, who unleashes his virtuosity at will when the work demands (on CD, as well as Youtube.).
In between are many notable performances reviewed by Bryce Morrison (Gramophone, March 2003, pp 36-39) highlighting several offerings. Honorable mention is made of a 1948 recording by the legendary Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, though special plaudits are reserved for the Hungarian pianist Geza Anda and America's Julius Katchen. If it is sheer thrill one is seeking, then look no further than the super-human dynamism and bravura of another Hungarian, Gyorgy Cziffra (EMI Classics, CZS 7 67366 2 A). Morrison describes Cziffra's keyboard delivery as "a trapeze act without safety net."
In the 21st century we are treated to many remarkable performances of the Brahms variations including that by consummate artist Yuja Wang in both disc and live video versions:
The video pulls together visual emotional magnetism and technical dexterity to create the complete musical experience. According to the CD program notes Wang views both books of Brahms' variations as a global whole rather than as a series of etudes. She has accordingly re-arranged the order of variations to some degree following the lead of Michelangeli, and has also deftly varied the pauses between them to achieve her grand conception of the work.
Straying from the regular romanticism of Brahms in the solo piano literature are the more adventurous compositions wrought by great pianists of a bygone era who turned their enormous talents and pianistic abilities to spreading the wings of this jewel. Among these were two keyboard giants of the early 20th century, Mark Hambourg and Ignaz Friedman, both former students of the great pedagogue Theodore Leschetizky. As with Brahms, both replaced the Paganini variations with their own sets. Hambourg's conception (Variations on a Theme by Paganini of 1902) is the more traditional of the two, but with novel insertion of transitions and creative modern manipulation of the theme and harmonies into an expansive whole. Friedman (Studies on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 47b of 1914) has created a slightly more avant-garde set of variation miniatures to build up his compositional edifice. In another Gramophone review (August 1992) Bryce Morrison describes Friedman's variations as "teasingly ingenious." They are certainly under-appreciated and would make for alluring concert repertoire as an alternative to the Brahms variations. A performance by Valerie Tryon executed with aplomb can be heard on YouTube:
Keyboard adaptations continued well into the 20th century including the well-known works with orchestration – the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) and Witold Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme of Paganini, originally for two pianos (1941) and then in a version for piano and orchestra.
Composer-pianist Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody is somewhat concerto-like in form, played as a continuous whole, but in three distinct parts reflecting different concerto movements. Variations 11 through 18 could be considered as a slow second movement separating the first movement from the finale. Variation 18 is noteworthy in that it essentially turns the basic A minor theme of the original Caprice on its head. In this inverted form, played in Eb major, it has spawned a famous melody in its own right, gravitating, inter alia, to the movie screen. Rachmaninoff exploits to the full his prodigious keyboard skills and his way with melodic transformation and modulation, taking the work in a new direction away from its Paganini roots.
The Rhapsody does not shy away from keyboard acrobatics. The difficulties in the last variation (No. 24), for example, are said to have even unnerved Rachmaninoff himself before his world premiere of the work on November 7, 1934 in Baltimore with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. According to Rachmaninoff lore, his admitted performance jitters led to him drink a glass of crème de menthe to steady his nerves before walking out on stage. The press duly dubbed the piece the "Crème de Menthe Variations." Here is Rachmaninoff performing the work himself:
The manuscript of Lutoslawski's Variations barely survived the Nazi destruction of Warsaw after the 1944 uprising, when the composer fled the city carrying just a handful of his music scores. The work follows the original Paganini Caprice theme-and-variation format but there the similarities end. It introduces many devilish developments – contrapuntal canon within the piano parts, melodic transformation, poly- and atonality, rhythmic mobility and syncopation. This cheeky conception expands the genre even further away from the original Paganini source as well as from the traditional Brahmsian approach. Several duo-pianist performances are available via online video, few more sparkling than that of Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich :
For something a bit off the beaten classical track, there is an intriguing jazzed-up option by Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say (Click here to watch it on Youtube.). His creation beguiles with hints of improvisational flair.
Capping off this sampler of Paganini on Keyboard is an extraordinary 21st century work by Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin. In the best traditions of piano giants Hambourg and Friedman, Hamelin created his own diabolical variations on Paganini's immortal theme a century after these piano legends. His 2011 live video recording by the CBC is nothing short of a stunning blend of compositional creativity and virtuosity:
All of these remarkable and expansive developments in the musical cosmos are but a consequence of the Big Bang generated by Paganini's original Caprice. Underlying them all, and free of any harmony or musical machination, remains the timeless theme. Not so timeless is our dated landline, but every phone call we receive serves as a reminder of the enduring genius of Nicolò Paganini.
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