Salvatore Accardo and the Spirit of Paganini

It’s hard to imagine any better recordings of Paganini than those of Italian violinist Salvatore Accardo (b. 1941). Accardo was the winner of the 1958 Paganini Competition. His playing not only demonstrates technical mastery of Paganini, it sparkles with the effortless and fun-loving spirit of Italian opera. You can hear this in his performance of the First Violin Concerto.

Listen to his recording of the Twenty-Four Caprices here and here .

Italian violinist Salvatore Accardo
Italian violinist Salvatore Accardo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a 1972 video of Nel cor più non mi sento:

Here is a 2008 clip of Accardo playing La Campanella on Paganini’s 1743 “Cannon” Guarneri del Gesù violin.

The Elegant Artistry of Arthur Grumiaux

legendary violinist Arthur Grumiaux
legendary violinist Arthur Grumiaux

Elegance, good taste and a beautiful, bell-like singing tone were all characteristics of Franco-Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (1921-1986). In contrast to today’s relatively homogenized violin playing, Grumiaux exhibits a distinctly French style. Listening to Grumiaux, I’m also struck by the musical honesty and lack of fussiness in his playing. His musical phrases speak with a purity and simplicity which is hard to come by today.

In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote:

[quote]Over the years, Grumiaux’s playing underwent a marked development. He began as an intellectually cool player, with a tone of limited volume and restrained vibrato. As he grew in years and maturity, his interpretations acquired more sensuous warmth and fire without losing any of the former noble qualities. Perhaps it is the nobility and uncompromising musicianship that keeps Grumiaux’s career within certain limits, as if marked “for connoisseurs only.”[/quote]

Let’s become “connoisseurs” and listen to a few great old recordings by Grumiaux:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3[/typography]

It’s hard to imagine better Mozart than this:

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Here are the second and third movements.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Faure and Franck Sonatas[/typography]

Here is a clip of Gabriel Fauré’s two violin sonatas (A major and E minor) as well as the César Franck sonata (beginning at 44:45):

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Beethoven Minuet in G[/typography]

Beethoven’s Minuet in G is included in Book 2 of Suzuki’s violin repertoire. I was surprised to come across this performance by Grumiaux:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sicilienne[/typography]

This short piece has been attributed to Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), an Austrian composer and pianist. Mozart is thought to have written his Piano Concerto No. 18 for her. Violinist Samuel Dushkin, who “discovered” and arranged this beautiful piece, is now believed to have written it:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Paganini’s I Palpiti[/typography]

Let’s finish up with the virtuoso fireworks of Niccolò Paganini. Before the fireworks start, you’ll hear a singing melody, which might remind you of Italian Bel canto opera:

Liszt’s Faust Symphony

Eugene Delacroix's painting, "Faust and Mephistopheles"
“Faust and Mephistopheles” by Eugene Delacroix

Forget Elvis. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the world’s first rock star. As a virtuoso pianist, Liszt toured Europe performing flashy and dazzling compositions such as the famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Following in the footsteps of Niccolò Paganini, Liszt helped to usher in the age of the romantic superstar concert artist. An atmosphere of almost supernatural ecstasy surrounded Liszt’s concerts. The hysteria of his fans, which included reports of women fainting and collecting locks of his hair, was known as Lisztomania. In 2008 the Alternative rock band Phoenix released this song and music video with references to Liszt’s rock star magnetism.

Even more significant and enduring was Franz Liszt’s contribution as one of the most innovative composers of the nineteenth century. His influence can be heard in Wagner, Mahler and beyond. He stretched tonality, creating atmospheric music which still sounds shocking and new.

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt in 1858

Inspired by Goethe’s Faust drama, Franz Liszt wrote A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches in 1854. Hector Berlioz had just composed La Damnation de Faust which he dedicated to Liszt. Liszt returned the favor by dedicating his symphony to Berlioz. While Berlioz offered an operatic re-telling of the drama, Liszt’s music is a psychological exploration of the characters of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. Liszt developed a compositional technique known as thematic transformation in which a musical idea develops throughout the composition by undergoing various changes. Wagner used this technique in his operas, assigning each character a leitmotif. Thematic transformation also occurs throughout John Williams’s Star Wars film scores.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Faust[/typography]

Let’s start off by listening to the first movement of the Faust Symphony. Consider how the music evokes the character of Faust, from his gloomy daydreams, to his insatiable thirst for knowledge, to his immense appetite for the pleasures of life. At times, the music may seem schizophrenic, alternating between intense excitement and quiet melancholy. Pay attention to the haunting opening motive which uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. What atmosphere does this opening music create? Notice how this motive returns in various guises throughout the movement (6:13, 10:40, 15:59 and 25:58 for example).

Here is a really exciting 1960 studio recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic:

  1. Faust 0:00
  2. Gretchen 27:29
  3. Mephistopheles 48:19
  4. Final Chorus 1:04:12

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Did the opening motive make you feel lost, as if you were wandering through a slightly unsettling dream? The symphony is in C minor, but this motive’s chromaticism makes it impossible to get a sense of any key. It anticipates the twentieth century twelve tone music of Schoenberg, Berg and others. Maybe you also heard echoes of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (0:30-0:37) or Mahler’s symphonies (the stopped horns at 13:22), or a Bernard Herrmann film score (17:06).

In the first analysis of the Faust Symphony (from 1862), Richard Pohl suggests that the motives of first movement relate to “Passion, Pride, Longing, Triumph and Love.” (See the Introduction to the Dover score).

For me there are many aspects of this seldom heard piece which I find exciting: the ferocious string passages, the sudden and transformative modulation to C major at 20:13, Liszt’s use of relatively new additions to the orchestra such as harp, trombones and tuba. There are soaring, heroic moments like 11:44 (and 24:38 in the recapitulation) where trombones add a completely new dimension to the sound. At 25:06 the prominent use of trombones also evokes the instrument’s supernatural connotations. In the final bars of the movement there is something ominous about the descending and ascending chromatic line (25:58).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Gretchen[/typography]

The second movement, in A-flat major, captures the innocence of Gretchen. Gradually Faust’s themes from the first movement creep in (beginning at 36:07) and eventually merge into a love duet.  In the introduction of the Dover edition of the score, Dr. Alan Walker writes:

[quote]The gentle simplicity of both Gretchen themes belies the fact that they will later become transformed into the “Redemption” motifs in the choral setting of the “Chorus Mysticus” [the final movement].[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”] Mephistopheles[/typography]

Mephistopheles, or Satan, represents “the spirit of negation”, destruction rather than creation. In the third movement Liszt does not give Mephistopheles his own motives. Instead we hear Faust’s motives from the first movement mocked, caricatured and ultimately torn apart. Only the innocent Gretchen can withstand Mephistopheles’s power. Her themes remain intact (56:38), as we heard them in the second movement.

At the end of the third movement, notice the stunning falling chromatic harmonic sequence (beginning after 1:02:07). In the final measures Liszt again uses the solemn supernatural color of the trombones (1:03:25).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Final Chorus[/typography]

Three years after completing the first three movements, Liszt added the climactic Final Chorus for male chorus. In the final measures, the entrance of the organ creates a new, expanded and transcendent sound world. This anticipates Mahler’s use of organ in the Second and Eighth Symphonies. The text is taken from Goethe’s Faust:

[quote]Everything transitory
is only an allegory;
what could not be achieved
here comes to pass;
what no one could describe,
is here accomplished;
the Eternal Feminine
draws us aloft.[/quote]

Music of the Hunt

Vanity Sounds the Horn and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire (from The Hunt of the Frail Stag), 1500–1525 South Netherlandish
“Vanity Sounds the Horn and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire” (from The Hunt of the Frail Stag) , Dutch tapestry, 1500–1525

The sound of horns and trumpets evokes ancient and sometimes subconscious associations. Horns were used during the hunt to call hounds because their sound was similar to the human voice but could carry for great distances. Trumpets served as a way to communicate on the battlefield during military campaigns. Originally these instruments were played without valves. Only pitches in the harmonic series were available, leading to a uniquely “open” sound.

Let’s listen to a few pieces that were inspired by sounds of the hunt:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Paganini Caprice No. 9 in E Major[/typography]

Paganini’s Caprice No. 9 for violin imitates the sound of hunting horns. Here is a great performance by James Ehnes:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Hunter’s Chorus[/typography]

Suzuki violin students learn an arrangement of Carl Maria Von Weber’s Hunter’s Chorus in Book 2. Here is the original version from Act 3 of Weber’s opera, Der Freischütz. Read the synopsis of the opera here.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bruckner’s “Hunt” Scherzo[/typography]

Anton Bruckner drew upon the mythical associations of horns and trumpets in the Scherzo of Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major. Listen to the sense of quiet excitement and anticipation Bruckner creates in the opening of this movement as a medieval forest awakens. Notice the sound of distant, echoing horn and trumpet calls around 1:27. At 4:05 you’ll hear a more pastoral trio section before the return of the Scherzo.

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Listen to Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic perform Bruckner’s entire Symphony No. 4 here. The opening of the first movement, which also features the horn, emerges out of silence. The hushed string tremolo creates an intense rumble which seems otherworldly.

Did I miss any significant pieces which are inspired by the hunt? Share your own music in the thread below.

[quote]The basic hunting myth is of a kind of covenant between the animal world and the human world. The animal gives its life willingly, with the understanding that its life transcends its physical entity and will be returned to the soil or to the mother through some ritual of restoration. -Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”[/quote]

Witches’ Dance

Nicolo Paganini by Richard James Lane

Suzuki violin students learn the theme from Witches’ Dance in Book 2. Here is the original piece by Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840).

Through his virtuosity, Paganini transformed violin playing. Audiences at the time were shocked by the new sounds and dazzling effects which he employed. He toured Europe garnering celebrity comparable to a modern day rock star.

Listen to this spectacular performance by Eugene Fodor. This clip is taken from his 1990’s recording, Witches’ Brew which features a collection of violin show pieces. You’ll recognize the Witches’ Dance theme at 3:20, followed by a series of variations featuring double stops (two pitches played at the same time) harmonics (a whistle-like sound effect produced by the finger touching the string lightly) left hand pizzicato, up bow staccato and more. It’s amazing how many different voices can be produced by a single violin, each bringing to life a unique personality.

Paganini’s music is infused with an elegance and Bel canto (“beautiful singing”) quality that may remind you of Italian opera.

Great Violinists on Video

Here are some inspiring violin videos from Youtube.  As a violinist, I always enjoy soaking up the musicianship of a variety of players, as well as analyzing the way each player uniquely approaches the instrument.

We’ll start with Humoresque in G-Flat Major by the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).  This is a piece that Suzuki students know from Book 3.  Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa.  This performance can be found on a recording that features a sampling of Dvorak’s music.

The Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano by French composer Cesar Franck (1822-1890) has become a staple of the violin repertoire.  Here is the final Movement, performed by Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk.  It was included on their newly released recordingFrench Impressions.  Bell and Denk discuss the CD here. I also recommend Oleh Krysa’s recording of this piece.

No one had a greater impact on the development of the violin than Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840).  Paganini toured Europe, achieving rock star status at a time when the public concert hall increasingly made concerts available to the masses and not just aristocracy.

Violinist Julia Fischer has some interesting things to say about Paganini and the 24 Caprices (short pieces that employ dazzling technical effects).

Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931) contributed six solo violin sonatas to the repertoire, each dedicated to one of his fellow violinists.

Here, the legendary David Oistrakh performs the third sonata, dedicated to George Enescu.