October 16, 2014


Paganini: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-6. Ingolf Turban, violin; WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne conducted by Lior Shambadal. Profil. $49.99 (4 CDs).

Carlo Alfredo Piatti: 12 Caprices for Solo Cello. Carmine Miranda, cello. Navona. $14.99.

Mitch Hampton: Piano Music. Mitch Hampton, piano. Navona. $16.99.

     Whether or not Paganini was the greatest violinist of his time is arguable. Others who studied and adapted his style, such as Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, may well have surpassed him technically. But Paganini was the greatest showman violinist of his era – of that there is no doubt. Fueling and exploiting  rumors of a pact with the devil, highlighting rather than shrinking from a jaw deformity that made his face look distinctly peculiar, deliberately drawing attention to his extremely long fingers, and dressing in a way guaranteed to keep all eyes on him during his performances, Paganini entertained in a way that no virtuoso ever had before. And of course, as was the custom in his time, he wrote music that he would himself then perform – music that was intended to be well-nigh unplayable by others, if not outright impossible. The deliberate confusion he created with his Concerto No. 1 is a case in point: he made it seem utterly impossible to perform by writing the orchestral parts in E-flat and the solo part in D – and he then used scordatura to make the work playable, obtaining an added benefit by having the orchestra fade more into the background in E-flat (because that key limits the use of open strings) while giving the soloist even greater prominence. The point of this purely technical wizardry, and a point brought forth wonderfully by Ingolf Turban in his Profil recording of the complete Paganini violin concertos, is that Paganini was a thoughtful and accomplished composer as well as a brilliant performer. He knew exactly what he wanted and exactly how to get it, and it is no accident that all six of his concertos have a distinctly Rossinian feel to them while also showcasing the solo violin to an extreme degree. Concerto No. 1 is nowadays almost always played in D, but Turban returns to its original version in E-flat and, as a result, lets listeners hear it with all the splendor and, yes, self-importance that Paganini intended it to have. Throughout the concertos, Turban captures much of the wit and songfulness of the music, accepting its technical difficulties and surmounting them, but never letting the works deteriorate into mere display pieces – as it is tempting to do. The fact is that Paganini had considerable talent as a composer – he was more a craftsman than innovator, to be sure, but his craftsmanship produced finely honed concertos that sound quite different from each other even though all six follow the same pattern: a very extended first movement, a second movement that is more an intermezzo than a true slow movement and that is always the shortest of the three, and a finale that blazes with technical brilliance and leaves the audience gasping. Turban plays cadenzas of his own in all the concertos, and does not hesitate to produce some real fireworks in them; but he also allows the music to sound tender, even soulful, when that is appropriate, and he makes the only fairly extended middle movement (in Concerto No. 5) genuinely moving. Throughout the set, he gets strong and creditable backup from the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne under Lior Shambadal, a conductor who knows enough to get out of the way here and let the soloist’s playing shine through. Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 were recorded in 2000, Nos. 2 and 4 in 2003, and Nos. 5 and 6 in 2005. The sound in all of them is first-rate, and the set as a whole provides an excellent way to appreciate both Paganini’s undoubted mastery of his instrument and his ability to create highly attractive, tuneful and well-constructed music to showcase himself.

     Paganini is even better known for his 24 Caprices, Op. 1, than for his concertos, and those caprices transcend their form to become more than mere études, much as the concertos are more than surface-level technical displays. The caprices are highly listenable music as well as an enormous challenge to perform. Other composers’ caprices are less substantial and therefore less attractive for general listeners. That is the case with the 12 Caprices for Solo Cello by Carlo Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901). Piatti was a very accomplished cellist: Liszt heard him play a borrowed instrument and was so impressed that he gave him an Amati, and Mendelssohn offered to write a concerto for him but did not live to do so. Piatti’s 12 caprices seem to have been inspired in part by Paganini’s 24, but Piatti himself, for all his technical prowess, was clearly less inspired as a composer. His 12 Caprices are often imitative (of violin and guitar, for example) rather than fully involved in the intricacies of the cello, whose wide range opens up even more possibilities in solo playing than the violin possesses – a fact known as far back as Bach’s time. A few of the Piatti caprices actually owe a debt to Bach’s Cello Suites, in particular Nos. 2 and 4, while others show violinistic influence (Nos. 1 and 9, for example) and still others (notably No. 7) make it sound as if Piatti wanted to use the cello as a guitar, or at least with guitar techniques. Carmine Miranda plays this music for all it is worth, and seems sincerely dedicated to bringing out its value as music rather than as technical experimentation and embellishment. The simple fact, though, is that Piatti’s 12 Caprices are not especially interesting for non-cellists: rather than plumbing the depths of the cello, they look into its technical capability of seeming to be something it is not (No. 3, for example, really pushes into the instrument’s high range). Cellists will welcome this very well-played although very short (41-minute) Navona recording and will find it highly interesting, and for them it will get a (++++) rating; but for general listeners, the music simply does not have enough to say – the overall (+++) rating is as much for the excellence of Miranda’s playing as it is for what he plays.

     Another (+++) Navona recording also features virtuosity, but in this case the disc’s title, Hard Listening, is apt. Mitch Hampton’s music lurches from one extreme to another, sometimes incorporating elements of the past (Petite Dirge is reminiscent of Chopin and other 19th-century piano composers) but always focusing more on structural elements than on music’s evocative and communicative power. Like many contemporary composers, Hampton draws on multiple musical fields – jazz is particularly prominent as an influence – and does not hesitate to incorporate elements of other works into his own: Large Dirge in memory of my father draws on the Rodgers and Hart tune “Where or When.” Hampton’s music is the opposite of easy listening – hence the disc’s title – but aside from its wished-for iconoclasm, it does not communicate much beyond the composer’s ability to construct works from disparate sources and in differing styles. Hampton certainly plays his own pieces with enthusiasm: The Royal Blue Trickle Suite for Piano, Goodbye Cornelius and the title work – which is actually four pieces in a “Series for Solo Concert Piano” – are all performed with enthusiasm, as Hampton dwells on and brings out both the derivative and sometimes deliberately trivial elements and the denser, more-complex ones. There is a feeling of experimentation about the entire CD, which may be exactly what Hampton is looking for here and which may intrigue listeners who see music as being an intellectual exercise as much as or more than an emotionally stirring experience. Other listeners, though, may find these works’ lack of stylistic integrity and their somewhat overdone manipulativeness to be less than convincing.

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