Rachel Barton Pine - Bel Canto: Paganini (Avie)
"Well, I first started listening to the caprices when I was six and with an LP of Itzhak Perlman that my mom had bought for me and it was my bedtime bribe," Rachel Barton Pine recalls. "On nights when I really didn't want to settle down and go to sleep. my mom would say, 'If you'll just be a good girl and close your eyes I'll put on your Paganini record.'
"And you know, by the time I was 10, I got my first Paganini Caprice assigned by my teachers and just started learning one at a time till I'd learned them all."
All that marathon training paid off. Recently, Rachel Barton Pine released all of the Paganini Caprices on a new recording she calls, Bel Canto, which means "beautiful singing."
As a teenager, Rachel won the Paganini Caprice Prize for her performance of the Caprice Number 5, the infamous bouncing-bow Caprice. "Just being able to play all those notes really fast with the left hand is the big challenge," Rachel says. "But in fact, that's the least of the struggles of that piece. It's all about the bow stroke which is three down bows followed by an up bow over and over again, a particular kind of ricochet.
"And actually so many of the caprices have unusual bowings &mash; you know, the backwards bow stroke in number 11 and the triple stops on down bows and up bows in number nine — the list goes on. And so I actually used a transitional bow for this recording, which is what you might call an early modern style of bow. It's Perham Bucco wood, which is what our bows are made out of today, and it's curved inwards, as opposed to the old baroque bows which are curved outwards. But it's lighter and springier and just a little clearer than the modern bows which are, you know, heftier and have more bombast and so that really allowed me to not only have a little bit easier time with some of these bow strokes — not that they're easy. But you know, it just made everything pop a little more but it also gave the tone quality more of a facility and a sweetness and delicacy at times that you know more closely matched to my conception, which is sort of paying homage to the fact that Paganini was a contemporary of the great bel canto opera composers like Rossini and Verdi and Donizetti and Bellini and so often you hear that caprices played with a later Romantic, more muscular, fiery type of sound and while there's certainly intensity, you know, Paganini comes from an earlier era and I wanted to make sure to capture more of that flavor in my interpretations."
You just brought up some of those operatic legends and how they all admired Paganini. Why do you think they admired him so much?
"Yeah, I love the quote from Rossini that if Paganini were to write opera he would put the rest of us out of business because we think of Paganini for his virtuosic tricks, being like an Olympic figure skater that goes out and nails a bunch of triple jumps but that's really not the totality of who he was as an artist. All those women would not have been swooning at his concerts just because of fast-flying fingers. It was the way that he touched their hearts and clearly Rossini and his contemporaries admired Paganini as a composer of melody, as a true artist and musician. In fact, he dedicates the caprices to all the artists. I think he's really making a statement that he intends for this music to be about color and character and melody and harmony and not just the technical tricks."
We should probably clarify that bel canto is a style of opera writing which Bellini and Donizetti were so well known for. And you worked with a bel canto singing coach as you prepared for this recording, right?
"Absolutely. And that was really important to understand certain elements of timing, which really don't belong to any particular school of interpretation as far as violin traditions, but really do come from that vocal world and particularly in pieces like couple of the extra tracks … And I wanted to make sure I was shaping the aria properly and then the duet for one, which could have lyrics to it and would sound like it had been written for the human voice. Those pieces are so firmly within that particular musical style of the early 1800s and the Italian opera world."
So what is the story these pieces tell about the violin and the composer? I know you believe strongly they should be heard in their entirety … tell me about that story that we experience.
"I think it's an amazing journey to listen either live, or on album, to the entirety of the cycle to just see the incredible variety of what the violin is capable of. I think also the onus is on the interpreter to make sure that each individual caprice can stand on its own two feet in isolation and that each one has something unique and specific to say.
"I think Paganini was a complex character. He certainly had the groupies and the gambling. And all of the other [stories, the] supposed selling of his soul, though I always question why do we have to think that good things come from below? Why not from above? You know — why would people think his impressive technique was a gift from the dark side not the light?"
To hear my full conversation with Rachel Barton Pine about this 19th-century violin master, download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.