Violinist Rachel Barton Pine takes on Paganini’s 24 Caprices and emerges mostly unscathed

January 28, 2013

It took Niccolo Paganini 15 years to write his 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1, which pushed the possibilities of the instrument into undreamed-of realms. Nearly two centuries later, with all the developments in violin technique, the Caprices are still so challenging that few violinists venture out on the concert platform with them. Though obligatory works for upper-level conservatory students, their difficulties keep them mostly confined to the practice room.They were published with a dedication to the artists, and one can imagine a malevolent glint in the composer’s eye as he did so. Our greatest artists, past and present, have mostly declined to take up the challenge. You will look in vain for commercial recordings of these works by Fritz Kreisler, Isaac Stern, David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein, Pinchas Zukerman or Henryk Szeryng. Jascha Heifetz did a few of them but with an added piano accompaniment for security.

All of this is to put Rachel Barton Pine’s bold effort Sunday (half of the Caprices at the Phillips Collection, half at the National Gallery) into context.The impossibly high hurdles never stop, and the performer is constantly on a knife-edge, trying to avoid falling off without sounding stressed. The Italianate melodies that can be heard dimly through a thicket of fingered octaves, four-voice chords, hurtling runs and left-hand pizzicato are the goal, but few can get past the thicket. Pine is a very fine violinist, but at her National Gallery performance (Nos. 13-24), she did not emerge unscathed.

There were many enjoyable moments. Her control of the jazzy accents in No. 16, her richly singing thirds in the middle section of No. 18, her amazing bow control through the difficult chords in Nos. 20, 22 and 24, and a biting staccato in No. 21 all displayed sovereign fiddle mastery.The variations of the famous No. 24 were sharply characterized, and Pine’s forthright Midwest persona (with charming spoken introductions) added to the quality of the evening. But it must be said that these pieces are still too difficult to bring off with complete success in live performance. Pine’s struggles, with the infamous fingered octaves in No. 17 and the acrobatics on the G-string in No. 19, as well as intonation in numerous passages in the very highest register, simply reaffirmed that Paganini still has the last laugh on “the artists.”

Battey is a freelance writer.

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