It could have been Paris 150 years ago, when the shouts of "Bravo!" went up in the Kennedy Center Concert hall last night. Though he did not have the "flowing hair, piercing eyes and strange, ravaged countenance" Berlioz attributed to Paganini, violinist Ruggiero Ricci gave us an idea of what the celebrated virtuoso's concerts in Paris during the 1830s must have been like.
Apparently, today's audiences are not all that different from their French predecessors. Despite the fact that we know today how Paganini, accomplished his satanic feats, listeners are still fascinated by double stops, left-hand pizzicato runs and high harmonic passages tossed off at rapid speed. Recalling that Paganini was the first to introduce these daring flights of virtuosity on the violin, one can better understand why not only the mass audiences but also musicians such as Berlioz and Schumann were captivated by his performances.
Reputedly, Paganini's tone quality, even in the swiftest passages, remained true and pure. The same could not always be said of Ricci's playing. Nonetheless, he brought flair and remarkable agility as well as a warm melodic line to Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 and various other works for solo violin.
In keeping with the character of Paganini's concerts, the rest of the program was devoted to overtures by Weber, beethoven and Rossini. Guest conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann displayed a deft touch and sure dramatic sense in bringing out the contrasts in the music. He provided the proper bit of excitement to accompany the virtuosity of the Paganini works.