Written by Laurie Niles
Published: November 14, 2010 at 11:14 PM [UTC]
Listening to the ease and fluidity with which Russian-born violinist Philippe Quint plays Paganini, it's hard to imagine that these pieces ever caused him any pain or difficulty.
If you associate Quint more with the Korngold concerto, this is understandable: he's giving 32 performances of the Korngold this year, a piece he also recorded in 2009. In addition to his nominations for Grammys for the Korngold recording and for his William Schuman Violin Concerto, he also has emerged as a teacher. His student Randall Goosby, who flies from Tennessee to New York monthly for lessons with Quint, won the Sphinx Competition's junior division earlier this year.
Photo courtesy the artist
But back to Paganini, Quint just released a Naxos recording of works by Nicolò Paganini that were arranged by Fritz Kreisler, including Moto Perpetuo, Op. 11; Le Streghe, Op. 8; Caprices 13, 20 and 24; "La Campanella" from the Violin Concerto No. 2; and sets of variations from two Rossini Operas: "Non più mesta" from La Cenerentola and "Di tanti palpiti" from Tancredi. He is accompanied by pianist Dmitriy Cogan.
These pieces require a high order of technique, with double harmonics, spiccato, ricochet, lefthand pizzicato, double stops, wicked-fast playing and overall fireworks. So how were these arrangements by Kreisler? Were they kinder and gentler, as one might expect? Was it fun to record Paganini?
Philippe Quint: I don't know what to tell you about Paganini, except for the fact that it was a torture! (He laughs) It was a major, major torture. I used to really enjoy Paganini in my teens – every teenager enjoys Paganini because it's pyrotechnics, fun stuff, challenging. It's good for you, your fingers feel much better after you play it...
Also, however, you may just destroy your hand if you don't approach it properly, and this was certainly the case with me the first time I tried to prepare the 24 Caprices. Eventually I got tendonitis and I had to put Paganini away for a few years.
Laurie Niles: How old were you?
Philippe: I was around 21.
Laurie: What did you do wrong?
Philippe: I practiced it too much. I killed my hands, particularly the left hand, because of the stretches. I was doing it too much. Maybe it was due to my Soviet training – that obsessive feeling that you have to get it, no matter what, and no matter how many hours it takes. A huge mistake. With Paganini, you must systematize your work and divide it into very small sections. You must really understand the center of the problem. Usually, you will find that in each passage, there are one or two shifts that are difficult, but everything else is fine. I like to compare my approach to the jigsaw puzzle: you have little small parts you put together, then eventually you have the big picture. But this is something that I learned many years later, which was too late.
So when Naxos approached me with this Paganini project, I was literally terrified. Usually I know about a forthcoming recording project about a year in advance. So I learned of this project in July of 2007, that I would record it in 2008. So there was a giant sign in my head, 'Paganini coming up.' Then of course you think about it, but there's no time to start it. This time, I cleared my schedule entirely – everything -- in June 2008. I called my friends in California and asked if I could practice in their house. They said, absolutely, we have a wonderful room in our basement – I said, perfect.
Laurie: Why did you have to go to California to practice?
Philippe: Because there's no chance that I can do anything in New York. When I travel, then I come back to New York for four or five days, I'm so occupied with the the bills, the letters, the e-mails -- life. My practice time always happens on tour. Therefore, I knew that in order for me to really do a good job with this project, I needed to be in complete isolation: where I don't know anybody, where the phone doesn't ring. I knew that they also have an area where there's no reception!
Knowing I already had issues with my hands, I knew I needed to be extremely careful preparing it. So I looked at the different techniques in each piece: You have octave fast scales, double harmonics, lefthand pizzicato, triple harmonics – quadruple harmonics! There are several quadruple harmonics – the only way to play them is to break them one-by-one. You have to find all kinds of creative ways to get around certain things.
Paganini had Marfan's Syndrome, a disease which enabled him to stretch this hands to these unbelievable distances. I don't have that! Knock on wood. So I need to figure out how not to hurt myself.
Moto Perpetuo, at first, was killing my right arm. I listened to a recording of Ruggiero Ricci, who plays it – probably faster than lightning. Amazing. And you think to yourself, okay, so that's just not going to happen! (he laughs) How well can you do it? So you slowly build it up to speed with your left hand, with your right hand, then gradually increase the speed. Most importantly, get yourself to a comfort zone. This was something Miss DeLay told me a long time ago: the greatest violinists never played at their top speed, they always played much below that. It makes sense. This is something I was able to use in Paganini: I only played it at a speed that was very comfortable for me.
Laurie: Beyond all the technique, what was your musical approach to these works by Paganini?
Philippe: Paganini's music was always neglected, or disrespected, because people always comment that Paganini's music is not profound music, there's not depth, it's just virtuoso athletics. True! But Paganini himself never claimed that he was writing anything profound. In fact there's a quote from Paganini, he said, "Well, you know, I'm not Beethoven." Beethoven was a composer he greatly admired. At some point he was going to meet with him but they missed each other in Vienna.
One can disregard Paganini only if you really know how to play it well. There are two challenges in Paganini: Number one is that you must disregard the fact that it's technical and make it music. You must take the musical part and make it extremely simple, flowing.
Paganini lived during the time of great opera, and he was inspired by opera, there's no question. A lot of his compositions are based on operas, and in fact three of the works in this recording are based on operas. So this was my challenge: I was trying to make it as operatic as possible. I kept thinking of belcanto, and also I just listened to the operas that he based it on, which gave me a phenomenal insight on these works. ('Non più mesta' from Rossini's La Cenerentola; 'Di tanti palpiti' from Rossini's Tancredi; and 'Le streghe' )
The second challenge is playing the technical part so that it's not a bunch of passages and arpeggios and scales, because that was not interesting. So once I was more-or-less comfortable – I don't know if you can ever be completely comfortable – that's when I tried to make it musical.
Laurie: I hadn't realized that Kreisler had made these arrangements of Paganini. What did Kreisler do that was different?
Philippe: When I heard that these were Kreisler arrangements, do you know what I thought? I thought – Kreisler...Viennese...Leibesleid...beautiful charming ways – he must have simplified Paganini. I'm not going to have any problems! When I finally looked at the music, I realized, it's the opposite. He added a torturous cadenza for the Witches' Dance (Le Streghe). There's a whole new part in 'I palpiti.' 'I palpiti' is arguably one of the most difficult pieces written for violin, next to Ernst's "Last Rose of Summer" and one of those crazy finger-twisting works. Kreisler added these impossibly unplayable things.
In the three Caprices: you have Paganini's 24th Caprice ending in harmonics, slow, the last variation is Lento. Then you have Caprice 13, which is twice as slow, which in a way is more challenging: somehow now you can hear absolutely every note – something maybe we don't want to have every time! He left Caprice 20 almost as is, just with accompaniment. A lot of composers tried to arrange Paganini's caprices; we have Schumann arrangements, Brahms used a theme, Liszt used a theme, Rachmaninov used the themes – Auer had famous transcriptions. Some of them are better than others.
I think, though, that this is what Naxos is all about: bringing new repertoire for people's exposure so they can decide for themselves. If some people prefer these arrangements, great, if some not, you can't win. Ours is a subjective art form. I see people commenting, 'I like Hilary Hahn, I like Janine Jansen, I like Julia Fischer, I like Joshua Bell,' and then 'I hate this this this or that.' It's conceptual, some players touch you more than others. You find what you love, and all we can do is work really hard and just keep trying.
Laurie: And be true to the vision that you have, and see who comes along for the ride.
You have a new violin now, on loan from the Stradivari Society...tell me about it!
Philippe: Yes! The 'Ruby' Stradivari.
Philippe: Yes. Actually, the great comment that Joshua Bell made when he played the Vieuxtemps, when he said that a new violin is kind of like a new person walking into the room, a new face. This was Ruby! I love this violin, it's gorgeous, and the reason it's called the 'Ruby' is the varnish, it's very red-violinish-like. And of course I'm still discovering all the secrets, very much in the beginning, but it's great to have this new journey. I had a great time with the 1723 'Ex-Kiesewetter' for five years, and now Augustin Hadelich has it.
The ruby is a stone of mystery and a stone of love. I think the Latin translation is "supreme love," in fact. It's rumored to have been played by Sarasate.
Laurie: What does it like?
Philippe: What music does it like? I don't know yet because everything sounds so different, and the truth is, every time I have a new instrument, I have to change, first of all, the entire physical approach, hands...Suddenly my bow wasn't working any more. So I'm looking for a bow that would suit this particular violin, that's number one. Then, now I go back to the pieces I've played, and I have to change a ton of bowings and fingering because certain places are now much more audible and more exposed. This violin is so clear, so crisp.
Laurie: What's the year?
Philippe: 1708. It's a beautiful new challenge. I've been running towards the case to practice. I want to experience all the pieces that I've played on the other Strads – on this particular one.
So how did you like playing the Vieuxtemps del Gesù?
Laurie: You know what was really strange, it was a really beautiful instrument. I only had a minute with it, and then with the ex-Nachèz Strad, this summer in Chicago at Bein and Fushi.
Philippe: The greater the instrument is, the more time you need to get to know it. It just means that the instrument has so much personality. It's like getting to know a new person.
Laurie: I think both of those instruments were complicated personalities, and it helps if you happen to know the repertoire they like, if that makes any sense.
Philippe: It does. I call instruments time machines. Ever since I was a kid, I've always wanted to travel through time. I've had the pleasure to play with the Vieuxtemps three or four times in concerts, and I realized, my whole life, I've been with a time machine: a violin. This is exactly what we have, imagine! This violin has seen the world, more than we ever will.
Laurie: And you think of the people who played them...
Philippe: Ysäye and Vieuxtemps...We always think of composers like Vieuxtemps and Paganini as books, names, we think of them as music scores. We don't actually imagine that there was once an actual person, playing this violin and composing this piece of music with this violin! And once you have that image – I think that really helps the music.
Oooo I didn't know you were using the Ruby...when will you record with it and what will the recording be? :-)
Some people think that Kreisler didn't have virtuoso chops. Some people are very wrong. He recorded the Paganini Concerto when he as in his seventies. It was a condensed version and the cadenza is not Sauret but the tone is pure, the cantabile beautiful and the technique is easy. He played his miniatures so well because he was a total virtuoso.
Thanks for a nice interview, Laurie. Yet another CD to put on the wish list...
Kreisler's Pag arrangements are gathered together in The Fritz Kreisler Collection, Vol. 3 - Corelli, Tartini, & Paganini a la Kreisler, published by Carl Fischer.
Laurie - yes, another great interview! Congratulations and keep up the good work!
Corwin - he was 61 and his technique where not perfect at the time. But his tone sure was!
Any other recordings of Paganini by a 61 year old available?
Maybe Ricci and Heifetz? Does/Did Ida Haendel play Paganini? But it's rare, and quite an accomplishment. It's a great point, totally taken, Corwin.
It's interesting that he had to put aside so much time and dedication to make the CD. It also proves the point that Kreisler was technically a master, and not some second rater as Miss AS Mutter once intimated.
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