interview with Ilya Gringolts: Paganini 24 Caprices

April 17, 2014, 11:08 AM · When I spoke with Ilya Gringolts before he was to serve on the jury for the Menuhin Competition, I was very interested in the fact that he had just recorded all the 24 Paganini Caprices last November.

After all, here is someone who won First Prize in the 1998 Paganini Competition, also having received special prizes that year for being the youngest-ever competitor to be placed in the final and the best interpreter of Paganini’s Caprices. What is his take on these wickedly difficult violin works, 16 years later? Certainly his new recording has caused a bit of a stir, as it casts these much-recorded and studied works in new light and does not easily fit the old aural grooves.

So while I was in Austin to write about the Menuhin Competition and Ilya was there serving as a jurist, we sat down over coffee and talked about the Paganini. These days he is Professor of Violin at the Zurich Hochschule, and an International Fellow at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. We spoke about his history with the Paganini Caprices, the limited value these works have as a teaching tool, and also about the importance of consulting an urtext edition when preparing them for performance.

Ilya Gringolts
Photo: Tomasz Trzebiatowski

Laurie What is the first Paganini caprice you ever learned?

Ilya: I think it must have been 13, one of those easy ones, maybe 16, 14, those three, they kind of came in succession; I was 11 at the time. I actually picked those up at the same time as I picked up my first Bach, the first four movements of the D minor Partita.

Laurie: You started with the D minor, wow.

Ilya: My teacher thought they would be a good place to start; I kind of understand. It's straightforward, more straightforward than the others.

Laurie: How long did it take you to learn all the Caprices?

Ilya: It's a project that was on my mind for a long time. I didn't have a time frame; I took it bit-by-bit, very slowly. I would learn two or three Caprices a year, just practice them. I wouldn't even necessarily play them in public, it was just training. The first time I played them live in one concert was not until one week before the recording, and some of them, I just played for the first time right before the recording. Which is not to say that I didn't know them, because as I said, it was always on my mind and I always practiced them in kind of sessions. It's not like I would devote a period of time to just learning the Paganinis, there were always other things, overlap and so yes, it was a long-haul project.

Laurie: So maybe three caprices a year.

Ilya: Something like that. But I wouldn't say that I even thought of it like that; I didn't make any plans. I would take a caprice and practice it and then put it aside and then take another one, that's how it worked, for years. Until I thought, well, finally maybe this is the time.

Laurie: What do they do for a person's playing, to learn these?

Ilya: Not much, actually. There are a lot of things that are more useful.

Laurie: Really?

Ilya: Yes. Any etudes that you could practice: Rode, Dont, you name it; they're more channeled towards improving technical facilities, because they're written for that. Paganini is not written for that.

Laurie: They're not pedagogical.

Ilya: No, not at all. I'm convinced that there is a higher kind of musical agenda there, that (Paganini) is after.

Laurie: Really? Because some people don't think so, they think they're just sort of fluffy technical pieces.

Ilya: Well, I think that's the wrong approach. For me, they are a bit like Schumann character pieces, or Chopin. You don't play Chopin to improve your technique. It's rather when you've already got your technique and everything is in place. Then you play Chopin. Because then you can use your technique for a higher purpose. You don't hone your technical skills on that stuff. They're just too high a level.

Laurie: There are a lot of people who play them who don't really get to that musical level. Like me. I don't even play them. I've tried but given up!

Which was the hardest one to figure out, musically?

Ilya: There are a few that are very challenging in many ways. Interestingly enough, they're all from the first set of 12. There are actually two sets of six -- he composed six, six then 12. The first 12 are so much more demanding and so much more complex than the next 12. It's incredible, it's almost like they're two different composers. If you just analyze it harmonically, they're so imaginative, and so experimental, the first 12 -- with some exceptions, like No. 9, which is rather straightforward. But the rest of them, you have modulations that take you to all sorts of keys within two minutes. It's not very typical for the beginning of the 19th century, actually. We're talking maybe about the beginning of Romanticism -- then it sort of became normal. But this was written in 1816-17, this was before Schumann wrote a single note, or Chopin for that matter, or Liszt. Beethoven was still in his middle period. It's actually pretty amazing. So we're dealing with something pretty new here, breaking new ground.

So I would definitely say No. 4 is a big problem to solve musically, just to sustain the form. Finding a common tempo is very difficult because obviously you have your kind of lyrical part and you have the virtuosic part -- there's no tempo change. It should be about the same tempo. And you see that in many of his caprices; he's quite meticulous in pointing out if there is a tempo difference or not. So in those that he doesn't write anything, you should really try to find a common tempo. (You should treat it) like something you would do in a Beethoven Sonata: you wouldn't play the middle section of a scherzo or a minuet at a different tempo, unless it says so. So it's the same. I think these pieces should be treated with that same kind of German meticulousness, because they're more German than Italian.

Laurie: Oh really? What do you mean?

Ilya: They stand out, in that the whole bel canto part of it is not really present, unless you are talking about kind of a gimmicky interpretation of it, like in No. 23, where you would just kind of parody it. This is not a real "bel canto" -- to me it isn't. And it stands out from his other works as well.

Laurie: He did a lot of opera transcriptions…

Ilya: He did. And everything else -- you take the concerto, for example, that's clearly kind of Rossini, Bellini-infused music -- which makes it, in a way, less original and actually less valuable, in a way, too. I mean it's fun…

Laurie: A little more derivative.

Ilya: Yes. It's not instantly recognizable as Paganini; it doesn't have its own sound world. But the Caprices do. And the whole genre, the small character piece, that's very much a Romantic thing. The Romanticism started in Germany; it started with Goethe and Schiller and all those people. There was no Romantic music in Italy at that time; and there wouldn't be until Verdi.

So that's something that Paganini, as a traveling musician from his early years, would have been exposed to.

Laurie: I didn't know that bit about the first two sets of six being quite different from the last 12, did he compose them over a long period of time?

Ilya: Well, about 3-4 years. But no one really knows, it's sort of speculated, when he wrote them. They were published in 1820, so would be safe to say that it was a few years before that, that he was composing them. He never played them in public.

Laurie: Never?

Ilya: No. They are inscribed, "Alli Artisti," or "For the Artists." So they were dedicated to the artists, and he never performed them himself. Which, again, sets them on a pedestal, in a league of their own.

Laurie: I wonder what he meant.

Ilya: I suppose it means someone who can give them justice, not just technically, but really make -- not make anything out of them because they are the way they are -- but just really do them justice, musically.

Laurie: Just to play them the way they're written is a pretty monumental task.

Ilya: That's right. But I think, again, you treat them without any patronizing, just like you treat a Mozart Sonata. And it starts with selecting an edition. People just don't care what edition they play Paganini from. You just get your International Edition fare, which ..

Laurie: I have Ricordi, I think.

Ilya: That's nice, but you're definitely in the minority. I'm hearing, now at the (Menuhin) competition, so many Paganini caprices that were learned from the wrong edition. There were only about two people who played from an urtext edition. And there is the Henle, which has been out for 20-something years!

Laurie: And just this year, Barenreiter also came out with an urtext of the Caprices.

Ilya: The Henle has been out since the end of the 80s. I was preparing for the Paganini Competition in '98 and I had the Henle; it had been in the market for a while. That's the edition that's been directly copied from the manuscript; you need to look no further. It's right there.

And there are so many differences. There are a lot of performing traditions that have kind of molded themselves into these works and found their way into later editions -- and lots of mistakes, too. Some are first-edition mistakes that were copied throughout. We're talking, really, about wrong notes. Just wrong notes, all over the place. And, of course, the bowings -- stuff like that.

At this point, most people would not play a Mozart Concerto from an International Edition or even Peters -- they would get their hands on the Henle and the Barenreiter. It's not a question of money, it's a question of mindset. But somehow people don't think about it as much when they play the Paganini; they think it's just a circus piece -- just learn my craft and go and perform it -- that's not good enough.

Laurie: So you can tell, when you hear someone performing these, if they're not using the urtext.

Ilya: I know where all those wrong notes are.

For example, there are about five or six wrong notes in Caprice No. 1 alone. Then you go to No. 5, and there is this bowing that people have kind of heard about, but no one is really sure what it is, in the middle section. I think about 99 percent just play it spiccato throughout. The middle section is this perpetual mobile kind of passage, which is written in a bowing which is three notes ricochet, one note up. That's the bowing throughout the middle section. Some people choose not to do it because they think it's difficult, which it is, although I personally find it easier than playing spiccato for two minutes straight -- I find that more taxing. But there are also a good chunk of people who have no idea it even exists. When we were listening to it (at the competition), there was one contestant who played that Caprice with the right bowing -- I was very happy about it, did a great job. But in the jury there were some funny looks, like…

Laurie: …what's she doing with the bowing?

Ilya: Exactly. Someone asked me, 'Is this really the way it is written?' So that awareness is not really there yet. If we have people so high up in the field who -- they've played that before, but they're not aware of the urtext. So there's that kind of wall which has to be broken.

As far as the urtext is concerned, the manuscript is out, it's not like there are three different sources they're combining, I think there's only one source. The question (between using Henle or Barenreiter) might be, how they edit it, the fingerings they provide.

Laurie: You said that you started learning the Paganini at the same time as you started learning the Bach. How do they measure up? Does the Paganini do something for the violin in a similar way that the Bach did something for the violin?

Ilya: Do you mean in a historical sense?

Laurie: I guess in a historical sense; we think of the Bach as having done something for the violin that really hadn't been done before...

Ilya: That's definitely the case with the Paganini. I think that contemporary music as we know it, with all the wonderful sound effects that they're using now, most of it is inspired by Paganini in some way. He used the violin as a kind of an orchestra, to parody all the other things we hear in nature and in life: birds singing, the harmonics, the double harmonics, the pizzicati …all the sort of stuff that had actually been used before him, but not to the same extent, and not for the same purposes. If you look at people like Locatelli, he was even more ground-breaking in purely technical terms, but he wasn't a musician of the same caliber of Paganini, his music never grows to those heights. (Locatelli) never used those effects for a higher purpose, unlike Paganini, who did.

When I perform, I like to combine Paganini Caprices and for example, Caprices by (Salvatore) Sciarrino (1976) or by (Jörg) Widmann. They wrote works for solo violin that are directly inspired by the Caprices, and in Sciarrino's case they are called Caprices, too, and that combines perfectly with the Paganini because you really see the connections, in the same way that you can combine Bach and Ysaye, or Reger and Bach, and you can see the connections very clearly. Or Hindemith and Bach. Actually pretty much everything and Bach!

Laurie: And you've also played the 24 Paganini Caprices alone, as a cycle, all in one concert.

Ilya: You feel like an athlete, preparing for (that kind of) concert. Recording is one thing, you can take your time and -- recording anything is a relaxing experience because you're in control. Or at least, you can make it a relaxing experience; you don't have to, but you can, you're in the driver's seat.

Playing (all 24 Paganini Caprices) in concert is another matter. It's stressful and very taxing for your body and mind. Lots of concentration, and actually, it's very difficult to practice as a run up to a concert. First of all, you have to practice much more than you usually do, just because it's so much material. But secondly, it's a kind of a balance between slow practicing and running things through endlessly, to make sure you've got the stamina for it. But once you play things through, you're kind of done for the day. It's hard to plan.

Laurie: Do you teach the Paganini Caprices?

Ilya: Sometimes, but again, I don't prescribe them to fix technical problems. If I have a student who is already at the level that could allow him or her to play Paganini, and let's say that they're preparing for a competition and they're required to play Paganini, then I'll teach it.

I don't really encourage it, so much.

Laurie: You don't, why not?

Ilya: Well, because if they're at that level, they'll play it anyway, and then I'll teach it. If they're not, they won't help them get to that level. So I'd rather give them something that would help them first to get to that level.

Laurie: What if you want to get to that level? What kinds of things would be prescriptive to get to that level? What do you need to see in place in a student, to feel they are at that level?

Ilya: I think the age of the student is important. If you have a master student that doesn't have that level, frankly it's going to be hard to get there. The muscles are much less responsive at that age. It really requires a kind of a routine from an early age. I would say a bachelor student could still do it, with the right mindset.

To me, there are actually more important issues. You have to be realistic, you have to know what each student is geared to do and what they want to do. Because playing Paganini Caprices is not a given. It's not obligatory; it's not necessary to survive; you don't need it to get a job. So for a lot of people who want to get a good orchestra job, for example, it's better not to even go there. I mean, why? Why the heartbreak?

There are so many great fiddle players that actually struggle with these things. Why? For what?

Laurie: They're just too hard to play! (Said with drama and heartbreak)

Ilya: They are very hard to play, that's exactly what I mean. They're incredibly taxing on every level. I have a great student now that is preparing for a competition, and she plays No. 2, and she does a great job with it. I'm happy to consult her on whatever issues she might have, musical as well as technical. But otherwise, I have more important agendas for my students. For one thing, you have to learn to play Mozart Concerto convincingly. That to me is a hugely difficult task, and it can take a lot of time. And then of course there are also all sorts of other problems to solve. So to me, teaching Paganini is not a priority.

Laurie: How about the other side of "Why the heartbreak?" Obviously, you decided to do it yourself. Why?

Ilya: For one thing, I really love those pieces. It takes a while and yes, it is a bit masochistic. But I find them so special, musically. They're great fun to play, after all.

* * *

To sum up what is available, as far as Paganini 24 Caprices urtext editions are concerned: In addition to the Henle urtext edition of the caprices, Barenreiter just published its own urtext last December. And if you'd really like to get authentic, you can find the composer's manuscript on IMSLP. (Does anyone else find that a little amazing, all those tiny notes, in Paganini's hand?) Here also is a link to the Ricordi edition, which I was only able to find on UK Amazon, but perhaps some European members have more ideas about where to find that?

* * *

Ilya Gringolts plays Caprice 24 live in February 2014, at sala Verdi del Conservatorio di Milano:

Ilya Gringolts plays (part of) Caprice 1:


April 17, 2014 at 08:36 PM · Fantastic interview.

I still think 24 is weird but no1 just completely blew me away. The most refreshing version I have ever heard. Like he says in the interview, it's a fantastic piece of music. His playing makes that point more eloquently than words can.

April 17, 2014 at 11:44 PM · Wonderful interview, Laurie.

Very refreshing to hear all of Ilya Gringolts' insights and his approach to Paganini. Too many otherwise fine and even renowned pros obviously concentrate on the athletic, virtuosic and showy aspects of the 24 Paganini caprices.

As much as Ruggiero Ricci deserves high respect, I must confess that his recordings of Paganini had soured me on the caprices for many years. It was the Viktor Pikaizen release in the 1960s of the 24 that first opened my eyes, ears and heart to this monumental set of musical works, for it fully convinced me that the caprices are full of what folks commonly refer to as "pretty melodies" and that they're soaked with true musicality.

I've enjoyed this article/interview and eagerly look forward to getting my hands, ears and heart on my copy of the Gringolts set.

April 18, 2014 at 06:13 AM · I like the Salvatore Accardo [sp?] recording best. I started playing the violin late and have worked through them...twice, once one viola and once on violin.

April 18, 2014 at 10:13 PM · Ilya is a fine speaker judging by his interview.

April 20, 2014 at 02:22 AM · I had the pleasure of seeing Rachel Barton Pine performing all 24 Caprices in concert at Ravinia last year. Well worth it! Besides doing a narrative between groupings of the Caprices, she performed them with only one intermission. I was exhausted listening to them, but very pleased with her interpretations.

April 24, 2014 at 02:30 PM · Inspiring interview!

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