Interview with Augustin Hadelich: Paganini 24 Caprices

January 8, 2018, 11:02 PM · Italian violinist Augustin Hadelich somehow creates a sense of spaciousness and calm in his newly-released recording of Nicolo Paganini's 24 Caprices. It's almost as if these weren't some of the most impossible virtuoso violin works ever written, as if they weren't full of technical hurdles, as if there weren't a thousand notes to play, unreachable by most human hands.

Hadelich reaches this music with an elegance that has come to characterize his playing in the 12 years since he won the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. This recording came about as the result of one of his more recent "wins," when he received the inaugural Warner Prize in 2015. More recently, Hadelich won a 2016 Grammy for his recording of Dutilleux's Violin Concerto and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year 2018.

I spoke to Hadelich over the phone about the Paganini Caprices and their challenges, as well as his upcoming performance of the Ligeti Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony.

Hadelich first encountered Paganini's Caprices at age eight or nine. The first one he studied, as he remembers it, was Caprice No. 13. "I remember feeling very overwhelmed by what I saw in the music, when I looked at it," Hadelich said. "My first reaction was: 'Surely nobody can actually play those!'"

Augustin Hadelich
Augustin Hadelich. Photo by Suxiao Yang.

At the time, he could listen to recordings, but it was still the 1990s, and YouTube did not exist yet to provide countless examples on video. So when violinist Alexander Markov released video (on DVD) of his performance of all 24 Caprices, Hadelich found new inspiration.

"(Markov) really brought them alive, with a lot of character and a lot of flair," Hadelich said. "It's very different, when you see someone play, from when you can only hear. Students now can go on YouTube and look at videos of people playing these Caprices, look at their fingerings and bowings, and get a lot of helpful tips on how to play these Caprices. But it was a lot harder when all we had were sound recordings."

While Hadelich is impressed with violinists like Markov who have performed all 24 Caprices in one marathon concert, he said he does not plan to perform them that way himself, nor is that the way he performed for the recording.

"There are several reasons," Hadelich said. One is the exhaustion that can set in, not only for the player, but for the audience. "It's very hard to listen to all 24 at once. I think they are actually at their best when you hear them just by themselves. If you hear one Caprice on its own, it really shines. When you play a lot of them, they start to sound a little similar too each other. In terms of the virtuosity; after the first Caprice the audience is totally dazzled, but once you've played 10 of them, that effect also wears off. I feel like at some point, a good concert program needs to have larger works; it needs to just go to a different place; it shouldn't be all short pieces."

"But it's incredibly impressive when people do it!" he said.

For the recording, Hadelich said, "I tackled these 24 Caprices in four groups," putting together a balance of well-known Caprices that he's played as encores with lesser-known Caprices that required more practice. "Some of them I'd played a lot, and others I had only practiced privately," Hadelich said. "I didn't want to neglect any of the 24 because I think that each one is charming; each one is an interesting composition that needs to be played with a lot of character, with a lot of imagination. And of course, they are all very hard. That is why I decided to really take my time. It took about a year, from start to finish. The first session was in September 2016 and the last one was in June 2017. I also split them up in such a way as to avoid injury. There are a lot that have staccato and a lot that are really tough for the left hand. For example, No. 6 has all these trills, so I made sure that was the last Caprice that I recorded in one of the groups, so that I could rest my hand afterwards for a few days."

What makes the Caprices so hard?

"Basically it's a large number of little problems that you have to solve," Hadelich said. Also, Paganini played the violin very differently from the way most modern violinists play. "He obviously didn't have a shoulder rest, but he also didn't have a chinrest," Hadelich said. That makes shifting difficult, "so he didn't really shift, he just stretched." Because he likely had Marfan's Syndrome, Paganini's fingers could bend in unusual ways. "His fingers were so flexible that there wasn't any first position, second position, third position, fourth position -- there was just one position, and you stretched up and down," he said. "A lot of the Caprices are written for that type of technique and for that kind of flexibility. I think one of the hardest Caprices of all 24, for example, is No. 12. That one is almost never performed because it's so difficult -- it has these very extreme stretches. Probably for Paganini, they were not actually all that difficult, due to the way that his hands worked. His hand was pretty big, but I don't know if it was so much bigger than mine; it wasn't like the hand of a giant. But the fact that his fingers could bend sideways made his reach so much longer still. I actually have a pretty big left hand, I can actually reach a lot, but there are definitely places in these Caprices where I have to jump, where Paganini would have stretched, without any worry."

And how "Italian" are the Caprices?

"I would say the most 'Italian' music that Paganini ever wrote is his Violin Concerto, because of the way the themes work and the orchestration -- it doesn't get more Italian than that!" Hadelich said. Paganini's Italian nature comes out in different ways in the Caprices; for example, "No. 21, which to me sounds like a gondoliere in Venice, singing while rowing the gondola. It's very stunning and sentimental; it's was always one of my favorites. And No. 4 is a very serious composition, but it is also very dramatic and emotional in a way that I think is also pretty typical of this kind of Italian writing."

"And the influence of Rossini and Opera Buffa -- this kind of funny opera -- can be seen in many of the Caprices," Hadelich said. "No. 17, No. 19...a lot of them have moments that are actually pretty hilarious -- if you just don't think about the fact that they're hard! We forget that they're funny because they are just so difficult. But I'm sure that if Paganini performed them, he would have emphasized the charm of them - with a bit of a smile and a wink."

A number of violinists (Rachel Barton Pine and Endre Granat, to name a few) have found a great many problems with the available editions of Paganini's 24 Caprices. Which edition did Hadelich use?

"When I first learned the Caprices, I had one of those older editions, and definitely in every Caprice there are a couple of wrong notes," Hadelich said. "It's quite astonishing, but it's because Paganini never proofread the first edition; he just gave them his manuscript, and that was it. Mistakes that were in the first edition were passed on to the next edition, which added more mistakes, and nobody ever really thought of checking the original. For many years, it was difficult to get a copy of the manuscript, but it's not any more. IMSLP has the facsimile of Paganini's manuscript, and it's pretty clear."

"So I basically looked at that, and I also have the Henle edition, which basically follows the manuscript," Hadelich said. "Looking at the manuscript is very interesting. When you see what Paganini wrote, you can clearly tell: this is clearly an E and not a B, this isn't just an ink smudge; he put it there intentionally. Or in other cases, you can see that maybe it could be interpreted the other way." With the manuscript so easily available, Hadelich recommends that anyone who is studying a Caprice check it. "Most people only work on one Caprice at a time, and they are short pieces, so I really recommend to anyone: just download that PDF and just double-check the Caprice you are playing, and if you are playing anything other than an Urtext edition already, you're bound to find a some surprises."

When it comes to Hadelich's recording, something that might be almost as charming as his playing is the liner notes, which he wrote himself. In them, he took the trouble to say a little something personal about every single Caprice, noting details both musical and technical, for example: "No. 13 is often called the 'Devil's Laugh,' but I find it charming and not at all devilish. If there is a caprice that deserves this title, it would be the more diabolical No. 10, which features extensive use of cackling up-bow staccato." His observations are well worth reading in full.

Coming up later this month for Hadelich is a performance of György Ligeti's 1993 Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony, conducted by Thomas Adès.

"That's something I'd been looking forward to because I'm a huge fan of Thomas Adès, as a composer and also as a conductor," said Hadelich, who was nominated for a Gramophone Award for his 2014 recording of Adès' Violin Concerto "Concentric Paths," paired with the Sibelius Concerto.

"Thomas Adès wrote a new cadenza for the Ligeti, which is probably even harder than the concerto, actually," said Hadelich, who will premiere that cadenza during the Boston Symphony series. The Ligeti Violin Concerto is "a huge work, I think one of the most important ones in the second half of the 20th century," Hadelich said. "Ligeti wrote his violin concerto in 1992, and many other composers were inspired by it, to write their violin concertos -- or their concertos show a lot of influence of the Ligeti, including Thomas Adès' own concerto. It's a wonderful piece, maybe one of Ligeti's most lyrical pieces. Ligeti was severely modernist for so many years, and then his later works were a little bit of a departure. He still uses all of those techniques and has the rhythmic complexity of his earlier works, but there is also a lot of emotion in it and it's very lyrical. The second movement is almost medieval-sounding, it's a very beautiful chant. Some of the orchestra wind players are playing on ocarinas, so it almost sounds like a strange folk music that you never knew existed. There are really stunning moments."

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Click here to purchase Augustin Hadelich's new recording of Nicolo Paganini's 24 Caprices.

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January 9, 2018 at 07:06 AM · I agree with you on playing all the pieces becoming rather monotonous to play and hear in one sitting. Showing contrast rocks!

January 9, 2018 at 07:02 PM · Bravo!

Loved the video and interview write up. Thank you, Laurie (and of course, Augustin).

It was a joy to both rehearse and perform with him as our soloist several years ago (with Longwood Symphony Orchestra).

He's a delightful young man with such talent and pizzazz!

Happy New Year!

Hana Asazuma-Cheng

Belmont, MA


January 9, 2018 at 11:18 PM · He started the caprices at age 9. I'm planning to start them at around 60. Surely I can catch up though. Anything is possible...

January 12, 2018 at 11:51 PM · I met Augustin years ago at Chautauqua during the summer...we were chatting during the rehearsal break about his performance and that he was playing on a 'loaner' from Bein and Fushi, owned by a friend (Clem Arrison )I believe it was the Kwasetter (sp)Strad....I delay'd revealing that for that gig Ilya Kaler was sittin'-in on 2nd soon as I revealed that to Augustin, he looked, gasped and ran to Ilya who was already laughing...such fun to rub-shoulders with the great ones....and to find out their human traits. Ilya is a Paganini Caprice champion....and must be thrilled with the new recording too.

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