Ruggiero Ricci – the Pivotal Violinist

March 5, 2019, 4:43 PM · Laurie Niles’ series of interviews, Violinist.com, Interviews, Vol. I and Vol. II, unlocks a trove of absorbing violinistic treasures. Volume I quickly sounded a personal chordant note with her interview of legendary violinist Ruggiero Ricci. I had met Ricci when he toured South Africa in 1956. But more about that encounter later.

Ricci, who was born in San Bruno, California in 1918, was recognized in his early career as the Paganini specialist. He, as much as anyone, was responsible for disseminating the Paganini repertoire into the 20th century following a period where the music had languished. It was inevitable that once Paganini’s spectacular flash across the violinistic firmament had ended, the European violinists who followed may have eschewed performing his compositions. Unless trotted out as show pieces to display their virtuosity, the prevailing musical world held the notion that as serious music Paganini was not de rigueur. There would certainly have been elements in traditional 19th and early 20th century European musical circles which would have considered that Paganini’s compositions did not measure up musically to those of the ranking masters.

Ricci’s American heritage may have contributed to a lower inhibition threshold than his European counterparts, when it came to performing Paganini’s music. At the same time, he put the music to practical use by cutting his technical teeth on the likes of the 24 Caprices. Here is Laurie quoting Ricci on this subject: "You don’t get technique practicing the pleasant. You get it from practicing the unpleasant. So I forced myself to play the most difficult music."

Ricci could certainly lay claim to donning something of a Paganini mantle with his ground-breaking recording of all 24 Caprices in 1947. As highlighted in the interview, he was very much a pioneer in committing the Caprices to recording en bloc, along with all the other published Paganini works.

Ricci no doubt traded on this specialization. He was able to exploit his prodigious technique and the sparseness of Paganini recorded works at the time to stamp his own métier on the violinistic world. This would perhaps be akin to today’s plethora of great young violinists combing the marketing universe for niches to distinguish themselves from the pack.

Ricci Moto Perpetuo
Sleeve of a 45 rpm record signed by Ricci. The tracks include, inter alia, his rendition of the Moto Perpetuo. The accompanist in these recordings is Louis Persinger, his early teacher.

This Paganini gap in the recorded repertoire was tailor-made for Ricci and his marketing minions. The gap was nowhere more evident than in the Heifetz discography. Here, the only documented Paganini recordings appear to be three of the 24 Caprices, and a 1918 acoustic recording of the Moto Perpetuo. The three caprices give the impression of having been carefully singled out (by Leopold Auer?) from amongst the 24, and suitably embellished with piano accompaniment. The recordings also display the inimitable Heifetz panache for creating exquisite musical gems out of what appears, on the face of it, to be standard virtuoso fare. The selective nature of these three caprices and the unique interpretive treatment seem almost a Heifetz requisite designed to gild the Paganini musical lily for concert program purposes.

It may be noted that before leaving Russia, Heifetz concertized frequently as a youngster playing the Paganini Concerto No 1 (Galina Kopytova: Jascha Heifetz, Early Years in Russia). But no recordings apparently exist. His early programs in the U.S. after his 1917 debut reportedly included the concerto, as well as other Paganini show pieces such as I palpiti (Darius Sarlo, Recital for the Ages, The Strad, November, 2017, p. 33). Why they were never committed to disc is a matter of conjecture. There have been spirited debates on this subject (see, for example, Sam Lee, Jascha Heifetz: Why not Paganini? Violinist.com, July 6, 2006).

Against this backdrop, let us turn the clock back to Ricci’s 1956 tour of South Africa. Ricci’s reputation and his vaunted recordings of the virtuoso works of Paganini and Sarasate preceded this visit. The ads for his Decca recordings which appeared in his concert programs are telling in this regard.

Ricci Decca ad
Ad for Decca Records in Ricci’s programs for his tour of South Africa in 1956. Note the quote from the New York Post linking the Paganini Caprices ("those devils of the fiddle, only for those who dare all …") with Ricci’s virtuosity. This reveals much of the publicist’s thinking at the time.

The publicity certainly worked its magic on me. I really wanted to meet this latter-day Paganini.

Ricci program South Africa
Signed concert program of Ricci performing with the South African Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra on May 27th, 1956. This concert was a tour de force with Ricci playing the Beethoven before intermission, and the Tchaikovsky after intermission.

Despite my being a teenager with no credentials, I managed to arrange to meet Ricci at his downtown Johannesburg hotel. So, clutching an armful of his LP recordings I went to his hotel room. I happened to have my Postacchini violin with me, which he examined with interest, then asked me to play something. I was not prepared for this and was on the spot. My mind raced. I figured, this is Ruggiero Ricci, the Paganini exponent of the time, the Paganini devotee who owned the Paganini repertoire. So, unencumbered by experience or judgement, I launched into the Moto Perpetuo. This would have been one of the more workmanlike versions Ricci had ever heard and certainly would not have cracked the four-minute barrier. After I finished, he said: "Can you play some Bach?"

Ruminating afterwards on this request for Bach, it struck me then that from my perspective, and maybe from his as well, Ricci’s publicists had perhaps done their work too well. Whatever mantle Ricci may initially have assumed, he might have been obliged to engineer something of a pivot to cast it off and establish himself as the great all-round artist that he truly was.

Ricci Paganini LP
Decca LP of the Paganini Concerto No 2 in B Minor signed by Ricci at his Johannesburg hotel in May, 1956. The Concerto No 1 is on the reverse side.

At the time of Laurie’s interview (2007) Ricci was already 89 years old and no longer playing. Here was an elder statesman of the 20th century with a 75-year concert career under his belt, the interview providing a window into the Golden Era of the last century. So, it was interesting to note Ricci’s observations on early influences on his playing. As an 11-year-old prodigy, he had played for Kreisler and Thibaud. He noted too how in his formative years he had emulated both Heifetz and Kreisler. This is an interesting take on style development since teachers more often than not will consider such emulation a no-no. Ricci goes on to clarify that his style, while perhaps a composite of Heifetz and Kreisler influences, was not a slavish copy of either. His rationale for the inevitability of such developmental influences results from very early listening to these giants, much as speech and language is learned from copying the linguistic environment. Shades of the Shinichi Suzuki philosophy.

Another fascinating feature of the interview is Ricci’s observations on some of the younger generation, notably Vadim Repin, Leonidas Kavakos, Gil Shaham and Hilary Hahn. I was particularly intrigued by his reference to Hilary Hahn, whose playing he likened to that of Henryk Szeryng. Now, here are two violinists universally admired for the depth of their musical and lyrical interpretations. Ricci’s comment on Hilary Hahn is rather interesting since her interpretations stand in marked contrast to his own. This is especially noteworthy if one compares their recordings, say, of the Paganini Concerto No 1. Ricci provides the more traditional virtuoso version - the conventional wisdom if you will - while Hahn, still the acme of harnessed perfection in tossing off Paganini’s technical challenges, has yet managed to plumb new depths of musicality in this work. How Hilary Hahn was able to breathe fresh musical insight into this pyrotechnical warhorse would be a fascinating study in and of itself (her recording of the work has been reviewed in depth on classicalmusicblog.com.)

Another notable highlight of Laurie’s interview with Ricci is the discussion of his unorthodox views on left-hand technique. This provides much food for thought while serving also to prompt recollection of my teacher in South Africa in the 1950s, one Bronislav Fryling (see my previous blog about Erica Morini, in which I mention Fryling). He and Ricci duly became firm friends to the point where they were on a familiar "Roger and Bron" basis. This is also where I first learned of the glissando approach to left-hand technique, an approach that Fryling referred to as "pivoting".

Ricci’s book Ricci on Glissando: The Shortcut to Violin Technique was devoted to description of left-hand technique which, as represented by the publisher, was designed to aid mastery of "some of Paganini’s most difficult passages." In this approach, the left-hand is anchored not in the usual 1st position with hand back at the scroll but rather with the hand touching the body of the violin. In this position, and with thumb fixed, conventional shifting is supplanted or augmented by using the wrist as a fulcrum about which the hand can arc back or forward to provide coverage up and down the fingerboard. Peter Charles, in his Violinist.com blog about Ricci on Glissando has described the motions as creeping rather than the jumping associated with shifting.

Ricci maintained that prior to the invention of the chin rest by Louis Spohr, this left-hand position was, in any event, needed to hold the violin up. Based also on fingerings apparently used by Paganini, this would have been the technique used by the legend himself. In this, Paganini would have been aided by the particular physical attributes with which he was endowed, notably his ultra-long fingers which are said to have enabled him to span three octaves over the four strings with the hand anchored in a fixed position.

It was indeed a privilege to meet Ruggiero Ricci and to have been able to observe at first hand his deployment of this technical style during his performances in South Africa.

BELOW: Ruggiero Ricci plays Paganini's "Le Streghe" (Witch's Dance) with Orchestra Sinfonica Di Torino Della RAI, Piero Bellugi, conductor, in Turin, Italy, April 3, 1970.

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Replies

March 6, 2019 at 10:02 PM · "As an 11-year-old prodigy, he had played for Kreisler and Thibaud." He was not much older when he spent an afternoon at Albert Einstein's summer house at the outskirts of Berlin - and I bet, he did not only play for Einstein but also together with Einstein. The original guestbook with his entry is held by the Leo Baeck Inst., New York.

March 7, 2019 at 12:43 AM · I had the great privilege of sitting in a front row seat to see Mr Ricci perform Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 in Miami, FL during the 1980s. He was more than a mere technician, he was a magician. He wasn't known for probing musical insights or tonal opulence. His sound was wobbly at times. Yet, he was an amazing violinist who took astonishing risks (today's fiddlers are way too careful) and was able to re-animate the "spirit" of Paganini himself. It was much better seeing him live than listening to his recordings. His unique artistry cannot be taught. I was able to meet him backstage after the concert and was shocked by how tiny he was. He barely measured 5 feet in height. Yet he was an unforgettable giant. He was very amiable toward me and I still regret not bringing my camera that day!

March 7, 2019 at 04:22 PM · As a 'budding' violinist, I knew the theme of Caprice #24...my parents bought the complete set of 24 for me.....at that stage, I thought they were written in mythical style.....shortly after, Woodrow Wilson Rich (Ricci's birth name) came to Buffalo NY and played all 24 from memory....after intermission he did the 6 Bach sonatas....needless, I wanted to scrap the fiddle and take-up accordion..

March 7, 2019 at 10:14 PM · What a WONDERFUL post, Michael. Thank you for your effort, combining the personal with the documentarian! My favorite recording of Ricci has been the Glory of Cremona, which I can still hear in my mind's ear any time!

Thank you again!

March 8, 2019 at 01:20 PM · My father remembers seeing Ricci many times in Taiwan. This would have been in the 1950's and 1960's. Few first rate violinists would come to Taiwan and if so only if they were performing in Japan and it was on their way. I often wonder if he just loved to play and show people what he had discovered. Thank you for your wonderful article!

March 9, 2019 at 06:58 PM · Thank you, one and all, for taking the time to comment and for adding your engaging observations and personal experiences with the great Ruggiero Ricci. They all serve to amplify the aura and our memorable recollections of this unique violinist.

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