PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- "All that great violinists do, he did," a New York critic wrote of a 1929 performance by Ruggiero Ricci.
High praise for an 11-year-old "wunderkind." Too bad it reads like a career epitaph. Indeed, a career as a prodigy is doomed to end: Grow up and it's done.
"When I was nine-, ten-years-old, they said I was a genius," said Ricci, now 89, sitting at the round kitchen table in his Palm Springs, Calif., home. His wife of 32 years, Julia, sits near. "When I was 12, 13, I was a has-been. In my teens, I was nothing. I wasn't a grown-up artist, and I wasn't a prodigy. Those were bad years. No matter what I did, they criticized me."
But a prodigy can grow into an artist, and that is what Ricci did.
At 89, Ricci sits atop a mountain of achievement. And though he has retired (at age 85) from performing, he still teaches privately, gives master classes and has recently published a new violin technique book called Ricci on Glissando.
Ricci began playing the violin at age six, with Louis Persinger. Later teachers included Michel Piastro, Paul Stassevitch and Georg Kulenkampf.
It was during his difficult teen-age years, neither still a prodigy nor yet an artist, when Ricci plowed into the Paganini Caprices, territory largely unexplored at the time.
"I decided that the only thing I could do was to play more than the other guy, so I did," Ricci said. "To get a lot of technique, it's rather unpleasant. 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."
For the caprices, Ricci went to the source of this fiendishly difficult music, the urtext; Paganini's unedited version. And while the 21st-century violinist has the benefit of a wealth of editions, recordings, and experts in the field of Paganini, Ricci did not. He dissected these works himself, and fit them into his own hands.
In fact, Ricci was the first violinist to record all 24 Paganini Caprices, in 1947. He went on to record all the available violin works of the composer, including five more recordings of the 24 Caprices, one on Paganini's own Guarneri, which by the way, Ricci said "was the loudest fiddle I ever played on.
"It has a very strong sound," Ricci said. "It was very weird. They just take you to a little room, they take it out, and the guard is standing there, and you can't practice on it," he said. "It was a very difficult fiddle to play. It's quite a large fiddle, it has high ribs. It's a hard violin to play."
Ricci's recording of the Caprices on the violin known as the Cannon is not his favorite. "I don't recommend recording on a fiddle that you've never played on, I don't care what the fiddle is," Ricci said.
Ricci also performed the U.S. premieres of both Paganini's Fourth and Sixth Concerti, and his repertoire included about 50 of the major violin concertos. He premiered the violin concertos of modern composers Alberto Ginastera (1963) and Gottfried von Einem (1970), and throughout his long life he performed more than 5,000 concerts in 65 countries. His discography is staggering, with more than 500 recordings on more than a dozen record labels.
Does he have a favorite, of his own recordings?
"That's a little bit hard to say," Ricci said. "There's a difference in your style when you were 20 years old or when you were 40 years old. There should be a change. If you're the same, that's a bad sign. Your basic style doesn't change, because everyone has his own characteristics. You shouldn't push your style, shouldn't try to exhibit your style, because if you have one, it's going to come out anyway. You shouldn't feature it.
"For instance, Kreisler, when he was young, had some great recordings," Ricci said. "When he got older, there's much more sugar in his playing. He was a very sweet guy,and it comes out in his playing. He's still a great violinist, but I prefer the young Kreisler."
In fact, Ricci played for Kreisler in 1929. "He came to hear me with Jacques Thibaud. The two of them came together and I played them the A major Mozart Concerto. Kreisler liked me, he picked me up in his arms. I was 11, but they used to lie about my age, I was supposed to be nine.
"You can always add two years to any prodigy's age, from the time of Mozart. They always took two years off. Even Heifetz, only he never admitted it. Heifetz says he was born in 1901. But I talked to Mishakof, who was was the concertmaster with Toscanini, and he knew Heifetz. He said Heifetz was born in 1899, not '01, like he said."
Kreisler and Heifetz were the violinists Ricci most emulated during his formative years, he said.
"There are many great violinists. But I would say Kreisler was representative, and Heifetz was representative. They're both different, but they both have a stamp, or a style," Ricci said. "I don't care what anyone tells you, when you learn anything, you copy. If you didn't copy, then you wouldn't learn to speak Chinese. You hear Chinese, you speak Chinese. If a gypsy hears another gypsy, he's going to play in a gypsy manner. You can't help being influenced by whatever you hear. So sometimes we're a composite of different influences. I'm a composite of Kreisler influence, Heifetz influence. Those two. I think people recognize my style, that it's not a copy of Heifetz, or of Kreisler. But they did influence me."
"In style, (Hilary Hahn) is the closest to Henryk Szering," Ricci said. "They both played according to the urtext. They both play very correctly. Not an over-stylistic, not a terribly strong stamp. Because a strong stamp is, in a way, sort of a distortion. If it weren't a distortion it wouldn't be a stamp.
"Kavakos, he's a very good violinist," Ricci said. "He has an architectural kind of style -- a strong structure, a pulse. The structure has its sharp, focal points. He's not slithering around; it's a definite viewpoint, but it's architectural in character."
His new book, "Ricci on Glissando," is an elegant explanation of advanced lefthand technique, with exercises and advice on how to cultivate a fixed-thumb position by practicing various glissando scales in single notes and double-stops. Ricci compares modern fingerings with suggestions about what fingering would look like using the glissando technique he describes. There are also some wonderful and random pearls of wisdom assembled in the back of the book. Editor Gregory H. Zayia, a PhD in chemistry from the University of Chicago and amateur violinist, performed the difficult task of organizing Ruggiero's lifetime of violin wisdom into this book, Julia Ricci said.
"With the invention of the chinrest, we lost one of the best features of the old system, the glissando technique – which must be studied if one is to ever acquire true mastery of the fingerboard," Ricci says in the preface to the book. (A "glissando" is simply sliding the lefthand fingers, instead of putting down one finger after another.)
"To be able to play a scale with one finger, a glissando, that's difficult. So you should practice glissando scales -- you don't need to practice the other ones, that's easy," Ricci said to me. “You don't have to practice the easy ones, you practice the hard ones."
"You need to learn the art of shifting," Ricci said. "When the thumb and first finger go [down the fingerboard] together, that's a shift. When the first finger goes [down the fingerboard] and the thumb remains [against the ribs], that's not a shift. The shortcut is the glissando."
This assumes one has made friends – good friends -- with the traditional scales that require shifting. The book is not a wholesale rejection of modern technique, nor of modern inventions such as the chinrest and shoulder rest, Ricci said.
"These are conclusions I came to over a lifetime of study," Ricci said of the glissando and fixed-thumb techniques described in his book. "Ideally, you would first learn the old system, which was glissando and the fixed thumb. In reality, however, most will learn shifting, which is entrenched, and then glissando and the fixed thumb."
The invention of the chinrest was unfortunate for the way it did away with a certain approach to the violin, he said. Ricci's book describes the different fingerboard mentality of the pre-chinrest violinist.
"This was a terrible invention," said Ricci, pointing to the chinrest on my violin, which he held throughout our interview. "Before the chinrest, they held the violin with the left hand. If you didn't hold it, it would fall on the floor, right? But when the chinrest was invented, it became chin-held, and consequently you lost contact. When it became chin-held then you started playing the trombone [sliding the left hand up and down]."
"Before the chinrest, there was no such thing as position change. There was no first-, second-, third-position," Ricci said. "When Paganini said, 'There's only one scale, and one position,' he meant that the position was here [by the ribs], not here [by the scroll]. This is no-man's-land, out here [by the scroll]. They stayed here [by the ribs]. When you make a jump, I keep my thumb [by the ribs]; I've got one foot on the ground. I make a jump, and I'm making an arc [with the left hand]. If I do this, I don't lose track."
I asked Ricci, should people go throw their chinrests and shoulder rests in a lake?
"No," he said. "You can't make a general rule. Some people have a very short neck, some people have a very long neck. What are they going to do? But the lift should be on the top," with a higher chinrest rather than a higher shoulder rest. "If you put the lift on the bottom, you are raising the violin. The higher you raise the violin, the higher you have to raise your bow arm. And the higher you have to hold your bow arm, it becomes that much more difficult. Theoretically, it would be better to hold the violin here," Ricci said, holding the violin down on his chest. "But we have nothing to hold it way down here."
A Violinist.com member asked what two exercises Ricci would recommend for sustaining technique, one exercise for the right hand and one for the left. For the left hand:
For the right hand, he said it's very difficult to break it down to one exercise, as the right hand must produce a variety of strokes: legato, stopped strokes and spiccato. He did recommend playing ricochet: two up and two down, then three up and three down, four up and four down.
Both hands have very different tasks in violin playing, and it's quite a feat just to pull it off:
The lefthand techniques Ricci suggests are truly quite different from the way most modern violinists play, and putting these suggestions into practice takes some experimentation, said violinist David Yonan, who has known Ricci for 20 years, since playing for him as a 12-year-old at his first international master class in 1987 Berlin.
More recently, Yonan took his own students from Chicago to play for Ricci in Palm Springs. While preparing them for the trip, he tried showing them how to do the glissando technique. In all honesty, "it was hard for the kids to accept his approach," Yonan said.
Yonan, who has played all the Paganini Caprices since age 13 and has studied them with several different mentors, including Roland and Almita Vamos, feels that what Ricci says about the lefthand thumb is invaluable. "I really think Paganini played it that way," Yonan said.
The Ricci approach comes best into focus when it is applied to the most advanced violin repertoire and employed by the most advanced violinists. This means that for most violinists, it is an understanding that will require work, experience and practice – but in time, he said he hopes its advantages will be recognized for teaching beginners.
As Ricci told me, "To improve your technique, you have to try for the impossible, in order to make the possible possible."
Ricci plays the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto:
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