“Where our reason ends,” the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer once wrote, “there Paganini begins.”
Such was the wizardry of the famed violinist from Genoa that even rational people assumed him to be a practitioner of the dark arts. Thin, gloomy, and shrouded in mystery, Niccolò Paganini performed feats of virtuosity unheard of in his day. Only an allegiance with the devil, many bewildered observers believed, could explain the ease with which he leapt from note to note, maniacally crossing strings, spinning out passages of two- and three- and four-note chords, negotiating wide intervals like octaves and tenths, and plucking rapid passages of pizzicato not with his right hand but with his left.
He was a prolific composer as well as a performer, with all of his pieces, from the grandest concerto to the most intimate miniature, testing a violinist’s abilities as few other works in the repertoire do. Perhaps the apex of his oeuvre are the 24 Caprices written between 1802 and 1817, virtuoso etudes that stand like a series of daunting mountain peaks. Many violinists have recorded the Caprices: Michael Rabin and Salvatore Accardo, to name two of my favorites. Before them, however, before Ivry Gitlis and Shlomo Mintz, Itzhak Perlman and Midori, Julia Fischer, James Ehnes, and Leonidas Kavakos—before any of them, there was Ruggiero Ricci.
Ricci, who died in 2012, would have turned 100 this year. He was born in California to an American mother and an Italian father. His given name was Woodrow Wilson Rich—a name for an aspiring bank executive or politician, though perhaps not the most auspicious moniker for a potential virtuoso violinist. Or so Pietro Ricci concluded when it became clear that his prodigiously talented son had a future on the world’s stages. The violinist may have gone by Roger all his life, but to the world, he was always Ruggiero.
He took lessons at first with Elizabeth Lackey, assistant to Louis Persinger, the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, and later with Persinger himself. (Another Bay Area child prodigy under Persinger’s tutelage: Yehudi Menuhin). Ricci made his recital debut at the age of 10 and appeared with the New York Philharmonic, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a year later. And although he embarked on a flourishing international career as a teenager, he knew as he matured that certain aspects of his art were lacking. Many years later, in an article for the British monthly magazine The Strad, Ricci wrote:
I had a sensational debut but after that people started to say that I had the wrong teachers. They said I wasn’t as good as I used to be. They criticised everything I did so I made up my mind to show them that I was as talented as they had said I was before. When you’re nine or ten you’re a genius and then when you’re thirteen or fourteen you’re nothing. These were difficult years and I made up my mind that I was going to be a violinist.
If he was truly going to attain the heights he desired, if he was to master all the intricate possibilities of violin technique, he knew he’d have to conquer Paganini. He knew, moreover, that he would have to teach himself. “I learnt more about technique from Paganini than I did from any of my teachers,” Ricci wrote. “There was a time when I played through the 24 Caprices every morning—it would take me one hour and five minutes.”
During the Second World War, Ricci was designated an “entertainment specialist” in the Army Air Forces. Without a piano or an orchestra to accompany him, he played solo violin music—by Paganini, Bach, Bartók, and others—for the troops. In 1947, Ricci traveled to the Decca Records studio in London to make the first recording of the 24 Caprices. The works had been recorded before (by Ossy Renardy) in an arrangement for violin and piano, but never in their original form. Ricci had just turned 30, and the two LPs that he cut were a landmark. During the course of his life, he set down several other versions of these pieces, but this first recording still has a certain magic and daring, with Ricci pushing his spectacular technique right to the edge.
Listen to the way he negotiates all of Paganini’s pitfalls, playing passages of thirds, octaves, and tenths with perfect intonation (Caprices 2, 8, 12, 13, and 17, among others); vaulting across wide intervals during daredevil runs (No. 22); managing a flurry of left-hand pizzicato (No. 24) or a seemingly endless and impossible number of trills (No. 3 and 6). Listen, as well, to the sheer velocity and accuracy of his finger work—in the Caprice No. 5, the shimmering sequence of rising arpeggios and falling scales is something to behold. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ricci’s technique, however, is his astonishing bow control. His ricochet bowing (Nos. 1, 5)—the act of casually throwing the bow across the four strings to produce a series of quick, crisply articulated notes—is almost frenzied but ever accurate. The same is true of his up-bow staccato bowing (Nos. 7 and 21), with each note clear and brittle, the cumulative effect almost dizzying.
It isn’t all tricks and flicks, however. In the Caprice No. 4, Ricci plays the passages in C minor with such pathos and involvement that I find myself, for just a second, forgetting about the technique involved, and I’m reminded that Paganini’s music is real music, all that nimble athleticism and speed tempered by many emotional, delicate moments, too, passages meant to be sung from the heart, like an aria from Rossini.
Whenever Ricci felt, during his long career, that his technique was flagging, he always went back to Paganini, as if returning to a string player’s boot camp. He did not, however, wish to be known as a Paganini specialist. Contrary to common perception, he played a repertoire ranging beyond the showpieces of Paganini, Henryk Wieniawski, and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, taking in everything from Bach to 20th-century pieces by Alberto Ginastera and Gottfried von Einem. Fair enough. But to have mastered so thrilling and spectacular a repertory is no mere circus trick, and we should remember that the word virtuoso comes from two Latin words, one meaning excellence, but the other meaning virtuous. Listen to any of Ricci’s Paganini recordings—accounts of some of the most difficult music ever written—and you’ll hear many virtues indeed. A century after his birth, very few other artists have done it better.
Listen to Ruggiero Ricci’s 1947 recording of the Paganini Caprices:
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