Richibi’s Weblog

Just another weblog

Category: Paganini

Natalia Sokolovskaya

though there have been gems among
the performances presented during
Stage l of the 14th Arthur Rubinstein
International Piano Master Competition
in Stage ll each contestant has been for
me outstanding, I’ve now seen six of
the 16 remaining contenders out of the
original 36, 20 are gone, cast away by
the 7 judges

Natalia Sokolovskaya had mightily
impressed me at Stage l with,
especially, her own 8 Variations
on a Theme of Paganini
” (at 15:00
minutes on the tape)
, you’ll remember

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on the
same theme, but for entire orchestra,
Sokolovskaya writes hers for piano
alone, the original theme, from
Paganini’s 24th Caprice, had been
of course for violin

at Stage ll her Rachmaninov First
Sonata (at 20:00 minutes)

transcendent, surely definitive, this
is the one I’m going to remember

her Spanish pieces (at 10:00), a
couple of compositions by Albéniz

are a wonderful break from the often
very abstract other works on offer,
with their immediately captivating,
beguiling, indeed seductive, rhythms

she even makes the very trite
“Reflections on Love” (at 00:00)
, a

condition of the competition, credible,
by spacing its interchangeable
movements, pausing between them,
letting them breathe, in order to
separate the varied “Reflections”,
instead of stringing them all together
as a continuous, rather than discrete
elements of a, considered whole, as
all the other performers have to date
reflexively done

no one has written anything pertinent
about love, musically, since Chopin,
with the exception of often enough
Rachmaninov, to presume to
significantly comment on love is, to
my mind, pretentious, calling for a
fall, this composer is no exception,
her thoughts are to be expected, love
is atonal, arhytmic, loud, soft, tender,
tempestuous, strident, placating

but everyone already knew that

Sokolovskaya gives the “Reflections”
dignity nevertheless despite their
overt pretensions

a recital to write home about


Liszt – piano concerto no 2 in A major‏

since discovering Tamás Érdi, feral hands,
uncommonly hirsute, but uncovering the
soul of a poet, an angel in wolf’s clothing,
a satyr, without a flute but, at the piano,
I’ve been hooked, combined with Liszt he
is again irresistible, not to mention totally

you’ll find Liszt quite a bit like Beethoven,
but more bombastic than philosophical,
style trumps substance, Liszt was a
show-off, a pianistic Paganini

stylistic flourishes abound in the hands
of a deft, however uninformed might he
or she be, technical wizard, it doesn’t
take an Einstein, in other words, to be
a Puccini

and Liszt is a Puccini, who delivers
likewise, and for the very ages

note the same intensity as Beethoven
in Liszt, much of the same musical
idiosyncrasies, but with more dramatic,
late Romantic, alterations of tempo, he’ll
milk a phrase before returning to a more
Classical, which is to say, less elastic

his extemporisations are also less
ruminative, more serendipitously
motivated, like jazz, Liszt wants
primarily to dazzle, kick around,
not instruct

and he does, masterfully, just that

here’s Alfred Brendel doing an alternate,
wholly incandescent version
I couldn’t
at all leave out

here’s Julie Andrews giving her take on
the history of jazz


Paganini’s 24 “Caprices”‏

having heard one Caprice of Paganini it’s not
much of a stretch to want to hear them all, and 
to my delight and utter astonishment they are
available presently on the Internet in a
presentation so extraordinary it seems 
accorded by the very gods, the violinist, an
unchastened Prometheus this one, Alexander
Markov, delivers unadulterated fire, he is, it is, 
astounding, nothing short of outright Olympian
you’ve already heard him play the 24th, here are
the Capricesare for Paganini what the
“Études”, opus 10, opus 25were for Chopin,
each was exploring the intricacies of his own
particular instrument, which results to date
remain the standard, the Everest to be
conquered, of either by any aspirant
how do you keep your knees from knocking,
first of all, up there, in those headlights, I
would wonder of the performing artist, the
rest being of course, I’m aware, pure but
metaphysical merely physics, moderately
only incomprehensible  
Alexander Markov is fully at home in these
pieces, making them electric but for a picayune
quibble, being of Russian extraction he is not
the Paganini I would want him to be, sensuous
and seductive instead of the more Nordic
commanding and fiery, the Mediterranean
Paganini was famously, after all, a Lothario,
a Casanova, with an especially lubricious,  
apparently, fiddle
Paganini, incidentally, wrote the Caprices 
between 1805 and 1809, smack in the middle
of the Romantic Period, you can hear the altered
audience in the distant concert hall, surely not
the aristocrats who would’ve found this music
presumptuous, impudent, in their privileged
salons, but throngs of the newly franchised –
note the French root in the word “franchised”,
probably stemming from the very French
Revolution – who were looking towards their
bold and liberated future
the music is strictly rhythmic, which is to say,
still Classical, keys don’t change within the
individual pieces, the harmonies are still
sufficiently tonal not to distract, though the
melodies are not simple to follow, the stage
is being set for more abstract stuff, Beethoven,
for instance, writing at the same time, being
much less eccentric, and again maybe less
Mediterranean in his own always nevertheless
beguiling flights of Romanticism  
psst: the performance takes place at the
          in, I believe, 1989, for your info 
          note, incidentally, the white tie and tails,
          an aristocratic, which is to say, atavistic, 
          even then, notion
          we will always, all of us, conspire to 
          seem noble

“Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”/”Variations on a theme of Paganini”‏

a friend wrote me, after my most recent instalment
about musical variations
, a few very probing

I delight in sharing them



An interesting counterpoint to your comment about variations being an “intellectual” form of composition. This is
only in the best of cases — the cases that have survived to this day.

In the period in which I centred my dissertation studies — the 1820s and 1830s in Paris — the bane of reviewers’
existence was the steady stream of variations for flute, for piano, for oboe, for every conceivable instrument from
every possible performer who wanted to make his mark as a “composer” as well as an instrumentalist. It was,
shall we say, a form of composition “light,” something that minor talents could write if they weren’t capable of
writing a longer form, such as a sonata.

And yet we have impressive sets of variations in the canon today, from composers such as Bach (the Goldbergs),
Haydn (his delicious piano set in F minor), Mozart (Ah vous dirai-je, maman), Beethoven (the epic C minor
variations that you rightly point to), Schumann (Symphonic Etudes), Schubert (last movement of the Trout Quintet),
Brahms (the Haydn & Paganini sets), Liszt (his Totentanz for piano & orchestra), Tschikovsky (Variations on a
Rococco Theme for cello & orchestra), Rachmaninoff (Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), Dohnanyi (Variations
on a Nursery Rhyme), and Lutoslawski (Paganini Variations for 2 Pianos).

As you can see, the most fertile source of variations has been Paganini’s 24 Caprices, to which Marc Hamelin has
added his own contirbution:

The form has come a long way …



I will gratefully accept implicit acknowledgment,
in his having confirmed me in my assertion, that
variations “in the best of cases” burn bright, are
“rendered transcendental”, timeless, much as my
friend states, “This is only in the best of cases”, he
says, dotting his contention with a peremptory
“only”, and I’m just fine with that, especially in
the light of so many, as he lists, “only{s}”

thanks, Donald

meanwhile the addition of a most recent set
of variations, this one on a theme of Paganini
played right here at the Chan Centre in
Vancouver by the pianist who composed it,
Marc-André Hamelin, delights and astounds

it is the same theme, incidentally, as in
the wondrous Rachmaninoff composition
for piano and orchestra, essentially a
piano concerto but without the pauses
that would indicate alternate movements,
a unified musical concept therefore is in
order for its name, Rachmaninoff called it
his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini“,
though he could’ve easily called it his
Variations on a Theme of Paganini“,
for being just that, a set of variations

I even called them his Variations for
years before smartening up, though I
don’t remember the exact date

rhapsody is a much more Romantic term,
you’ll consider, and if Rachmaninoff was
anything at all it was ever Romantic, despite
being nearly a century late, the Rhapsody
was written in 1934, one of many similar
musical atavisms

his Variations follow the Classical fast,
slow, fast template, in passing, variations 1
to 10 are fast, 11 to 18 slow, positively
melting, in fact, unforgettable, the rest, 19
to 24, again fast, in the very manner of the
concerto, just to confuse you, to push
the limits musically of evidently ultimately
arbitrary notions of form, another
particularly philosophical investigation


psst: here’s the original theme of Paganini,
his 24th, and last, Caprice