San Francisco readers may recall that, this past October, violinist Augustin Hadelich returned to perform as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony. His selection could not have been more mainstream: Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 concerto in E minor. Nevertheless, working with conductor Krzysztof Urbański, Hadelich won over his audience by demonstrating that even the most familiar compositions can allow for interpretations that were fresh and new without coming across as provocatively destructive.
His biographical statement in the program book explained that he had recently signed an exclusive recording contract with Warner Classics and that the first recording to be released under that contract would be the complete set of 24 caprices for solo violin that Niccolò Paganini published as his Opus 1. Here in San Francisco Hadelich offered a “sneak preview” of the recording by performing the 21st of those caprices as his post-concerto encore. Even without taking advance publicity into account, this could not have been a better selection, since Hadelich had just managed to bring a compelling sense of intimacy to his treatment of the cadenzas that Mendelssohn had written out (in full detail) for his violin concerto. Hadelich’s encore resonated with that same capacity for intimacy.
Warner will release its recording of Hadelich playing Opus 1 in its entirety this coming Friday. As usual, Amazon.com is processing pre-orders for those wishing be “first on the block” to experience Hadelich’s approach to the full set. While I have absolutely no skills at playing any bowed string instrument, I have had a long-standing interest in this collection, going all the way back to buying the Turnabout reissue of Ruggiero Ricci recording the complete Opus 1 set for Vox in 1975. I even made it a point to add the CD reissue of that recording on the alto label to my current collection.
Paganini clearly wanted to demonstrate that these caprices were more than just finger-busting challenges for a violinist wishing to establish his/her reputation. He wanted to appeal to the serious listener as much as to the ambitious performer. Thus, one can enjoy not only the technical challenges but also Paganini’s attention to matters of harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, and, in the final caprice, the diverse scope of variations on a theme. That latter element would have a major impact on composers who were not necessarily focused all the time on the violin, such as Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Nevertheless, I am not sure that this is the sort of album that allows for beginning-to-end listening. Hadelich’s CD lasts a little more than 80 minutes, and that is quite an interval of time during which to endure one display of virtuoso technique after another. As a listener I prefer to approach Opus 1 as a box of truly fine chocolates. Gobbling them all up as soon as you open the box is virtually an insult to the chocolatier. Much more is to be gained for savoring them one at a time, each distanced far enough from the others to avoid external influences.
Mind you, this album was the product of only nine days of recording sessions; so Hadelich himself was not quite as strong an advocate of distance as I have become! Nevertheless, each caprice is the well-crafted effort of a violin virtuoso who cares as much about listening as he does about technical execution. This is a must-listen recording that will probably appeal to those familiar with the selections as much as those just getting to know many (if not most) of them.