Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Taking a break from a violinist's showcase: Paganini Caprices work their manifold magic in this version for flute

Having recently experienced a surfeit of Paganini Caprices, op. 1, for solo violin during the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, I've had an understandable desire to venture some distance from that exciting contest's required repertoire.

Fiddle respite: Marina Piccinini's flute
I didn't budge far at all, however, with "24 Capricci," flutist Marina Piccinini's arrangement and performances of these pinnacles of violin virtuosity by the legendary Niccolo Paganini (Avie, 2 discs).  Nonetheless, the canny ingenuity of this version — and the opportunity to revel in peerless flute sound instead of the wonted fiddle originals — had me hooked.

Piccinini's adaptation is winning and sensible in making the necessary alterations. Chords become arpeggios, and octaves (as in No. 3 in E minor) are divided between prefixed grace notes — sometimes the upper note, sometimes the lower — and the note in the same pitch-class. Her dynamics are always an aspect of these performances' charm, and her phrasing is artfully modified to accommodate breathing without marring the music's flow.

Sometimes a harmony note in the original is left out if an uninterruptedly smooth line in one register would better suit the music. There is little impression one gets of "simplification," however. This is first-rate flute playing, and sometimes the wizardly dispatch of the rapid sections — as in that of No. 4 in C minor — makes the slow main sections even more lyrical and haunting.

There is such an idiomatic transfer achieved in these performances that you can hear some of them, like No. 14 in E-flat, almost as if they were always supposed to be flute pieces. Piccinini is attentive to the full range of flute timbres: It's amazing to hear her sound like the composer-requested flute (no problem!) in No. 9 in E, then give a credible imitation of the horns Paganini stipulated in the answering phrases: She comes up with a heavier, heartier, woodland sound for contrast.

Everyone will want to know, of course, how this enterprising flutis does with No. 24 in A minor. The time-honored theme's variations are nicely distinguished from one another by tone color and tempo. There is ferocity, modesty, gracefulness and suggestions of flight inflecting the mood as the deathless music goes by.

Even violin fanatics may find themselves slipping these discs into the player next time they want to hear the Caprices, rather than their favorite Michael Rabin, James Ehnes or whoever.