Paganini: 24 Caprices

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WORKS: 24 Caprices
PERFORMER: James Ehnes (violin)


Once considered borderline-unplayable, Paganini’s 24 solo violin Caprices have in the past half century become essential learning for the aspiring virtuoso.

During the 1960s, Ruggiero Ricci (Decca) and Michael Rabin (Angel/EMI) held sway with their trailblazing recordings of these fiendishly difficult microcosms, to be joined by Salvatore Accardo (DG) and Itzhak Perlman (EMI) in the ’70s.

For rapid-fire accuracy and ear-tweaking interpretative whimsy, Schlomo Mintz (DG) set the bar at a new high level in the early ’80s, while for luxuriousness of timbre and effortless style, Midori (Sony) and James Ehnes (Telarc) still hold sway.  

Now Ehnes has returned to these coruscating ‘finger-breakers’ (as Ricci once described them), playing with the same glowing tonal finesse as before, but with a new lyrical intensity that gives each piece its own special sense of musical identity.

Whereas back in 2002 one was instinctively drawn towards his ringing octaves and seamless rapid-fire spiccato, this time he presents us with a series of poetic metaphors which help draw us into the purely musical experience.

Typical of this change in emphasis is the quick-fire interfacing of leaping dotted semiquaver and triplet rhythms in the central Presto section of No. 11, which now possess an overtly playful, dancing character that the earlier version rather lacked.


He is also one of the very few players brave enough to take on the moto perpetuo semiquavers of No. 5 using Paganini’s original, merciless 3-plus-1 bowing patterns. Beguilingly played and expertly engineered, this deserves a place on anyone’s shortlist of the Caprices. Julian Haylock