AOM Logo February 1999

Paganini's Dreams

Ruggiero Ricci, violin
Brooks Smith, piano

John Marks Records JMR 11

Playing Time: 41:41

Anthony Kershaw

Record Cover

John Marks' record company has ventured a little further afield than usual with its latest release, Paganini's Dreams. Principally, Mr. Marks has released recordings of his two favorite string artists, violinist Arthur Delmoni and cellist Nathaniel Rosen. In Paganini's Dreams, he enlists the talents of the San Francisco-born, American-trained Ruggiero Ricci, one of the titans of twentieth century violin playing. From Ricci's early mono Decca recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, to the latest of four landmark recordings of the Paganini Caprices, his recorded legacy is representative of the quintessential American virtuoso.

The wistful title of the CD is appropriate to the style of performances. However, fireworks and virtuosic flights of fancy do interrupt Ricci's enchanting style at times, these allowing the listener to experience dreams of a more intense nature. The program includes several of Paganini's Caprices arranged with piano accompaniment (by such luminaries as Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler and Polish composer Karol Szymanowski), solos from Franz Lehar's 1925 operetta, Paganini, and Kreisler's arrangement of the eighteenth variation of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Even at the ripe young age of seventy, Ricci makes quick work of much of the repertoire - he never sounds blasé and his much-lauded trickery is still there. Unfortunately, a few high-flying sustained passages tax his bow arm with the resultant wobbly intonation. Ricci is heard to best effect on my favorite selection, Souvenir de Paganini (actually, variations on Carnival of Venice). It is played in vintage fashion. From his dazzling left-hand pizzicato to the lovely closing, the listener is treated to virtuosity from a formidable talent. The Caprices, in various guises, are lovely, too. I prefer the Caprices in their original form; nonetheless, the piano accompaniments add color and depth to Ricci's still gorgeous sound.

Kavi Alexander originally produced the recording in 1988 for audiophile label, Walter Lily Acoustics. John Marks Records bought the rights and released it under its present title, but only after the recording received the magical remastering touch from Bob Ludwig. Ludwig used tube analog tape playback and the Pacific Microsonics' HDCD™ encoder to complete the process.

The space in which it was recorded, Santa Barbara's St. Anthony's Seminary Chapel, is quite magical. Ricci's beautiful sound suspends delicately in the air; the resonant acoustic allows his nuances and bravura equal time. As such, the cantabile tones of his Guarneri fiddle, pizzicato, spicato, double stop or arching melodies are captured in the most beautiful light. The piano is also well recorded, although its sound is placed in a secondary position well behind the violin. This placement does not deter the listener from enjoying accompanist Brooks Smith's very musical contribution (Smith was Heifetz' musical partner for many years).

Some may flinch at the inaccuracies heard from Ricci's fiddle. Why not, in this age of streamlined recorded perfection? However, greatness appears in many forms, and if this recording contains playing from a sub-par Ruggiero Ricci, it still holds the greatness only supreme artists possess. Listen to Casals, Segovia, Moyse, Horowitz or a hundred others late in their careers. They possess it. Their recordings capture it. In Ricci's Paganini's Dreams, the magic is still there and, as such, warmly recommended.

Manufacturer's Response:

Many thanks to Anthony Kershaw for his perceptive and balanced review of Paganini's Dreams. Mr. Kershaw's review, which notes the (very) occasional episodes of less than perfect tone production, raises an important issue today's classical music listeners should be much more aware of.

Mr. Ricci made his first recording in 1928. He made records for 25 years before phrase by phrase and note by note editing became possible through tape editing. Ricci doesn't like that idea on both esthetic and moral grounds.

When tape editing was first explained to Furtwängler, his shocked verdict was "That's a swindle!"

Without naming names, I have been told that a violinist of the old school was asked by a violinist of the newest generation how he liked the hot-shot kid's new album.

The old maestro replied "It was fantastic! Don't you wish you could really play like that!"

I think I have made my point!

One last matter: HDCD® is not as cut and dried as most people think, and there is a technical paper on JMR's use of it in the Technical Information section of the JMR web site. We also have a section on recommended stereo components.

Again, thanks for a sensitive and balanced review. I will send it to Maestro Ricci in Austria.

Best regards,
John Marks

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