Rachel Barton Pine delivers a unique evening with Paganini at Ravinia

Mon Aug 19, 2013 at 10:22 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Rachel Barton Pine performed Paganini’s 24 Caprices Sunday night at Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall.

Chicago native Rachel Barton Pine ignited Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall with her performance of Paganini’s 24 Caprices Sunday night.  The collection of character pieces has captured the imagination and twisted the fingers of thousands of violinists, and remains a mountain that all aspire to climb.  There are few who can master the pyrotechnical difficulties, and fewer still that can make music out of them.

Paganini composed the Caprices at the eve of the 19th century, though they were not published until 1820 as his opus 1.  The violinist became a legend within his own lifetime and many rumors surfaced about his stunning abilities (selling his soul to the devil was widely believed).  He did not dismiss these accusations as it increased his popularity and the mystical air that surrounded him.

Pine launched into the first caprice with great vigor.  The piece requires the violinist to use a ricochet bowing technique over all four strings as the left hand rapidly shifts through various choral figures.  Pine’s bow jumped between the strings in a dazzling fashion, though there were some intonation issues when climbing into the upper reaches of the register.

As the concert continued it was clear that she was settling into the performance and her tone and intonation grew more assured with each piece.  She gave charming anecdotes throughout the concert that shed light on the legend that is Paganini and the myths surrounding him, as well as insight into each piece and her personal relationship with them and her instrument.

The fifth caprice was particularly spectacular.  She prefaced it by stating that the unique ricochet bowing technique required to play it is her specialty.  It begins with a series of scales and arpeggios that span four octaves, then takes off into a blindingly fast staccato section.  Pine tackled the tortuous difficulties with incredible speed and striking clarity.

The introduction to the eleventh and twenty-first caprices highlighted her singing, lyrical tone.  She displayed great command of the instrument and was able to maintain multiple singing lines while characterizing each differently.

The middle section of the seventeenth caprice contains one of the most difficult octave passages in all violin literature.  Pine executed it with near-perfect intonation, great agility, and dramatic freedom.

There is a similarly devilish passage in the middle of the nineteenth caprice that focuses on playing the lowest string exclusively while leaping large intervals rapidly.  Though her articulation was muddled at times, Pine played it with seeming ease and passionate fire.

The final caprice, a theme and variations, is by far the most well known.  Countless composers, ranging from Brahms to Rochberg, have explored the theme.  Though she had been playing for over an hour, nothing was held back.  She played with intense passion and enthusiasm.  The left-hand pizzicato section was particularly brilliant.

Barton Pine has clearly spent much time contemplating these pieces.  She made references to the manuscript facsimile and performance practices of Paganini’s day, her growing up with the pieces since she was a young girl, and the impact they have made on her and her instrument.  Much dazzling playing was heard Sunday night, but the music she extracted from each piece made for a unique evening.

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One Response to “Rachel Barton Pine delivers a unique evening with Paganini at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Aug 20, 2013 at 1:08 am by Michael Needham

    An amazing performance, highlighted by Rachel’s commentary and insights on the history and performance challenges of each piece. And, as an encore, an original piece from Rachel inspired by the Caprices. This needs to be a concert recording!

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