Niccolò Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor

performed by Salvatore Accardo and the London Philharmonic under Charles Dutoit

It’s Paganini! How haven’t we done Paganini here yet?

His name has only (to my recollection) been uttered on these pages in the context of an incredible concert earlier this year where this piece was performed stunningly by Sergei Krylov, under the baton of Roberto Abbado, and it was also the first time I’d heard this work, live or otherwise.

There are these pockets (that word makes them sound small; it might not be true) of classical music that I just… haven’t gotten around to, and we’ve hit on a few of those already this month, but this is maybe the most egregious so far.

Music people (whatever you deem that to mean), for example, hail Bach as the father of, in some cases, basically all music, or at least one of the most important figures in all its history, and this isn’t without good reason, but I can understand people saying it’s a bit difficult to get into or become passionate about unless you have some working knowledge of music, but that’s not true in every case.

However, Paganini is different. As you may know, he was the inspiration for one of the other great virtuosos of music, Franz Liszt. There’s even a Paganini section of Liszt’s Wikipedia article. He’s said to have seen Paganini at a benefit concert in 1832, when Liszt himself was only in his earliest of 20s, and decided he would become ‘the Paganini of the piano,’ as has been said before. While this obviously wasn’t when Liszt decided to start to play the piano, it is a bit late as far as life-changing inspirations go.

But that influence is one that I think people can relate to; even if you haven’t seen the work (or others) performed live, just hearing it is breathtaking.

Niccolò Paganini was born on October 27, 1782 in Genoa, not Italy, but the Republic of Genoa, an apparently “unsuccessful trader” who supplemented his income by playing the mandolin, which young Niccolò began learning from his father at age 5, starting violin at 7. His clear talents apparently earned him many scholarships and opportunities with well-known teachers whom he is said to have quickly outgrew, moving from one teacher, to that teacher’s teacher, and so on, until he studied with one Ferdinand Paer and his teacher Gasparo Ghiretti. Wikipedia says “Though Paganini did not stay long with Paer or Ghiretti, the two had considerable influence on his composition style.”

The Paganini family was initially displaced by a French invasion in 1796, which seems to have set the family, and Niccolò himself, on the road, where he began his relationship with the guitar. This is apparently where he began to earn his fame, touring in 1800 and 1801, where he was eventually appointed first violin of the Republic of Lucca. Wiki also mentions, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “His fame as a violinist was matched only by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer.” His first big break to get him more than regional attention was at La Scala in Milan in 1813, and the rest (at least for now), is history. There’s much talk about the style of his compositions, his playing, works that he inspired, etc., and I should probably have done an Influential People post on Paganini, but that will come in due time.

The work at hand, the composer’s fifth violin concerto, was composed in 1830, the same year as the Chopin piano concertos and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. It’s one of the most performed of the composers’ concertos for the instrument and the last he was to complete before his death.

It is in three movements, totaling around 40 minutes, about of which is contained in the first movement. It opens in a richly Romantic fashion; everything about this work is opulent and over-the-top and perfectly indicative of what the Romantic era did, or would soon begin to, represent. A theatrical timpani roll introduces a crunchy, orchestral opening led by trumpets. The orchestra then launches into their exposition of the material that the soloist will later pick up. The opening is clearly in a minor key, but not tragic or downtrodden. It’s march-like, but triumphant, majestic in sound, and has flashes of A major. This theme is repeated again, sounding brighter in its next pass.

Chopin comes to mind here for two reasons. This work was composed “no earlier than the spring of 1830”, which is the same year that both of Chopin’s piano concertos were composed. This concerto also calls them to mind because of the (I suppose rather typical) lengthy introduction and much larger first movement. But that’s about where the similarities end, because I find this work to be exciting, engaging, breathtaking, captivating, all the things that Chopin’s two concerti are not, in my opinion.

The violin is obviously the centerpiece of the work, and after the orchestra has built a handsome foundation for the themes of the first movement, solos from woodwinds and all, the violin finally enters. There are a few moments that fool me into thinking ‘this is it,’ but we still have a conversation between the oboe and flute to get through, a very operatic sounding passage to me, also theatrical. A question I do find myself asking, though, is ‘if the violinist is the real star of the show, then why he absent for the first almost quarter of the work?’

Unsurprisingly, when the soloist enters, it’s playing material we’ve already been introduced to, but in a virtuosic, flashy form, with all sorts of violinistic flair and fireworks. There are a few reasons I’m not going to get too much into the details of this work, because I just don’t understand the violin as an instrument and what it takes to make these delicious sounds. Much like watching Midori play Tzigane from that article back in the summer, it’s just mind-blowing to see what someone can do with five fingers on each hand, a fiddle, and a bow. Watching Sergei Krylov perform this work (linked above) was just stunning, and the first movement works off of much of that fanfare and showiness, but as we’ve seen, there is more to it than that, as Paganini did take nearly five minutes to introduce thematic material; the movement is treated in a sonata form, A minor with a second subject in C major, find its way to A major, but slipping back to the minor just before the end of the first movement. If you haven’t heard (or watched) it yet, go do so. The distinct advantage that a piece like this has over something like the Chopin concerto, in much the same form and of the same year, is that the Chopin, while not easy to play (no concerto is, is it?), it doesn’t make use of the showy performance elements of the solo part like, say, a Liszt concerto would, or like Paganini does here with the violin. It’s part of the piece.

The second movement is “perhaps musically the central section of the work,” says Wiki. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean; it’s obviously the central movement of the three. Perhaps this is discussing structurally, or content-wise. Whatever it’s to mean, we’ve moved a bit away from the showy performance aspects of the first movement, and are much more in the realm of lyrical, personal, more intimate expression, like what the vast majority of the Chopin concertos are like. I’m sorry; I’ll stop referencing them. They have nothing to do with this work.

The second movement reaches some of its own plaintive cries, some heights of sorrow, dramatic enough to keep the audience wowed, but providing some contrast from the action-packed first movement. There are breathtakingly rich passages, tenderly  expressive writing for the violin and the orchestra, playing both to the tender expression of the soloist, but the musical quality of the overall work, again sounding to my ears quite operatic in nature.

The final movement is a rondo, with the refrain in the key of the piece, A minor, while most of the other passages are in major keys. Interestingly, as I have failed to mention, this work was somehow reconstructed from notes or sketches, as only the solo part is extant; it is apparently most likely that it was just not written down rather than lost. I’m not quite sure how, then, we have all this orchestral backing to  what is essentially “a monologue for the violin.” In any case, Wiki doesn’t seem to make much fuss about it, except for in this finale, where it is stated that much of this orchestration belongs not to Paganini’s pen, but was completed after his death.

The finale seems celebratory, folk-dance like, with moments of excitement and fanfare, and lighter, more tender moments, acting either as heroic commander of the ensemble, or whispering sweet words into the ears of different accompanists. I would say that this must be one of the most outrightly in-your-face engaging works one could listen to. It is by no means my favorite, and probably not a work I’ll go back and listen to regularly, but it makes its charms very apparent, wears them on its sleeve.

It’s all of those things that the Romantic era is: opulent, showy, festive, a bit (or a lot) over-the-top music, with innovation, envelope-pushing, and a sumptuous musicality to enjoy. I do wonder, though, if at least part of the charms of this work don’t lie in seeing it performed as some kind of musical Olympic event. Perhaps it isn’t the most difficult concerto there is; I imagine something like Schoenberg’s being more difficult from some perhaps uncomfortable technical aspects, but it nonetheless is captivating to see someone perform live, in both the sense of playing and showing the piece.

I was just recently telling someone that I’m not really as familiar with the violin repertoire as I should be because it’s just not an instrument I feel I understand, if that makes sense. It didn’t fall within the “symphonies or piano music” (solo or concertante) that brought me to enjoying classical music, so violin sonatas, concertos, and especially solo violin work is stuff that I’m still somewhat a stranger to. Of course, I know Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, love the Schoenberg and the first Shostakovich, the Bartok (no. 2) is nice, but I’m only tenuously familiar with the others… Five of Mozart, four more from Paganini, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Bruch, and much much more, so that’s going to have to be a thing I focus more on at some point, but for now, we’ve at least covered something of one of the greatest violinist/composers in history. It’ll do for now.

Stay tuned the rest of this month as I dig through my to-do lists of music I either need or want to share. By this point, we’ve gotten through most of the obligatory ‘I should have talked about this by now’ music (mostly Vivaldi, C.P.E. Bach, Field, and this work), and the rest will be more personal pieces and discoveries, but there are still a few more standard repertoire works to look forward to, but they’re all great! See you soon.

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