Saturday, 23 February 2013

Schumann and Paganini (1)

Paganini's ultra-virtuoso 24 Caprices, Op.1 were published in 1820 - remarkably, the only works he ever published. They've exerted a strong gravitational pull on violinists ever since. A similar pull has also been exerted on composers, ranging from Brahms to Blacher, Lutosławski to Lloyd Webber and Rachmaninov to Ruders - though these have tended to focus on only one of the Caprices, namely the famous 24th Caprice. The early Romantics cast their net a little wider. Keeping with the subject of recent posts, I want to look at an early, underplayed opus by Robert Schumann.

Anyone expecting the colour and high-wire dazzle of Liszt's arrangements of Paganini might be rather disappointed if they are hoping to find the same qualities in Schumann's Six Studies on Caprices of Paganini, Op.3. In comparison with Liszt, Schumann's arrangements sound modest. Being Robert, he was more keen to bring out the poetry of Paganini's pieces, though his arrangements don't deny the importance of virtuosity in the originals. Some at the time - and others since - have seen only shallow flashiness in Paganini's Caprices. Not Schumann though.

Schumann heard Paganini performing on Easter Sunday 1830 and his socks were well and truly knocked off.  A couple of years later, aged 22, came these six studies. 

The first study is based on Paganini's 5th Caprice. It begins and ends with swirling scales and arpeggios but in between comes a fine scurry that, close transcription as it is, shows me that Schumann's developing style drew more on Paganini's influence than I'd suspected, especially in the composer's dizzying allegros. Schumann adds some octave doubling.

The second study - based on Paganini's 9th Caprice, usually known as La chasse, evoking (as it does) flutes and hunting horns - is well known in Liszt's hands. Liszt's large hands sent the tune echoing magically across the keyboard. In Robert's smaller hands, La chasse becomes charming and poetic. He adds some octave doubling and a left-hand accompaniment.

Poetry is a particularly marked feature of the third study, based on Pagagini's 11th Caprice. Schumann cuts  the original down to size and then fills it with intimate feeling. 

The fourth study is based on Paganini's 13th Caprice nicknamed as The Devil's Laughter. You won't miss the laughter in the outer sections and the diabolical eruption at the movement's heart (though Paganini's original sounds far more devilish). There is fair a modicum of attractive piano colour in this study.

Though Robert Schumann isn't a sound painter with incipient Fauvist tendencies, his colouring of the opening of the fifth study, based on the 19th Caprice, is magical. This is a highly capricious number.

So far, these have been arrangements. The final study, however, takes Paganini's sweeping 16th Caprice and overlays it with a confident original tune - a theme with a rather Chopin-like heroic character.

Schumann was to return to the Paganini Caprices in his Op.10, but they will do for another day.

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