Review Summary: Paganini's 24 Caprices are in essence a study of advanced violin techniques but notwithstanding these dry academic qualities there are still some very entertaining pieces of music to be found throughout.
Paganini was an Italian composer and virtuoso violinist who was born in Genoa in 1782. He was very popular as both a composer and performer during his lifetime and was a large influence on modern violin technique. This set of 24 pieces for solo violin were composed over a 15 year period and published in 1819. Part of the motivation for these compositions was to demonstrate various playing techniques such as double-stopped trills, fast left hand positioning and extremely rapid scales and arpeggios.
Boring history lesson over. Taken as a study of violin techniques this may well be a quite important set of compositions and is certainly a major technical achievement but is there any value in the music beyond that ? Is there anything to it that will appeal to us mortals who don't particularly care that 'Caprice number 24 uses a wide range of advanced techniques such as tremendously fast scales and arpeggios, double and triple stops, left hand pizzicato, parallel octaves and tenths, rapid shifting, and string crossings' but just want to hear a good tune ? Well, taken all together in one dose this stuff can be quite overwhelming and may well induce a sense of bored detachment. But Paganini wasn't just showing off here, the guy also had a good ear for an entertaining melody and a good sense of dynamics and taken in small doses a lot of the music can be highly entertaining. He likes to play around with a basic riff or motif on many of these pieces which he warps and embellishes throughout with ever more complex and demanding improvisation. Take the most famous composition, Caprice No. 24, for instance. This could well be familiar to many people who have never even heard of Pagini as it has entered the public conciousness in a way that Beethoven's 5th and some of Mozart's divertimenti have. Paganini applies ever more complex variations upon the famous opening riff until eventually the basic theme seems to vanish entirely among multiple layers of embellishment.
Caprice No.5 is an unabashed two and a half minutes of fast violin bowing that might well appeal to any fans of technical metal. Neo-classical metal was heavily influenced by the works of Paganini and the likes of Blackmore and Malmsteen were most likely avid students of his work. There is something of Johann Sebastian Bach about some of the music, especially Caprice No.2, and it would be fair to suppose that the young Niccolo was heavily influenced by the masterpiece that was Bach's 'Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin' which pre-dated his music by approximately 100 years.
This set of 24 solo violin pieces is often cited as a masterpiece in terms of its status as a study of advanced violin techniques but for the casual listener the music can feel rather dry and academic especially when consumed in one sitting. However, fans of technical virtuoso performances could well find a lot to love buried inside and when taken in small helpings the majority of the individual pieces are quite entertaining. This obviously doesn't have the depth of even the most mediocre offerings from the undoubted masters of classical composition but if you are in the mood for some unapologetically technical violin widdly-widdly this stuff should fit the bill nicely.