Markov does Pag!

Sometime in the early 90s I came back in from somewhere to my parents’ house. It was late and I was tired. I flicked on the news and channel-hopped, and, purely by chance, came across this young guy, unaccompanied, no conductor, no notes – playing all 24 of Paganini’s
Caprices, on Channel 4.

It was like watching a musical performance directed by Beckett (though Sam’s fav piece apparently was Schubert’s Winterreise) – a bare stage and one bloke and no frills.

Transfixed, I watched to the end, all tiredness forgotten.

The world’s full of ‘classical music fans’. Sadly, some of them have but a shallow, social interest in music. So-called classical music is seen as an instant passport into echt middle class-ness. So many will trot along to hear lush, un-demanding, full orchestra renderings of the usual works. Few care much for string quartets. Fewer still for a solo violinist. Fewer again when it’s an unaccompanied violinist. And fewest of all when the composer is Paganini.

Generally, Paganini’s work is seen as dry and impossibly technical. In one sense, it is. For the guts of a century, some of his stuff was considered to be technically unplayable.

But like all the best stuff, from beer to literature to post-Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits and old-style Donegal fiddling, you learn to love the initially-inaccessible stuff best. Paganini’s stuff makes so much other classical fiddle music seem banal.  (OK, I’ll get my coat!)

The fiddle player was the Russian, Alexander Markov. The film of his playing was by Bruno Monsaingeon. As Monsaingeon later remarked:

As any violinist knows, there is no work in the violin repertoire in which the ratio of difficulty versus effect on the public is so low.

The non-violinist will obviously realise that this is a highly strenuous exercise, but cannot suspect the dreadful inner ordeal suffered by the virtuoso. Only the performing violinist can know the real physical torture inflicted by certain Caprices, whereas those which inevitably draw ovations from the audience are nearly always the most accessible, within the reach of any technically competent violinist (the well-known 24th Caprice for instance, the last item in the collection.”

He’s right – a few pizzicatos and the hoi polloi are swooning lol. In my view, unless you’ve made a stab at the fiddle, and are a bit of a fiddle obsessive, you may be unlikely fully to appreciate the enormity of this man’s achievement here. Being able to play Pag on a different instrument misses the point – the violin is a physically stilted and operationally-limiting instrument. Paganini is at his most challenging on the fiddle. This is intense stuff, physically, intellectually and emotionally draining. You’re on a technical tightrope from the off. To do that, at that sustained level, unaccompanied, piece after piece, is god-like.

I used to scrape at the fiddle. I could attempt most ordinary pieces. Badly, of course, but at least you could make some sort of half-assed shape at it. But Paganini? I bought the book of his caprices when I lived in London and looked at it a few times, laughing. It was a genuine WTF moment:

Here they all are – you can scroll through them, for the crack, using the scroll-bar at the right:

For most of us, it’s damn near impossible. After all, one’s fingers are cursed with bones …

A violin imposes considerable restrictions. You only have 4 strings, and they’re not level with each other like a guitar or banjo. You’re not really meant to play 4 strings at a time. This was, frankly, crazy sh1t. Download the above and browse through it to see what I mean.

Anyway, here is the full 24 caprices on utube. While Kreisler is the boss when it comes to pure tone, I rate Markov as the best all-round classical fiddler I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen and listened to most of them, most in recording, but some live. His technical ability is
well-nigh absolute. Some of the stuff is a pure joy to watch (mere nod-the-head listening is never enough to appreciate a dude of this calibre). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone who does ‘up-bow ricochets’(!) like the way he does. To attempt stuff like that in public is ballsy. You could so easily mess it up. On the other hand, there’s an almost-folky, Slavic wistfulness in his transitions and a surreal ability to lose himself in the performance – after all, this is Paganini and most fiddlers would be trying to keep the musical car on the bloody road, not doing the violin-equivalent of high-speed handbrake turns for the crack …

After god knows how long, in 2014, I watched the lot again with our then 3 year old (‘He’s a great man!’ she exclaimed, repeatedly, and sat enthralled for the full show – so no excuses folks!) with all the speakers on and yep, it gets no better than this.

Sometime when you’ve a spare couple of hours, get your headphones or plug it into your TV and pour yourself a glass of whatever and settle back:

You can also buy it <here>, which is obviously the best way to go

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