No Mere Caprice: Violinist to Undertake Paganini Tour De Force

Marianna Vasilyeva, a new immigrant from Russia, is daring to navigate the composer-virtuoso's technically extreme obstacle course by herself.

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Marianna Vasilyeva, a young Russian violinist who is now also an Israeli, has taken on a major task: to captivate the audience all on her own, without accompaniment, in a long program by Paganini.

The recital Vasilyeva is giving on Thursday in Jerusalem’s YMCA auditorium (produced by Opus, a new Israeli Internet magazine about classical music) is to be devoted entirely to the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin composed by the legendary violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. These two dozen short works constitute a technical obstacle course: Even seasoned professional violinists are unable to assume such a challenge in a public concert until they have prepared for it for years.

Some of the 24 caprices sound like pure études (exercises); others also express genuine “content.” Parallel to the technical hurdles in performing them, some also have a declared message (for example “The Devil’s Laugh”), while others mimic the sounds of other instruments (flutes, horns, and so on).

What does all this add up to? To what extent did Paganini’s focus on technique create music of value – to what extent did the circus give rise to the art? There are debates about this, from time to time.

In an article about the 24 Caprices in Opus, Shlomo Mintz (who started to contend with them himself when he was 10 years old) wrote that it is known that Paganini, despite his legendary skill and physical traits (the fingers of his left hand had an extraordinary ability to stretch), was unable to play the pieces immediately after composing them. Apparently, he had to work extremely hard – as a performance artist – to reach the new heights he himself had invented. Mintz, incidentally, performed the works in Israel 20 years ago.

Music or circus? Two experts, violinist Vera Weidman and violinist Eyal Kless, express their views.

Eyal Kless: “Performing the 24 caprices in one evening is a tour de force. Anyone who gets onstage to perform all of them displays a technical level that few people in the world can achieve – I personally know only six people in the world who have done it.”

Such a demonstration arouses mixed feelings in him, continues Kless: “On the one hand it’s an amazing achievement, requiring the perseverance of a marathon runner. On the on the other hand, I really don’t know if there’s a justified musical reason to invest such extraordinary effort in order to demonstrate that ‘I can and most of you can’t.’”

Vera Weidman: “As a violinist I’m supposed to decide whether there’s any point in investing a tremendous amount of work for the sake of a public performance of the Caprices. Maybe it would be better, at least as far as I’m concerned, to direct the time and effort into a more important musical channel.”

At the same time, Weidman adds that despite the image of "technique for its own sake" that has adhered to the work of Paganini, he even wielded an influence on Schubert, a composer who could be perceived as his consummate opposite. “The best example," she notes, "is Schubert’s wonderful Fantasy in C Major for Piano and Violin D 934.”

Vasilyeva, who has won many prizes in international competitions, was born 28 years ago in St. Petersburg, studying there (first with her father, a violinist in the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra) and later in Germany, including with the renowned Russian (Jewish) teacher Zakhar Bron. Shlomo Mintz also took Vasilyeva under his wing.

A few months ago she decided to immigrate to Israeli (due to her world view, she said). She now lives on Kibbutz Revivim, is studying Hebrew, and occasionally leaves the Negev to give concerts abroad and to teach at the music academy in Madrid. She is quoted as saying that her impression so far is that life on kibbutz offers a perfect, desirable balance for the intensive lifestyle of a performance artist.