Sunday, January 18, 2009

String music

I'm reading a book about Antonio Stradivari right now which I will review this week or next. For the last several years, ending a few months ago, I would spend about a week each month thinking that I would take up a stringed instrument. Other activities would impose and I'd forget about the thought until the next month. Why this cycle?

About three years ago I picked up a copy of Strings magazine. I like to do that from time to time. Just go to a bookstore or newsstand and grab something I wouldn't normally read. It is a magazine designed for string players of which I was barely one once (I started to learn the string bass for several weeks in high school). Nonetheless, I really liked it and the issue I had purchased had a crazy offer where you could get a year's subscription for $10. I maxed it out at three years. So every month I'd get this magazine, read it, think about taking up a stringed instrument, and see it get set aside again.

Part of my problem was deciding which stringed instrument interested me most. I still can't decide if I will take up violin, viola or cello. I still believe I will begin studying some day.

In the meantime I read and listen and bemoan the status of classical music in this country. In the Strad book, I just completed a chapter on Paganini. I would have loved to see him perform live. His compositions don't do him justice. They are very technical but tend to have a lot of similarities. Musically, they're not all that nice, just challenging for the soloist. Here's a clip of one I think is quite exemplary:

Yehudi Menuhin is an amazing technician and it is a bit of a wonder to me that I can view a 75 year old performance of his online. Watch how his hand is all over the place and the quick bowing he has to do. Also listen to how sparse the orchestra's involvement is. They're there for decoration really.

Paganini performed pieces on just a single string or a pair of strings. Supposedly he suffered from a medical condition that gave him extraordinary flexibility in his joints, almost a double-jointedness. Again, it would have been nice to be able to see him perform and witness his skill.

Classical recordings and performances seem so limited nowadays. It's always the same old Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. My favorite composers, Jean Sibelius and Anton Bruckner? Good luck finding performances of their music. Same with recordings. You can find a good number of recordings of Paganini's 24th caprice. Heck, even cellists and guitarists play it. The other ones, not so much.

I have a recording of a fellow doing a Paganini piece whose technical skill I admire. Gil Shaham released an album back in 2000 where all the tunes has something to do with the Devil. The violin and the devil have been partners for quite some time and Shaham pulls together a number of these works, most of which are technical in nature for the album. Paganini's 13th caprice (known as the Devil's Chuckle) is on here as is Tartini's Devil's Trill (Tartini is another one whose compositions seem to have fallen by the wayside).

Anyway, this post is incredibly aimless so I'm going to put a halt to it.

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