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Some of the greatest pieces of classical music ever written for instrumental soloists were, unsurprisingly, composed by people who could play that very instrument themselves.
Rachmaninov and Brahms, for example, were outstanding pianists in their own right, which goes a great way towards explaining their masterful works for the keyboard. And when it comes to the violin, there was one man who trumped them all in the composer–performer stakes: the Italian musical genius Niccolò Paganini.
The premieres of many works are often described as having wowed the audience of the day, but this simply does not do justice to the response Paganini received when his Violin Concerto No.1 was performed for the first time. Those who heard it were absolutely blown away – not just by the technical feats and showmanship Paganini had demanded of the instrument, but by the fact that he was actually able to play every single note. And these weren’t just notes: there were giant leaps, packed with all sorts of complex musical wizardry, the like of which no one had ever heard before.
So inhuman was Paganini’s playing, some even thought him to be the son of the devil. But as you listen to this concerto, it’s hard to believe it’s anything other than heavenly.
Sarah Chang (violin); Philadelphia Orchestra; Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor). EMI Classics: CDC 5550262.
Illustration: Mark Millington