VOICES Notes and news on Classical releases

Astounding Caprices


Is it possible that violinist James Ehnes was only 19 when he chose Paganini: 24 Caprices as his first recording for Telarc? Talk about an artist determined to make his mark.

Not that Ehnes, who at the ages of 11 and 12, respectively won top prizes in strings at the Canadian Music Competition and the Canadian National Music Festival, wasn't already on the ascent as a major violinist, but Paganini's Caprices are known as one of the supreme, eyebrow-raising tests of violin virtuosity.

Paganini published his Caprices to prove he was the only person alive who could play them. Indeed, his playing was so startling that no less a composer than Hector Berlioz, who wrote Harold In Italy for him, was led to declare, "He's a comet! For never did a flaming star burst more abruptly on the firmament of art or excite in the course of its universal ellipse more astonishment mixed with a sort of terror before vanishing forever."

People supposedly followed Paganini around, poking and pinching him to see if he was real. Even after his death, people claimed they could hear the sound of his violin emanating softly from his casket. We'll not go as far as to suggest that Ehnes is Paganini's doppelganger, but there is something unearthly about the fleetness with which he dispenses music of almost diabolical difficulty. Check out the final Caprice in A Minor, which inspired works by Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and, speaking of the diabolical and the ridiculous, Lloyd Webber.