Music review: Rachel Barton Pine at Clark Memorial Library
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Paganini’s 24 Caprices are supposed to be right in the center of the violin’s core repertoire, yet you don’t hear them that often in concert. Maybe one or two will be trotted out as encores here and there, but hardly ever as a whole cycle.
There’s a good reason; they’re devilishly difficult, on purpose, each one a self-contained, cannily constructed, miraculously inventive étude that addresses specific problems of violin technique. Paganini pointedly dedicated his cycle to “artists,” as if posting a big sign that says, “Don’t try this at home!”
Well, Rachel Barton Pine -- who has staked her place in concert life in unusual ways, like championing the legacy of the nearly forgotten American violinist Maud Powell or playing in a thrash-metal band -- took on the tiger. She performed all 24 Caprices Sunday afternoon at the Clark Memorial Library, a small, shoebox-shaped room where every scratch and scrape will be heard clearly and close-up.
One can’t say that Pine’s playing was absolutely flawless, but there, she’s in good company, for most of the complete recordings of the Caprices, even with all of the tricks of tape editing at the performer’s call, betray slips of intonation and bowing.
She seemed to grow stronger and more in command the further the cycle went, her tone quality ripening and the grip over the structure of each piece becoming clearer. No. 12 -- which for some reason is the most difficult one to keep in tune -- emerged relatively unscathed, the center section of No. 20 had dash and character, and I can imagine that she even brought something of a tough rock ‘n’ roll sensibility to the center section of No. 17. Yet the thing that will set Pine apart from the pack is the chatty, ingratiating way she took us into her workshop between groups of Caprices. She demonstrated specialized violin techniques and how they are used in the pieces, spun tales about Paganini, and casually made pop culture references that caught people by surprise yet fit in quite well. Pine wants to make a CD of the Caprices, but perhaps it ought to be a DVD lecture-demonstration because she’s a gifted communicator.
-– Richard S. Ginell