Niccolò Paganini was arguably the greatest virtuoso on any instrument of all time—and the 24 Caprices his finest creation. The intrepid violinist who takes on this staggeringly difficult compendium of technical challenges, playing alone, without keyboard or orchestral accompaniment, must ignite and sustain a continuous stream of dazzling fireworks and still have it all sound like music.
Canadian violinist James Ehnes has been called “the Jascha Heifetz of our day” and, though still in his early 30s, this is his second recording of the Caprices. I’ll spare you the cliché of claiming that Ehnes makes them sound easy, but at no time does he remotely seem to be struggling. Ehnes delivers on all the violinistic acrobatics—double stops, trills, harmonics, left-hand pizzicatos, cross- string arpeggios, etc.—while allowing the melodic and harmonic niceties of these small-scale early-Romantic gems to register. Start with No. 11 in C major or the final one in A minor (that Brahms and Rachmaninoff based their Paganini Variations on) if you doubt that a solo violin can hold your interest for 78 minutes.
Engineer Mike Clements offers a beautiful representation of the the gorgeous tone of Ehnes’ 1715 Stradivarius—close enough to reveal subtleties in dynamics and timbre without slighting the big picture.