December 1998

Paganini's Dreams
Ruggiero Ricci, Violin
Brooks Smith, Piano
John Marks Records JMR 11
Released: 1998

by David Sherman

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]On a CD that combines two of the greatest names associated with the violin, and one of the most well-known engineers in the country, one expects much more than what is offered on Paganini’s Dreams -- an HDCD-encoded remastered release from John Marks Records. Ruggerio Ricci, the elder statesman of violin virtuosi, was captured in 1988 by engineer Kavi Alexander playing music written by or inspired by perhaps the greatest virtuoso of the violin, Nicolo Paganini.

The 80-year-old Ricci plays a compilation of various encores inspired by the instantly recognizable melody of Pagnini’s Caprice No. 24. Most of the selections are ornate variations on this theme, and were composed to display the technical agility of a performer. The exception is one of the well-known variations of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which carries more musical weight than the others.

Mr. Ricci plays the pieces lovingly, but gone are the pyrotechnics of his earlier years. Age hasn’t damped his enthusiasm to perform, but one wonders why this CD was recorded. Was Ricci offering up a last glimpse of his virtuosity before it faded? Was it a last farewell? There are no answers in the notes provided on the CD, only single biographical paragraphs on Mr. Ricci and his accompanist Brooks Smith. Nevertheless, the uncertainty should not affect the connoisseur’s enjoyment of the recording.

Mr. Alexander created a beautiful live-performance sound using minimal equipment. Utilizing the acoustics of the hall, he placed the piano further away from the microphones than the violin to establish a different reverb effect for both instruments. In some pieces the piano sounds too dark, particularly during fast sections. Because the recording took place over a period of three days, he might not have had the time or the inclination to reposition the instruments. Recorded to analog tape, this recording glows with the rich ambience of the hall and the warmth of analog and tube-generated sound that classical recordings have been missing for a decade.

Paganini’s Dreams can be fully appreciated by violin enthusiasts and long-time admirers of Ruggiero Ricci. Audiophiles who esteem the work of Kavi Alexander for Walter Lily Acoustics will recognize his talent on this CD. But the reason for recording this body of music with this particular artist is vague, and the performance, although good, is not top notch.