To the mere mortal, all of this can appear daunting, like being at the base camp of Everest and looking up at the clouds. In order to play the violin properly, is it really necessary to wade through Carl Flesch’s entire ‘Scale System’, the various dry variations of Sevcik, before proceeding through Kreutzer and Dont to the pinnacle of Paganini’s celebrated ‘Caprices’? Well this is probably where the crux of it all lies, for Paganini performed such dazzling feats on the violin (much like Franz Liszt did on the piano a little later on), that to this day, each generation of violinists have sought to imitate him. It is inconceivable that a violinist can reach the top of their profession without performing at least a quantity of Paganini’s works. Like the repeated conquests of Mount Everest, Paganini’s trail became well trodden until there were legions of violinists who could surmount their perilous difficulties. Nowadays, you can’t consider yourself a true player until you have stuck a flagpole into the summit of at least half a dozen Caprices.
Very few artists escape unscathed from this legacy. The great violinists played with a panache and abandon that seemed allied to adventure and risk taking. But since the 1950s where sound recordings could be edited convincingly, our ears have become conditioned to a level of perfection which is both limiting and constricting to any musical individuality. The focus on an almost airbrushed level of technical perfection has ironed out the elements of rubato, glissando, excitement and the range of emotions which can conceivably be made on the violin. Listen to Milstein, Oistrakh and Perlman and we can use the phrases ‘impassioned’, ‘aristocratic’, ‘melancholy’, ‘exuberant’, ‘effervescent’ even (in the case of Perlman) ‘tongue-in-cheek’. Going back further to the early acoustic recordings of Eugene Ysaye, a whole myriad of different emotions are conjured up with an almost pantomime quality: pathos, reverie, nostalgia, aplomb, even recklessness! Listening to the current vintage of violinists like Kavakos, Hahn and Zimmerman I can be amazed at the immaculate polish of their playing and yet I struggle to find a single adjective that describes my emotional response to their playing. The only words that come to mind are ‘really good’, ‘amazingly good’ or ‘incredibly good’.
So, even over the last century, we can see the metamorphosis of the virtuoso violinist from the shadow of the gypsy to a sanitised yet anonymous standardization. The link between composer and performer has been entirely severed with performers being left as faithful interpreters of the great masters and yet (with some exceptions) unable to add a creative impetus to the mix. On the other hand, jazz, folk and rock musicians can get away with far more roughness and risk taking because the end result of their endeavours is to attain ‘feel’. Because (by and large) they are the creators of their own material, the public have come along to hear them perform it – the real McCoy, and the audience is capable of remaining transfixed, even if the real McCoy drops the odd note or sings slightly out of tune. Furthermore critics will generally be kind to them if they have their audience spellbound yet make a few mistakes along the way.
Classical performers at the top level should be encouraged to compose and to dedicate a good portion of their time to this pursuit. After all, they are generally immeasurable better musicians than many supposed ‘serious composers’, whose works rarely gain a second performance. With the bond between composer and performer strengthened, the realm of one can flow into the realm of the other. Instead of Paganini and Liszt being the perpetual barometer for virtuoso credentials, the artist as composer can become the elevating factor