By Cristina Schreil

As if the life of a Grammy Award–winning, world-touring violinist didn’t sound appealing enough, Augustin Hadelich offers a pre-concert ritual I can get behind. Hadelich, born to German parents in Tuscany, is now a New Yorker and an American citizen. But, it seems there’s little question of what conjures feelings of home.

“I usually look for Italian food. I know exactly how it will feel when I eat it,” Hadelich says, offering that it’s both a practical quest for carb-loaded fortitude and a bit of a grounding ritual. “Amazingly once the pressure’s on and the adrenaline rushes through your body and you step onstage in front of thousands of people, it actually makes a huge difference what you ate and how you slept—all those little things,” he says. “And maybe part of it is superstition.”

We’re perched on an outdoor patio in the shadow of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. Hadelich, who’s girded himself against an early-October chill with an autumnal felt scarf, is in town to perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. We ponder the possibility that he might fulfill his starchy ceremony in the city’s quaint Italian North Beach neighborhood. It turns out Hadelich’s career has another key connection to Italy lately. His latest recording features Paganini’s 24 Caprices.

Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

“I think on some level all of Paganini somehow reminds me of home,” Hadelich says. He recorded three caprices (Nos. 4, 9, and 21) for a 2009 album and also performed Paganini on a 2013 tango record with guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas. He says it was time to put forth his take on all of the caprices. His approach is much different from the first album: “Less technical and with greater fluidity and emphasis on character.” It’s clear how much he’s considered the spirit of each caprice. With a slight chuckle, he shares that the chromatic runs in Caprice No. 17 remind him of the legion of outdoor cats populating his childhood farm.

There, he began studying the virtuosic repertoire as early as age seven. Growing up, he’d listen to recordings by fellow Italian violinist Uto Ughi, whose engrossing theatrical and lyrical expression—foregrounded over technical perfection—triggered a lasting emotional response in Hadelich. “There were always some that seemed at the time completely impossible, completely unplayable. Like, ‘How do you people do this?’” Watching violinist Alexander Markov, who also delivered impassioned performances, changed his perspective. “I went from ‘Oh no, I have to practice this caprice’ to ‘I want to perform this caprice!’” Now, several have been his go-to encore pieces for years.

As any violinist knows, it takes a dizzying level of technical prowess to tackle this difficult repertoire. Hadelich has a theory of why the caprices themselves are so challenging. Paganini, known for going to great lengths to craft and maintain a sensational mystique—he wore all black, arrived at concerts after dark, and was known for his amorous, gambling ways—might have published caprices that were more challenging than what he’d actually perform in concert. More befit, perhaps, for a man reputed to work with the devil.

The liner notes to Hadelich’s new album mention a few more wild theories: that Paganini murdered his wife’s lover; he rehearsed in secret; and he learned violin in a jail cell, on an instrument with only one string. “I wonder if he made them even harder because he was always working on the Paganini myth,” Hadelich muses. Maybe the virtuoso, who wrote the caprices when younger but toured extensively when he was older, had more practical performance versions.

Part of the drive to record the caprices now, Hadelich explains, relates to timing. He realized that at some point, they’ll only get harder as he gets older. Already, they’re a “mountain” to climb. He mentions the widely accepted theory that Paganini’s pliant hands, lengthened by Marfan Syndrome, let him stretch and bend in astonishing ways. It’s a taxing experience on both the left hand and the bow arm. “It’s clearly written by someone who knows everything about the violin. He really goes to the extremes,” Hadelich adds. Even performing a caprice for three minutes is exhausting; playing it for an eight-hour recording session offers a totally “different level of strain on the hands.” Preparation is essential. “There’s a physical aspect to this kind of virtuosic playing.”

“It’s clearly written by someone who knows everything about the violin. He really goes to the extremes.”

Hadelich’s album is the re-sult of winning the inaugural Warner Music Prize in 2015. He wanted to devote extra care to each caprice—“even the lesser known ones.” A main goal was to highlight the lyrical sensitivity, a la Ughi, of the music itself. He split the recording process into four sessions, all at WGBH in Boston, spread out over six months in 2016 and 2017. Each session included between five and eight caprices. Each bunch had some on the more challenging end and others that he either considered easier or with which he had ample concert experience.

Always preferring to delve into research, he never learns a piece through just one score. He consulted the Henle edition, as close to an urtext as possible, which is essentially identical to Paganini’s manuscript. Hadelich says it’s a fascinating, clean copy offering few doubts as to what Paganini meant. “Maybe 30, 40 years ago, the idea of an urtext version of the Paganini caprices, people would’ve laughed at that. But one day, somebody said, ‘Why not?’”

Hadelich’s adoration for the caprices reaches far beyond the sheer challenge of their technical acrobatics, or their status as guaranteed crowd-pleasers. He asserts a profound musical depth to Paganini’s compositions beneath the showy exterior with which he wowed audiences. There’s a chance, he says, that audiences today might even roll their eyes at the kind of brash showmanship that Paganini doled out in full force.

Throughout our interview, he asserts the complex beauty of Paganini’s bel canto melodies, and a sense of Rossini-esque humor that’s too often disregarded amid the rock star–like charisma. To push the boundaries of violin technique, he wrote music that, while stupefying, is also less comfortable to play. His virtuosic flair served the music, not the other way around.

“The best of the caprices are interesting, beautiful, and unique compositions, very dramatic and often funny as well. Each one is a little gem.” Hadelich says that eccentric mystique aside, Paganini’s works are simply “good music.” It’s something he gleaned growing up in Italy. “Over there Paganini is really considered one of the great Italian composers, whereas outside of Italy he is viewed as somebody who wrote violin études. The caprices are considered to be just studies in violin technique, when I think they really are a lot more,” Hadelich explains. He adds that there’s a reason why his compositions galvanized Liszt’s own brand of show-stopping performances, and why Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Lutosławski were directly inspired by the caprices’ themes. 

Hadelich seems to take anecdotes of how crowds would swoon over Paganini’s performances with a grain of salt. He reminds me that it’s important to consider the historical context of the Romantic era, when concerts were entertaining interludes from a slower pace of life. Dazzling, more interactive performances were standard and the violin techniques these caprices require were already used by Baroque virtuosos.

Hadelich mentions the premiere of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, wherein virtuoso Franz Clement apparently improvised his own cadenza, at one point playing his violin upside down. It was also normal for men to weep openly; perhaps stories of women fainting at Paganini’s feet weren’t as outlandish then as they seem now.

Because of the visual fireworks ingrained into the caprices, recording Paganini is much different from performing it live. Hadelich made a few changes. After all, listeners can’t see his fingers and bow flying; only those who are very familiar will understand when he’s tackling jaw-dropping pizzicato passages. “For a listener who just hears the recording, it’s not always evident just how hard this stuff is,” he says. “It’s particularly important to focus mainly on the musical side.”

In Caprice No. 5, for example, he changed the original bowing, a rapid ricochet where the player practically throttles the bow with the string. He played it separately, allowing him to play passages quicker and with more musical direction. “It also sounds cleaner—fewer dirty noises from throwing the bow,” says Hadelich. “If you perform it live and do the original bowing it looks impressive. But then in a recording, where you don’t have the visual element, you’d be disturbed by all the noise.”

Perhaps it’s the care Hadelich has taken to delve deep into this repertoire that brings him closest to the enigmatic virtuoso. “Paganini, Marfan Syndrome or not, spent years and years practicing in order to master these techniques,” Hadelich says. It would seem he required the same from anyone who dared navigate his own caprices. 

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