By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
When Niccolò Paganini, around 1802, needed a powerful new violin, he found (or was given) an instrument by Guarneri del Gesù. It had been made in 1743, near the end of the great luthier’s career. Paganini called his new instrument “Il Cannone” (the Cannon) and used it for the rest of his life. After his death, it was given to the city of Genoa, where it is exhibited in the town hall.
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Il Cannone has its original neck (though it was extended and reset into the body at some point in its life), the plates were never re-graduated, and the instrument has never been polished. The Sala Paganiniana, where Il Cannone resides inside the Palazzo Tursi, is monitored by scientists, experts, and bodyguards. The instrument is played monthly by curator Bruce Carlson and each year by the winner of the Premio Paganini contest for young violinists. It is occasionally loaned to exceptional artists like Salvatore Accardo, Shlomo Mintz, and, most recently, Francesca Dego. Born in Lecco, Italy, to Italian and American parents, Dego performed Paganini’s first Violin Concerto in Genoa on the composer’s birthday in 2019, and the following week recorded an exceptional recital of Paganini and other composers for Chandos with pianist Francesca Leonardi.
If not for the pandemic, 2021 might have been Dego’s breakthrough year in the U.S. She was scheduled to spend two months playing Shostakovich with the Indianapolis Symphony and also perform a Lincoln Center recital. I spoke to Dego in Milan a few days before her press launch for the recording from Genoa. She was in Italy working with her husband, Daniele Rustioni, chief conductor at the Opéra National de Lyon and the Ulster Orchestra.
What makes “Il Cannone” special?
It’s the violin that everybody heard. Schumann, Chopin, Berlioz, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Goethe, Schubert. I always dreamt of playing it. I think it’s the single most famous instrument in history because it’s the violin of the violinist and because its last continuous owner and player was Paganini. Most violins like mine, a gorgeous Francesco Ruggieri from 1697—also made in Cremona and which I fell in love with right away—eventually go from one person to another. But Il Cannone just stopped after Paganini. Everyone who has played it since has played it for a maximum of a few days or a week like I did. He shaped the sound, how it vibrates, how it reacts.
Why do you think Paganini loved this violin?
He was a connoisseur of violin making, a collector who made money buying and selling Cremonese violins. He knew what he was looking for, something reliable but also really powerful, and that is what Il Cannone is; the depth of the sound is really extraordinary.
How could such a violin have inspired him?
He could have been inspired by this violin to invent some really revolutionary technical things. Nobody before him had really done any double harmonics and he did whole passages of them. And harmonics work wonderfully on this violin. The overtones in the instrument itself mean that flageolet and other technically demanding things are a tiny bit easier than you’d expect. The G string is amazing all the way up—although there is a very in your face wolf tone on the high, high C that’s kind of notorious. I wonder what Paganini did with it.
To what extent does it have its own sound and personality?
I think it has an incredibly distinctive sound, and I remember adapting to it, letting it inspire me, and also playing a bit differently because it doesn’t react very well to pressure. I was a bit nervous at the beginning and was kind of overdoing it—I may have been a bit tense. The sound was getting a bit rough and I realized it was not going to have any of that at all. It needed to be listened to, to be allowed to breathe, to react to every nuance. I had a deep connection with it very quickly.
What was the condition like?
It was extremely dark with much more of the original varnish remaining because it’s been sitting there since Paganini stopped playing it. There is some damage under the bridge and elsewhere that they haven’t touched for historic reasons, because it’s original damage. If you look at any Strad or del Gesù being played by the top soloists today, it’ll look much shinier because it’s been restored in a less historically conscious way. In Genoa, it’s not only about conservation of the violin but conservation of the state the violin was in when it was left to the city in 1840.
How did you set it up?
Bruce Carlson and I decided to use Peter Infeld strings because they’re very reliable, would underline the qualities of the violin, settle in very quickly, and still have good projection and power. We did not want to risk creating extra problems with gut. I played it first for the concert and they literally only gave it to me the day before, so we needed strings that would really react quickly.
What would Paganini have strung Il Cannone with?
He used gut strings, which broke all the time. What we don’t know is what bow he used. There was a bow with Il Cannone when it was left to the city, but it was not in good condition and they don’t know if it was the “great new bow” from Naples he spoke of in some letters. He did buy a bow in Naples but nobody can figure out who the Neapolitan bow maker could have been. So I used my own bow, a really top Peccatte, which put me in the most comfortable condition possible to meet a violin I didn’t know.
How did Il Cannone like the Corigliano, Szymanowski, and Schnittke on the recording?
It was great. One of the curators looked extremely alarmed while I was recording Schnittke’s A Paganini. He was looking at me like, “Oh my God, should I stop her?” because the music looks a bit crazy, looks like it might be a bit rough on the violin—which of course it isn’t; it’s all very controlled. It was a reminder that in addition to the purely historic value linked to Paganini, there is the value of the violin per se, of hearing an extraordinary instrument playing other music.
What was it like being around such a valuable instrument?
At some point I imagined what would happen if I actually dropped it with these six armed guards around. Would they shoot me or throw themselves onto it? I wondered what would happen if I just made a run for it.
What’s your next recording?
I am in the midst of recording Mozart’s violin concertos with the BBC Scottish Symphony conducted by Sir Roger Norrington. So far, we’ve done two and a half of them. He’s never recorded the violin concerti before, and he said he’s going to finally retire after that. I started working with him a few years ago and we did Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Mozart; he is wonderful.