Julia Fischer plays Paganini. Now that really isn’t a surprise; the Caprices make perfect encores – fiendishly difficult, supremely virtuosic, and not too long. With a single Caprice, a violinist can show what she’s capable of, bringing the audience to their feet and a concert to an impressive conclusion. “Did you hear that finale?”, the applauding audience marvels as it leaves the hall. “Incredible! A female ‘Devil’s Fiddler’!” Julia Fischer has played the Caprices as encores dozens of times, especially the famous no. 24, which is the most accessible and musically grateful, but also nos. 2, 10 and 16.

What is surprising, even slightly sensational, is that Julia Fischer studied the whole cycle of 24 Caprices intensively for several months and then recorded them in Munich’s August Everding Hall. The Caprices have always been regarded as treacherously difficult, but as practice pieces for the purpose of study. They are something violinists will practise hundreds of times during their career, that they will perform and memorise but, unlike a Brahms or Beethoven concerto, needn’t necessarily record. Why, then, would a twenty-seven-year-old violinist choose to do so – a musician, moreover, who is loved the world over for her interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, not virtuoso display pieces?

“Because that is just what they are not”, says Julia Fischer. She felt certain after preparing this recording that the Caprices, and Paganini himself, are still misunderstood. Quite some years ago she encountered Robert Schumann’s version of the sixth piece in the set, the one known as the “Trill Caprice”. Schumann, she thought to herself, quiet and sensitive Romantic that he was, actually heard Paganini live. He must have been so fascinated by this music that he went home after the concert and sat down at the piano, playing with his recollections of it, newly forming and modulating it. There was no score then – the business-savvy Paganini made certain of that in order to retain at any price his status as the one and only violin wizard of his time. He even insisted on handing out the music to orchestras only minutes before a concert performance to prevent his scores from falling into the hands of greedy, fame-hungry imitators.

“Unlike many critics and biographers, Schumann did not perceive this man as a ‘Devil’s Fiddler’ or a circus act. He recognised the musical power of these twenty-four miniatures.” And Julia Fischer recognises it too. “The Caprices represent twenty-four moods,” she says, “little musical ideas, each one different, each one appealing.” She has looked again and again at the key sequence in the hope of making out a secret message in the cycle. In vain. Yet the pieces belong together. One flows into the next, she explains; you become aware when playing through them how logically each follows the piece that precedes it. “I can only record a work I believe in”, says Julia Fischer. She believes in the Caprices’ musical significance. And in their beauty. “That’s why I approached them as I would a Mozart concerto.”

Each Caprice on her recording is devoted to a specific technical problem – that’s how they were conceived, like Chopin’s popular Etudes. But Julia Fischer goes one step further: she doesn’t merely solve the problem – that in itself would not justify a recording. She also utilises the problems to extract meaning and emotion to serve the piece and its interpretation. Her work on the Caprices – her deliberation over bowings, over phrasing, over significant and insignificant figuration – was carried on at her desk as well as with violin in hand. Contrary to her usual practice, for this recording she hasn’t insisted on unswerving fidelity to the printed page. She has also invested the music with some of her own ideas, for example recording Caprice no. 6 both with mute and without. “The one with mute clearly sounded better and more logical”, she determined, and so included it on the album even though there is nothing in the score or the tradition to indicate the use of a mute for this piece. “Why”, asks Julia Fischer, “shouldn’t a composer who spent his whole life exhaustively exploring the possibilities of violin playing, who thought up mixed bowings and left-hand pizzicato, not also have used a mute?”

Julia Fischer was eight years old when she heard the Caprices for the first time, played in a church by the Austrian violinist Thomas Zehetmair. Attending a children’s music course, she sat devotionally on a wooden pew with the music in her lap, methodically ticking off each Caprice as it was performed. “When I can play them myself,” she remembers thinking after hearing the twenty-fourth, “then I’ll have made it. Then I’ll be a real violinist.” The child Julia was impressed by the technique they demand – the dexterity, the finger velocity and the bowing. Barely twenty years later, with this recording, she is restoring to the composer Niccolò Paganini what he has lost over the last two hundred years: his significance as a musical revolutionary, born in 1782 into the age of Viennese Classicism, who held half Europe spellbound with this mad, Romantic music.

“Many creatures are of a rather demonic nature . . . Among artists one finds this to be more true among musicians, less among painters. In the case of Paganini, it is apparent to a high degree”, wrote Goethe to his associate and editor Johann Peter Eckermann. Paganini was indeed a distinctly unusual figure: ahead of his time, modern, a showman and a businessman who raced across Europe in a horse-drawn carriage in order to fulfil his engagements, which not infrequently entailed playing twenty concerts in thirty days. “But he was also a normal man,” says Julia Fischer, “a single father, by the way, who revolutionised the musical world as well as violin playing and left that world different to how he found it.” 

Tobias Haberl