A wet, grey day in Cornwall, and I sit in a holiday cottage listening to a recording of violinist Itzhak Perlman playing Paganini Caprices, as you do. It’s not hard to imagine the impression that Paganini made on European audiences as he performed such pieces in the 1800s; even without the visual impact, these are stunning works, needing advanced technical wizardry in order to bring them off musically – and effortlessly. Even the composer’s manuscript looks alarming – here. Small wonder that Liszt was fired to replicate this on the piano.
Liszt arranged 6 of Paganini’s Caprices, combining two into one piano étude, and that is the one chosen to open his set of Grandes Etudes après Paganini of 1851, these being revised versions of similar Etudes published in 1838. He names it Preludio, and the opening G minor flourish transposes and transcribes Paganini’s opening flourish in A minor from his No 5; the violinist’s arpeggios and rapid scales become a pianist’s two-handed arpeggios in different inversions, and scales in 6ths. Liszt then welds this to a transcription of Paganini’s no 6 within the same piece – a rather lugubrious melody with tremolando accompaniment, initially all combined in the pianist’s left hand alone- of course that’s how a violinist has to do it, too.
Liszt chooses the material for transcription carefully and arranges the études in an attractive order. Next up is Paganini’s 17th Caprice, in which Liszt introduces the pianist to interlocking octaves, and an extended octave passage in the middle section alla Paganini, but with a Lisztian counter-melody as accompaniment; Liszt then makes both hands play the octave theme, with the counter melody within. It’s a humorous piece, with an elegant, simple theme at the beginning and end, interspersed with sparkling runs. Evgeny Kissin plays it here as an encore –
Liszt’s No 3, is La Campanella. This is not derived from a caprice, but from the melody opening the third movement of Paganini’s 2nd Violin concerto. A little bell features as part of the orchestra, hence the name; it is heard throughout Liszt’s piano version.
Liszt’s transcription/arrangement is notorious. Transposed, it bristles with sharps: five, (Paganini only asks for two,) and requires accuracy in leaps in both hands, repeated octaves and repeated single notes, plus strength and evenness in the physically weaker RH 4th and 5th fingers. Here is Kissin – a marvel: