The Devil as Crooner: New Recording Unveils the Softer Side of Paganini

Jun 14, 2017

The finger-blistering virtuosity of the music of early 19th-century violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini is so astonishing that when Paganini performed it, the rumor mill creaked of Faustian bargains. Today, one violinist aims to show the lyrical side of Paganini’s music in a brand-new recording that moves the soul as much as it amazes the senses.

"We think of (Paganini) as this virtuoso guy with all of his pyrotechnical tricks and flying fingers,” violinist Rachel Barton Pine said. "But it was obviously his music that touched people’s hearts and caused all those women to swoon, not just the virtuosity."

Pine's most recent recording, Bel Canto Paganini, contains plenty of Paganini's finger-twisting technical feats. But it also goes beyond the virtuosity, revealing the music's lyrical strengths, as inspired by the great bel canto operas of Paganini's time.

Bel canto translates to "beautiful singing." The name alone is nearly enough to make the heart melt.

But make a diva sing about the tribulations of a druid princess — as Vincenzo Bellini did in the opera Norma — or turn a great singer into a young woman who has lost her beloved — as Gaetano Donizetti did in Lucia di Lammermoor — and bel canto opera becomes not a platform for just another pretty voice, but a medium for the most nuanced expression of profound emotional truths. Pain, envy, betrayal, loss, joy, elation — it’s all there.

Album cover for Rachel Barton Pine's new recording, Bel Canto Paganini
Credit Avie Records /

I spoke recently with Pine about her new recording, and now you can hear her talk about her take on the lyrical Paganini, the special coaching she sought in order to tap into the bel canto soul of Paganini’s music and how she beat Paganini at his game in her own Paganini-inspired virtuoso piece.

Stay tuned to Classical 101 to enjoy selections from Pine’s Bel Canto Paganini recording.

And prepare to be moved.

But just in case you still want some in-your-face fast notes, I leave you with Pine playing and talking about Paganini's devilishly difficult 24 Caprices for Solo Violin: