PAGANINI CAPRICES, JED DISTLER
24 November, 2006
Artistic Quality 10, Sound Quality 10
Have you ever stopped to think what Paganini’s violin caprices would sound like on the saxophone? Or, to be more specific, what they’d sound like in the hands of an instrumentalist whose technique does not know the meaning of “impossible”, whose tone is unfailingly even, beautiful, and controlled beyond belief, and who seems never to take a breath?
Then you’ve come to the right place–indeed, the only place. Listen to Caprice No. 4′s alternating long legato lines and scampering interval leaps and you wonder if Raaf Hekkema really is playing a soprano saxophone instead of a hybrid cello/oboe/clarinet/flute prefabricated not to slip out of tune. On the alto saxophone, No. 6′s double-stops are reinterpreted as the fastest, quietest arpeggios in the West, resembling the kind of instrument you’d get if you crossed a marimba with a viola da gamba.
More importantly, musical considerations always govern Hekkema’s choices so far as register, articulation, and phrasing are concerned. For example, he inflects each of No. 24′s variations with awesome variety and wit, and even resorts to gentle slap tonguing to replicate plucked strings. At first I found MDG’s recording quality chilly, distant, and too resonant, but gradually came to realize how perfectly the ambience suits the performances. Hekkema’s excellent booklet notes not only discuss the music but also the process of and challenges involved in adapting Paganini’s caprices for saxophone. In addition, MDG manages a total single-disc playing time of 81 minutes and 28 seconds. What a tour-de-force! If only Paganini could come back to life and hear this disc.