Niccolò Paganini

Virtuos technique supports musical expression

“Nothing in the world of music is so seducing, yet so despised and cast suspicion on, as the virtuosic. A unique western contradiction which originated in the 19th century when music began to be regarded as art.”

With these lines a former teacher of mine at the music conservatory in Gothenburg, Martin Nyström, opens his music review on Thomas Zehetmair’s recording of Niccolò Paganini’s “24 Capricci” in Dagens Nyheter, the high society Swedish morning paper.

I let my thoughts wander around a little while sitting here at my workplace surrounded by technological scientists and engineers whose interest and efforts to achieve perfection is a demand for the ESS to become successful. Scientifically and technically ESS are dealing with quantitative matters where the difference between precision and non-precision is often that of one and zero. Having crossed a couple of times in my career between faculties of engineering and nature sciences, and the faculties of arts, I have of course experienced the classical dichotomy between the two regarding culture of personalities and different attitudes towards the more “technical” side of life.

Martin Nyström praises Zehetmair’s new Paganini recording on the ECM label and means that it sets a new standard and is by far the most interesting recording compared to classical by Itzak Perlman (EMI) from 1972 (on Youtube!), and more recent James Ehnes (Onyx) and Tanja Becker-Bender (Hyperion).

There is one particular feature of Zehetmair’s playing that Martin Nystöm seems to enjoy the most: That he is shamelessly subjective in his interpretation. Something that Nyström himself also seems to prefer being when writing music reviews. And why not? Is it possible to be something else when the subject of a review is of qualitative matters like the arts?

Now to the virtuosic part: There was a lot of discussions about technical exercises and teaching methods during my years at the conservatory in Malmö in Sweden. Seven out of ten students in the piano class (including a revolter like myself) were taking private lessons outside the conservatory for the brilliant piano teacher Romuald Sztern – A musical mastermind who used to coach our formidable Swedish piano virtuoso Per Tengstrand before his participation in grand international piano competitions (where Tengstrand always got to the finals if not winning the first prize).

Professors at conservatories are often a bit too musically noble, caring mostly about their own artistic interpretations rather than struggling with the more pedantic, tiresome “industrial floor job” that Mr. Sztern was doing: Standing by the side, carefully observing the artist at play; discover unsuitable habits, manners and unnecessary tensions; finding smart solutions to the problems and having the patience for repeatative training to bring about the virtuoso in the artist.

This way of having a “trainer” when you practice is the usual manner when it comes to sports, but not in music. Musicians try to live by the myths about the lonesome genius and masters like Paganini hiding away in some basement practising with the devil.. Playing music is an athletic activity. You have to master your mental discipline and exercise the various body parts that must coordinate when playing an instrument. Music shares a lot with sports regarding this. And musicians would have so much to learn and benefit from sports psychology and ergonomics if it weren’t for musicians being quite prejudiced when it comes to sports and afraid of stepping down, out of their clouds. The more you have the technical margins on your side, the more you can relax and start concentrating on making music!

The coach, the trainer doesn’t have to be a better athlete, or musician, than the artist he is training. But he will undoubtly always be the best observer when the artist is busy in action.

People often confuse virtuoso playing with fingers running fast. A virtuoso is somebody who possesses outstanding technical ability and perfection. This also includes, of course, the ability for musical expression no matter in what tempo or sound level. “The vituosic” can be seen as just a stylistic character being mastered fully. If it means playing punk music in an unpretentious manner with a guitar out of tune, people would still claim you for being virtuos if you did it really convincing.

Back to Nyström’s praising of Zehetmair’s virtuoso playing – Personally I regard Maxim Vengerov as being the most outstanding violinist of our time! You can compare them both here below and watch some virtuoso playing and technical seminar with Per Tengstrand, Romuald Sztern and Håvard Gimse:

Thomas Zehetmair performing violin Sonata No. 3 ‘Ballade’ by Eugène Ysaÿe:

Maxim Vengerov performing violin Sonata No. 3 ‘Ballade’ by Eugène Ysaÿe:

Duo Tengstrand-Sun performing ‘The Ride of the Cossacks’ by Franz Waxman:

Seminar on piano technique with Romuald Sztern, Per Tengstrand and Håvard Gimse:


Övriga nyhetsmedia: DN