A Paganini Premiere at St John’s Smith Square

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Paganini, Ernst, Bach and Schumann. Christian Joseph Saccon (violin); Luigi Di Ilio (piano), St John’s Smith Square, London, 19.7.2015 (JW)

Paganini/PannyLa Tempesta
Ernst – Concerto pathétique in F sharp minor, Op.23.
Bach – Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin
Schumann – Violin Sonata No.2 in D minor, Op.121


It’s not an everyday experience to hear a world premiere performance of a work by Paganini. And yet that was the novelty of this programme given under the title of ‘The Italian Romantic Violin’ – something of a misnomer, but one takes the point – by violinist Christian Joseph Saccon and pianist Luigi Di Ilio.

The work in question was La Tempesta, which here was given its first performance in the reduction for violin and piano. It’s worth briefly considering the work’s origins. There seems to have been a tentative plan for Paganini to ask Beethoven to write  a Tempest piece for him  in advance of the violinist’s visit to Vienna but Beethoven’s death in 1827 ended that avenue. Paganini arrived in Vienna on 16 March 1828, and performed at some prestigious concerts. Whilst in Vienna Paganini wrote three new works: a Capriccio on Mozart’s ‘La ci darem la mano’ – now lost; Mestosa suonata, largely a series of variations for the G-string on the Austrian anthem; and La Tempesta, for violin and orchestra. In Vienna Paganini had met Joseph Panny, fellow violinist and composer, and he commissioned Panny to write the Tempest piece. Commissioned on 25 May, it was finished on 14 June. Paganini supervised the composition and paid Panny 200 florins. The first performance came at Paganini’s farewell concert in the city on 24 July. The Emperor was present to witness the concert of the man he had recently appointed Royal Chamber Virtuoso.

Whilst not especially virtuosic, it’s very descriptive and falls into sections with different changes of time. The Prelude is marked as ‘Whirlwind’; the second section is ‘Start of the Storm’; then comes a ‘Prayer’ followed by ‘Alarm at Sea’, the ‘Great Storm’ and the ‘General Alert’. There follows a section marked ‘Calm’ –  a particularly fine example of his refined lyricism in Andantino cantabile – and then the Finale with a theme, two variations and coda. Paganini employed scordatura tuning – where the violin is tuned differently to normal – and thus Saccon swapped violins several times during the course of the piece.

La Tempesta is one of his very few commissions – Harold in Italy was another – and one of the very few occasions in which Paganini wrote any kind of programmatic music. It’s fair to point out that La Tempesta had a lukewarm reception in Vienna.  Partly this may have been due to Panny’s orchestration but the work’s subsequent silence presumably also owes much to the fact that a joint-composition of this nature doesn’t fit easily into the repertoire. The two Italian musicians played it for all it is worth, reading it, naturally, from the highly prepared score and alive to its unusual structure. The finest writing is in the final section and here Saccon was at his finest, too, finding colour and panache. Both musicians gave the appreciative audience the opportunity to hear this unusual and long-overlooked work in its violin-and-piano form and to do so, moreover, in the best possible light.

Back into the fray they came to play Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s Concerto pathétique in F sharp minor, Op.23. Ernst was Paganini’s so-called heir apparent and there are many links between Paganini and the Moravian violinist and composer; one that is of particular interest is that the young Ernst, born in 1812, first heard Paganini in Vienna in 1828. It’s hard now to conceive of the impression made by the arrival of Paganini, who had seldom ventured outside Italy at this point. The original six concerts were extended to 14; Schubert attended three of them. Ernst’s devotion to Paganini was such that he used to rent rooms next door to Paganini and eavesdrop on his practising and attend his concerts. The Violin Concerto in F sharp minor, was written probably early in 1846. His education in Brünn (Brno) and Vienna had equipped him soundly but Paganini’s appearance led to an acceleration of ambition.

By the time of this concerto musical fashions had changed, however, and Schumann’s influence was beginning to turn music away from Paganinian hyper-virtuosity and towards a more integrated form in composition; hence Ernst’s decision to write a single-movement though complexly structured Concerto. Whether one hears it as a continuous work structured in three sections or as the novel form suggested by many musicians and commentators, the Concerto is technically very demanding, and full of serious-minded expressive lyricism. Liszt is known to have been influenced by it, and Berlioz wrote admiringly of it: ‘It is a magisterial work from the point of view of both symphonic writing and violin technique’. It remains Ernst’s masterpiece, and was played as such, with much credit attending Di Ilio’s consummate performance of the piano reduction, not least the superb playing of the orchestral introduction. This is a piece Saccon has played before and his expressive physicality showed just how much of an affinity he has with it and with the milieu of romantic nineteenth-century repertoire.

After the interval the concert moved into known waters. Firstly there was a seamless and unrhetorical performance of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No.2 in D minor which Saccon played largely with eyes shut, communing with the music. Finally he was re-joined by Di Ilio for a marvellously attentive and expressive performance of Schumann’s Sonata No.2, Op.121, also in D minor – like the Ernst it too was dedicated to Ferdinand David. The two musicians made a splendid partnership, a listening partnership in which Di Ilio’s sympathetic collaboration was an object lesson in breathing, in holding tempi, in co-ordinating. And here, too, Saccon played with unfettered romantic esprit. It was wholly appropriate, then, that they gave the audience as an encore a performance of Widmung that soared ravishingly.

Jonathan Woolf  

Leave a Comment