The virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini was one of the world’s first performer idols. With his dramatic sense of fashion, fondness for gambling and women, and programs of pieces that would have left lesser musicians’ fingers in shreds, rumors abounded that he had sold his soul to the devil. He was also a composer, and his most enduring work by far is a set of 24 demonically difficult caprices for solo violin, the successful completion of which is seen as a marker of technical command.
Brazilian violinist Edson Scheid has been acclaimed for his historically minded approach to the caprices, which he performs on a gut-strung Baroque violin with no shoulder or chin rest, similar to the instrument on which Paganini would have composed. As the first of three performances he will give for this year’s Aston Magna Festival, Scheid will perform the complete caprices on July 6 at the Slosberg Music Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.
Q. When did you first encounter these caprices, and what was your initial reaction to them?
A. I think I was 10 years old. I heard a recording, by the famous violinist Michael Rabin. I was immediately fascinated by the pieces, and I remember at that age I tried to play it. Of course, I couldn’t pass the second measure. It was way too difficult. . . . And about 10 years later, I started working on the pieces, and then I was able to play all of them, on modern violin. It was only five years ago that I began to play on baroque violin.
Q. What did you find fascinating about them?
A. When you hear them for the first time, you imagine, “How can one get to the point where you can play all of that?” But it’s not only that. It’s also about the musical qualities of the piece. They are really interesting to listen to. The artistry of them, I would say, is the main thing that caught my attention.
Q. What attracted you to playing these caprices on a baroque violin?
A. I played them on modern violin for many years, but when I started to learn the baroque violin, I realized that I can’t play the baroque violin in the same manner that I play the modern violin. It just doesn’t sound right. For example, the vibrato. I find I can’t use the vibrato in the constant way of the modern violin. Another thing: If you press down the bow too much on the string, the string’s going to break, because it’s not as resistant as the modern violin. I find myself having to be more creative, and using more imagination, to perform anything on baroque violin. So I thought at one point, why not approach the Paganini caprices with that in mind, with those ideas in mind, from a historical-performance point of view?
Q. This creativity and imagination is to replace what?
A. I have to find other ways of playing convincingly. Like I said, if I don’t use vibrato, and I play a long note, I have to find a way to make that note interesting. Like I could start it softer, grow into the middle of the note and then come back at the end. So that kind of thing. You have to be much more aware of the use of the bow. [Also] we have to look at the piece of music from a compositional point of view, and we have to understand the harmonic structure. We can see a certain sequence of chords; should we highlight them? Or should I bring out a certain harmony here and there?
There is a danger when we play them that it becomes too much of a technical exercise. It becomes too metronomic because you’re too concerned with the notes. What I’m trying to do is to go beyond that point, to really understand the gestures that the music implies, play a little bit with timing here. Which is something I think fits the historical-performance approach, because when we read about Paganini himself one gets the sense that he would never play music the same way twice. He was known for inventing things on the stage.
Q. You’ve performed them all in one go before. Is there anything special you do to prepare for this difficult concert?
A. Of course, you never stop really practicing, but once you have the technique to do it, and once you have a solid foundation, it’s not so much of a problem to play a program like this. I also try to play as relaxed as possible and as naturally as possible. With tension it becomes more problematic. I don’t have anything in my calendar for the next week, so I can really focus on it. And I’ve done it before. It’s just a question of finding the places, the particular spots that have to be worked on, and making sure to play them through as well. Every time I play them through, new ideas come in.
Q. What do you like to do outside of music?
A. Especially in the summer, swimming is something I really enjoy. And it’s especially a good sport for violinists.
Q. Why is it a good sport for violinists?
A. The way you hold the violin is somewhat . . . I think it’s good to have something to balance that, getting the body relaxed and balanced. I think it’s a good contrast for the posture, the way we play the violin and then the swimming. And it’s also a very fun thing to do. I’ve done it most of my life.
Presented by Aston Magna Music Festival
At various locations, July 6-8, astonmagna.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.