Ruggiero Ricci, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, died a week ago Sunday in his home in Palm Springs. He was 94.
Ricci had an incredibly long career, beginning in the 1920s as a child prodigy. His given name was Woodrow Wilson Rich, which was changed to Ruggiero Ricci because it sounded better as a prodigy. He seems to have been bitter about his early years as a star, according to as his obituary in the New York Times.
But he overcame them and turned himself into a musician of historical talent. During World War II he played solo repertoire for troops and, wanting to impress and entertain, mastered the 24 Caprices of Paganini. His subsequent recording of these pieces, in 1950, was the first of the complete series, and groundbreaking. It is unsurpassed to this day, as any violinist will tell you.
The place to start with Ricci, or at least a good place to start, is with the recording shown above, which contains that phenomenal recording of the Paganini Caprices as well as many other works. (Ricci didn’t want to be known as a specialist; he made more than 500 recordings. Of special interest in the collection mentioned are his recordings of the Hindemith sonatas for solo violin, the Prokofiev Sonata for solo violin and the Khachaturian Violin Concerto. The recording of Ravel’s “Tzigane,” with Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, included here, is jaw dropping.)
I met Ricci once, briefly. My girlfriend (at the time) studied with him at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and I was introduced before one of her lessons. If memory serves, he seemed rather brusque.
And I have to say, that quality is one I like best about his recordings. There is a palpable impatience to the playing, a denial of interpretive nonsense in favor of a gun-ho forwardness. He was a pistol when he played. Some call it “naturalness,” and I suppose it is — natural to Ricci. At any rate, it makes his recording of the Paganini Caprices sound thoroughly Modern, milked not for Romantic excesses but taken for what they are — astonishing technical challenges (like the Sequenzas of Luciano Berio) that need no emotive juice to make them work. And he dispatches them with an almost frightening virtuosity.