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Stringed geniuses

Music | New releases showcase violinist Paganini and guitarist Hendrix

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

There are probably more similarities between the 19th-century violinist Niccolò Paganini and the 20th­century electric guitarist Jimi Hendrix than between any other musicians or composers from the Classical and Woodstock eras.

The most obvious similarity is that-through an unprecedented combination of virtuosity and showmanship-each transformed the perception of his instrument by unleashing its protean potential and elevating it to a status typically enjoyed by mythical weaponry like Thor's hammer or King Arthur's sword.

As for the second-most obvious similarity, there's stiff competition between the top-draw popularity that each enjoyed on the concert circuit and the eagerness with which he partook of the hedonistic excesses perennially available to the male celebrity.

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Well-documented accounts of their musical triumphs continue to circulate and to inspire (La Scala was for Paganini what the Monterey Pop Festival was for Hendrix), but so do accounts of their reaping in sobriety what they sowed in self-indulgence. Paganini fathered a son, Achilles, out of wedlock and contracted syphilis in the days during which the cure was as bad as (and maybe worse than) the disease. Hendrix never publicly admitted fatherhood, but after his death two women claiming to be the mothers of his children eventually made claims on his estate.

Both were born in a year ending in "two"; both died in a year ending in "zero." One could go on.

Artistically speaking, however, the most significant bond between Paganini and Hendrix is the refusal of their music to go gently into that good night. Hence the recent appearances of the latter's Valleys of Neptune (Experience Hendrix/Legacy) and Thomas Zehetmair's recording of the former's 24 Capricci (ECM).

Valleys of Neptune, the flagship release of Legacy Recordings' "relaunch" of the Hendrix catalogue, comprises a dozen recordings made mostly in 1969 ("Mr. Bad Luck" was recorded in 1967 and enhanced with "additional bass and drum recording" in 1987) and is being promoted as comprising "previously unreleased" studio recordings. That they are, but over half of them have appeared before in different (usually live) versions.

That nearly 40 years after Hendrix's death there no longer remains enough completely new material for one album is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that the passing of four decades has not dulled the exuberance that went into the Neptune recordings. Death was, in a sense, right around the corner-the death of not only Hendrix but also the '60s-yet you'd never know it from his singing, his playing, or the playing he inspired in his drummer (Mitch Mitchell) and his bassist (Noel Redding on nine of the songs, Billy Cox on three).

What one hears instead is something like the birth of a new Western-music folk genre: Part jazz, part rock, and lots of parts blues, the songs on Neptune sound as if Hendrix were just getting started.

When Paganini began composing his 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1, he really was just getting started. He was only in his early 20s, at the cusp of what would be a three-decade career as Europe's premiere virtuoso soloist. Although the caprices weren't published as a whole until more than a decade later (in 1817), they obviously capture their composer's flamboyance and talent and make clear why the more superstitious members of his audience believed that he had acquired his powers in a diabolically Faustian deal.

Obviously, no recordings of Paganini himself exist, but Zehetmair's vigorous, confident renditions of the Caprices, especially when played back at above-average volumes, can make listeners believe they're feeling something akin to what Paganini's audiences must have felt.

No Paganini fan can ask for more.

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