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Ruggiero Ricci’s performing career spanned seventy-five years, with more than 6000 concerts in sixty-five countries, and over 500 recordings. In his nineties he was still active in giving masterclasses.

His career started with a San Francisco début at the age of ten, playing Vieuxtemps, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn and Wieniawski, which amazed the audience and caused him to be hailed as a true prodigy. He had begun learning with his father and then had lessons from Louis Persinger (who also taught Yehudi Menuhin and Guila Bustabo at that time). During the 1930s Ricci studied in Berlin with Georg Kulenkampff, consciously adopting the strengths of the German style of playing and aiming to emulate Kreisler and Heifetz. In 1942 he enlisted in the US Army as an ‘Entertainment Specialist’, giving hundreds of broadcasts and concerts, often without a pianist, and thus developing his knowledge of unaccompanied repertoire. At fourteen his first European tour had been a highly sensationalised series of concerts and it was at this time that Ricci undertook to master Paganini’s Caprices on the premise that in order to excel in technique one should tackle the most difficult music. In 1947 he became the first to record them complete in their original version; further recordings date from 1959, 1975, 1978, 1987, 1988 and 1998 (live at his 80th birthday concert in Hungary).

As one might expect, Ricci gave a number of world premières in his career, including works by Alberto Ginastera, Gottfried von Einem, Alexander Goehr, Joseph White, Gerard Shurmann and Carlos Veerhoff. His discography quite possibly encompasses the widest repertoire of any violinist and his performing career is one of the longest, his last public performances having taken place in 2003.

Ricci taught at Indiana University, the Juilliard School, the University of Michigan and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, and produced two pedagogical books, Left Hand Violin Technique and Ricci on Glissando.

His large discography reveals him as a performer very much in the post-war international mould. Early performances, including a youthfully spirited Mozart G major Sonata and Vecsey’s fiendish Caprice No. 1 (dates uncertain), show an extraordinary mastery of the instrument at a young age. The brightness of sound in the Mozart sonata recording, with remarkably fast and tight trills and a focused vibrato, lends an intensity to his tone that was to remain throughout his career. As might be expected, Ricci seldom indulges in older Romantic mannerisms such as the portamento, but there is a warmth to his sound that defines him as a fine interpreter of post-Romantic repertoire. His more classical recordings (such as Schubert’s Sonatina in A minor, D. 385) show less understanding than we have today of classical phrase shapes, which he plays molto-legato with little in the way of architectural crafting.

Ricci’s performance of Strauss’s Violin Sonata, Op. 18 (1963) is masterly. Here the longer post-Wagnerian phrases are beautifully connected with a highly emotive and exciting sound especially evident in the effervescent finale. Equally, the Violin Concerto by Benjamin Lees (1976) shows a remarkable power without the tendency towards stridency so frequently to be found in such repertoire when performed by lesser players of Ricci’s generation. The work is quite referential—one can hear echoes of Bartók’s musical language in the finale and the first movement has many passages that are reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2—and displays characteristic playing from Ricci who maintains coherence throughout the more complex and charged portions of the work. Similar virtues characterise Malcolm Arnold’s Sonata No. 2 (date uncertain), in which an elegant yet exciting sound is brought together with evident musical intellect.

Ricci’s musical voice is an important and unmistakable one and his recordings taken overall, as well as his extensive pedagogical work, testify to his greatness as one who has helped to mould modern violin playing.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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