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Son of two Israeli instrumental teachers, Emanuel Vardi began piano and violin lessons at an early age. Racist riots in 1920 drove the family from Jerusalem to America, where Vardi attended a public school until he was old enough, at fourteen, for a specialist music school. He seems to have struggled through this period of his life, failing in the end to graduate from The Juilliard School. Hearing William Primrose’s 1934 recording of two of Paganini’s violin Caprices on the viola, however, ignited a spark for the disillusioned Vardi who proceeded to transcribe all twenty-four Caprices for the viola and later (in 1965) became the first violist to record the complete set – in fact this recording remained one of a kind until Scott Slapin repeated the feat in 2008. Primrose, who was principal violist in Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra, heard Vardi play in 1938 and arranged a meeting with Toscanini. The audition was straight to the point, according to Vardi: ‘I understand you play Paganini caprices […] play me one. So I […] played da duh, he says ok, you’re in.’ This early break led to further opportunities including quartet playing with violinist Oscar Shumsky. Vardi’s solo career perhaps reached its pinnacle with his Carnegie Hall recital, Primrose being the only other violist to have given a solo recital there. Later he became successful as a conductor and teacher and also composed, including several film scores. His string ensemble, Virtuosi, USA, was known for performing his own sometimes outlandish transcriptions of Baroque and Classical virtuoso works and recorded a number of them in 1960.

Further to his various musical passions, Vardi was a keen painter. In 1950 he undertook two years’ study at the Academia di Belle Arti in Florence and won first prize at the Rapallo International Art Competition for an abstract painting of a violin which is now displayed in the Bordeghera Museum, Rome. This interest continued right to the end of his life, even after a shoulder injury sustained in 1993 had prevented him from playing any more.

Vardi’s legacy of recordings is vast. His most famous achievement, of course, is the astonishing 1965 recording of the complete Paganini 24 Caprices. Given the shape and dimensions of the viola it is astounding that this has been attempted at all, let alone as convincingly as Vardi manages it. Unfortunately the first Caprice suffers badly from many pitch and tone distortions, often so scratchy that pitches are quite unclassifiable, but equally there is some extraordinary playing within the whole set, as in the measured and full-toned No. 2, the pin-point accuracy of up-bow staccati in No. 7, the deep, organ-like triple-stops in No. 14 and, in the most famous of them all (No. 24), a muscular and authoritative tone which, when it reaches well into the violin’s normal E-string territory, does so with a bewilderingly accurate impersonation of the violin’s tone in this tessitura. Stylistically, some of these items are a bit dull (lacking, perhaps, insight into the more vulnerable reaches of Paganini’s artistic personality). But at its best Vardi’s playing is massive in scale and scope: not afraid of the portamento, and enlivened by a powerful vibrato which, on his large and fine instrument, imbues the sound with a deeply resonant quality.

In more conventional repertoire Vardi excels equally well, although the much later Brahms sonatas (1991) and the Bliss Sonata (1989) display a slightly unfortunate trait: a rather forced A-string sound which, whilst within the bounds of acceptability, soon becomes wearing to the ear. Of the Brahms sonatas, I have a slight preference for Vardi’s performance of No. 1, although both share similar virtues and were recorded at the same time. All movements are taken at a good pace, with a clear and powerful tone (although Sturrock’s piano playing – as found in many of her performances – can be rather too heavy at times). The style is almost entirely conventional here, as it is in Bliss’s Sonata which gains in interest given that it is heard less frequently. In Vardi’s first movement there is a slightly acidic quality to his tone (perhaps the effects of old age – this seems to be the case with a number of other more senior players) but the pizzicati in the second movement are clear and percussive, whilst the moto perpetuo third movement (which suggests Hindemith’s solo sonata) is played with energy and even a degree of menace. These are all fine and powerful renditions from an authoritative artist.

Also included here is Vardi’s 1988 recording of his own Suite Based on American Folk Tunes. This is compositionally quite colourful (the third movement incorporating Bartókian rhythms and the last spiced by subversive syncopations). Vardi’s powerful tone is evident, even though he does at times play in that rather strident manner on the A-string.

Vardi was certainly a major and versatile figure in many disciplines throughout his long career, and a violist worthy of attention.

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

Role: Conductor 
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