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Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times, September 2010

Pierre Rode, a violinist born in Bordeaux in 1774, wrote 24 caprices for solo violin before Paganini did...Axel Strauss shows them to lack Paganini’s razzmatazz but not scintillating virtuosity.

Robert Maxham
Fanfare, May 2010

In the days before Suzuki’s method swept almost everything before it, making way for a brave new world in which violinists moved through limited numbers of pieces to full concertos, virtually bypassing technical études, students customarily took a different road to the summit. That one, well worn through the ages, passed through the foothills of Rodolphe Kreutzer’s 40 (or 42), ascending arduously by way of Federigo Fiorillo’s 36 to Pierre Rode’s 24 before mounting to the pinnacle of Paganini’s almost unattainable 24. In those days, students even stopped to study a concerto or two by Viotti, Kreutzer, Rode, or Spohr before tackling standard repertoire. To those students, Rode’s caprices represented welcome relief from studies focused each on a single technical problem; compare Rode’s miniatures, which tied together various problems in knots although still perhaps emphasizing one or another of them. It should come as no surprise, then, that Rode’s caprices have been among the first sets (besides Paganini’s, and perhaps Ernst’s technical barn burners and Wieniawski’s barnstorming op. 10—the École moderne—and op. 18) to be recorded (in Rode’s case, by Cristina Giovannini on Stradivarius 51 and by the “last of the Auer students,” Oscar Shumsky).

Now Axel Strauss has entered the lists with a recording that will make the works readily and inexpensively available to violinists—teachers and students and professionals most obviously, perhaps—but also, because of their musical merit, to general listeners as well. And from his commanding opening of the First Caprice, it’s clear that the value of his approach should be enormous; for from the work, devoted, like Kreutzer’s Sixth Étude, largely to staccato, he draws a musical line if not so cogent as those that Bach imbedded in his leaping melodies, at least recognizable and captivating to a musical sensibility. His tone on the 1845 Pressenda on which he plays displays a variety of timbres that also brings the study closer to a character piece than to a technical exercise. The Second Caprice, with its octaves and string crossings, sounds more dazzling, while Strauss spins long-breathed patterns from the Third’s perpetual-motion-like legato 16th notes. And he dispels any doubt about the Romantic sensibilities of these caprices in the Fourth’s Allegro, which, though regular in its patterns, strikes the listener with the force of a gale wind. In Strauss’s reading, the Fifth, though brilliant, continues the dark mood of the Fourth (every traditional student, though perhaps not yet capable of Strauss’s tempestuous assaults, should have felt the exhilaration of playing real, portentous music—perhaps for the first time—when tackling this study). The Sixth opens with cantilena on the G string, of which Strauss takes optimum advantage, playing the 16th notes that bring the introduction to a close with yearning sensitivity. Comparing the scale-like patterns of the ensuing Moderato section with those in Kreutzer’s 26th (say) reveals how far Rode had surpassed Kreutzer in both brilliance and cogency. Strauss never seems to rush the studies at the expense of the music; in the Seventh Caprice, he doesn’t sacrifice any of the message to achieve extra crispness in the staccatos. He elicits rather than electrifies, and he brings to the intensely patterned Eighth the same kind of intelligent communication for which interpreters strive in Bach’s movements that feature similarly steady patterns (though the Master’s usually shift kaleidoscopically). In the jaunty Allegretto of the Ninth Caprice, Strauss recalls the triplet figures in concertos written by his teacher, Giovanni Battista Viotti. The 10th Caprice parks the student in third position throughout, but Strauss reveals no left-hand fatigue. He plays the 11th as a musical composition, supplying ample punctuation rather than simply stringing the phrases in a single, undifferentiated, sentence.

The 13th Caprice shifts from sharps to flats, and though the absence of open strings may darken the effect, Strauss supplies any want of brilliance with a shifting, shadowy rhetoric. The 14th and 15th, in Strauss’s performance, continue in this darker vein, with the 16th revealing a particularly touching melody, tinged with chromatic harmonies, flowing beneath its superficially étude-like patterns—and he declaims the double-stopped passages with commanding authority. Similar chromatic patterns underlie No. 17, Vivacissimo, despite the studies’ prima facie dissimilarities. In No. 18, Strauss again reveals a Bach-like complexity in the repeating patterns (recalling especially the Presto of the Master’s First Solo Sonata). The broken octaves in the Allegretto of the 19th Caprice deliver a musical message at the urgency of which similar patterns in Kreutzer’s 25th Étude hardly hint. No. 20 brings another short character piece, this one meditative despite its technical difficulties, and Strauss reveals that the piece’s rhetorical gestures rather than challenges to fingers and bow arm represent its most significant value for students. Strauss struts cockily in the 21st Caprice and demonstrates an easy command of the melodic leaps in the middle section as well as the decisive accents throughout. The 22nd Caprice again elicits from Strauss a sense of intelligent, Bach-like design. The 23rd Caprice recalls Pietro Locatelli’s caprices from L’Arte del violino (those capriccios have never, to my knowledge, been recorded independently of the concertos to which they belong), and Strauss cements the connection. The 24th brings the set to an impetuous conclusion.

Shumsky perhaps made a more brilliant effect in the brightest of the caprices, but he seemed somewhat brittle in his pursuit of that effect, as well as lacking Strauss’s tonal variety and compelling sense of style. As my son remarked when I played various comparisons for him, Shumsky’s readings sound more like studies, Strauss’s more like performances (performances to which, I might add, general listeners might care to listen). That’s not to say that in his roughly 10-minute shorter passage through the caprices, Shumsky doesn’t display the full extent of his technical development; but these pieces teach more than that, and Strauss has encompassed that additional territory. Shumsky shows what a violinist can make of them; Strauss shows what a musician can make of them. And Naxos’s engineers have captured their soloist in a rather reverberant ambiance that sweetens the timbre of his violin.

Perhaps best of all (and unlike Elizabeth Wallfisch’s readings of Kreutzer—cpo 999 901, Fanfare 32:4), Strauss’s performances of this didactic literature don’t sound in the least mannered or intellectualized. Urgently recommended to violinists, teachers, students, and professionals (to all of whom his readings should provide at least an occasional epiphany)—and, in fact, to all who don’t demand from Rode’s caprices the same musical nutrition they might expect from Paganini’s caprices or Chopin’s études.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, March 2010

Naxos is to be praised for the consistent quality of this strand of their recording programme. The St. John Chrysostom Church has become their chamber music venue of choice in North America. The production team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver now know the technical set-up there to produce recordings there that combine excellent detail set in a warmly resonant acoustic. Certainly Strauss’s 1845 Pressenda violin sounds superb. I hope that Naxos return to him to play other ultimately more substantial music. Bruce Schueneman’s liner-notes are interesting and informative…Shumsky recorded them too and again his performance was revelatory…this is an excellent reference disc and at the price valuable for all those interested in this strand of repertoire. For something all together more revelatory albeit at a significantly higher price seek out Shumsky.

Duncan Druce
Gramophone, March 2010

Perfectly poised performances for Rode’s instructive exercises

Axel Strauss is fully in command of all the techniques Rode requires. He’s especially convincing in demonstrating the varied bowings, and plays throughout with a sensitive awareness of the character of each piece and how best to make the form and phrase-structure clear and convincing. He does. I think, miss a trick in not attempting to recreate the kind of tone and expression current in Rode’s day. The Adagio and Cantabile introductions to several of the Caprices, in particular, would sound more vividly expressive with constant dynamic variation and selective vibrato advocated by Rode’s disciple Spohr. For all that, these are excellent performances that respect Rode’s classical poise while bringing out an emotional colour that’s already Romantic.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2009

Though Pierre Rode intended his Twenty-four Caprices as educational exercises, today’s penchant for displaying technical wizardry is well served by these enormously difficult pieces. They were, together, with Kreutzer’s Forty Etudes, composed for students at the recently regenerated Paris Conservatoire, their publication in 1815 predating Paganini’s famous work of the same name by five years. By then Rode had established himself as one of the great touring virtuosos of the time, but it was a brilliance that had burned itself out by the time he was forty. Recently Naxos issued a fine disc of three of his violin concertos that revealed his ready ability to write attractive melodies [8.570469], and if the Caprices do not have the outgoing flamboyance of Paganini’s score, they are highly enjoyable. Indeed in many ways they more readily reveal shortcomings of technique to the innocent ear, the passages of double stopping in the fourth and nineteenth can only avoid sounding sour if played with pure accuracy. They are performed by the German-born, Axel Strauss, a violinist now better known in the States where he has lived since 1996, and like Rode he divides his time as a touring soloist and a pedagogue at the San Francisco Conservatoire of Music. His performances are stunning, and with tempos that are always urgent, his fingers flash around the fingerboard even when the music lies awkwardly as in the eleventh caprice. For a sampling point try the seventeenth, its ‘jazzy’ rhythm so attractive. For this recording he was loaned a gorgeous Pressenda of 1845, the balance of sound throughout the instrument ideally lending itself to Rode’s writing. Recorded in the fashionable empty church acoustic.

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