Julian Haylock explores the artistry and technical wizardry of the most celebrated Italian violinist of his generation
Though Salvatore Accardo was inspired by the quicksilver agility of his legendary predecessor, Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840), as personalities they could hardly be further apart. Paganini was a born showman: dressed in funereal garb, with long black hair cascading over his skeletal frame, he would float onto the stage like some ghastly apparition, bewitching his audiences with his cadaverous appearance before he had even played a note. By comparison, Accardo emerges nonchalantly from the wings with a friendly smile, a gentle bow and gets down to business with the minimum of fuss. It is difficult to imagine him indulging in Paganini’s circus trick of playing ferociously difficult pieces first on four strings, then (out with the scissors) three and so on until only the low G string remained.
What they shared – as far as can be gathered from contemporary reports – is the same glistening tonal transparency throughout the range, an exquisite gift for sustaining cantabile melody and the ability to throw off even the most hair-raising difficulties with disarming nonchalance. Little wonder that Accardo became the supreme modern interpreter of Paganini’s music, as can be savoured in a dazzling live studio performance of the Variations on Nel cor più non mi sento for solo violin, recorded in 1972 when he was at the height of his powers:
Particularly astonishing here is the velocity and accuracy of Accardo’s left-hand pizzicato (from 1:26 on), which understandably inspires excited cheers and applause from the captivated audience in mid-performance. Here one can study at close quarters the well-spaced, immaculately balanced fingers of his bowing-hand (relatively free of lateral movement) and the exceptional strength of the left hand, with well-curved fingers that leave only a small area of the tip in contact with the string and fingerboard. This is the key element in creating the exceptional clarity and transparency of Accardo’s distinctive soundworld.
It was also around this time that Accardo embarked on a groundbreaking series of all six Paganini concertos (and several shorter pieces) with the London Philharmonic and Charles Dutoit for Deutsche Grammophon. Henryk Szeryng just pipped him to the post with his world premiere recording of No.3 for Philips (with the London Symphony and Alexander Gibson), but it was Accardo who claimed the honours in the E minor No.6, for which he composed the finger-crippling first movement cadenza as performed live on Italian TV in 1974. Among several sleight-of-hand miracles here are his prodigious sequences of high-speed forced harmonics and ascending tenths – blink and you’ll miss them as 2:02 and 2:35 respectively:
Born in Turin in 1941, Accardo started playing the violin aged three and was already showing signs of exceptional ability by the time he began formal lessons three years later. The most important early influence on his playing was Luigi d’Ambrosio – a pupil of August Wilhelmj who had studied with dedicatee of Mendelssohn’s popular E minor Violin Concerto, Ferdinand David. This was at the Naples Conservatory, where Accardo gauged himself on a daily diet of scales in every conceivable position and Ševčik’s intricate, finger-strengthening exercises. He rounded out his professional training in Siena with Yvonne Astruc, a former pupil and assistant of George Enescu, who focussed primarily on his burgeoning interpretative powers.
Accardo had meanwhile created a sensation with his 1954 professional debut (aged 13), via a programme that included a number of Paganini’s solo caprices, and won first prize at the prestigious Geneva Competition just two years later. His true destiny was revealed to him when in 1958 he won the first Paganini Competition in Genoa, which effectively launched his international career. Here at last was a home-grown Italian player worthy of comparison with the finest players emerging from Russia and North America. Indeed, his no-holds-barred Tchaikovsky Concerto (recorded in 1960)…
…and electrifying 1963 account of Lalo’s swashbuckling Symphonie espagnole, both with the Orchestre Pasdeloup and Herbert Albert, are imbued with an impassioned spontaneity and forward surge that are well in the Stern and (David) Oistrakh class:
Also dating from his initial period of post-competition success is a rare 1960 studio recording of Debussy’s Minstrels, in which the 19-year-old sensation characteristically sustains exceptional clarity of technique and musical vision, while gently acknowledging the music’s stylistic send-ups:
Already notable is his unforced, lithe sound, intensified by a narrow, relatively fast vibrato that – as is the general tendency with most players – gradually widened and slowed with age.
It was during the 1970s that Accardo’s scorching virtuosity became tempered by a serene nobility and scintillating interpretative cool that if anything enhanced the impact of his pyrotechnical wizardry. Having founded the Italian Chamber Orchestra in 1968 (relaunched in 1996) and the Cremona String Festival in 1971, he directed and played concertos with the distinguished Italian string chamber group I Musici between 1972 and 1977, following in the footsteps of Felix Ayo and Roberto Michelucci. This was shortly before Baroque music became the near-exclusive preserve of the period instrument groups then fast emerging, yet it is difficult to resist the honey-toned sophistication of Accardo and colleagues in full flow during the opening movement of the last (No.12) of Vivaldi’s Op.7 set of concertos:
Accardo may well have stayed with I Musici had it not been for the contemporaneous success of his Paganini recordings for DG. There were already several formidable recordings of the First Concerto in the catalogue featuring the likes of Michael Rabin, Yehudi Menuhin, Leonid Kogan and (most recently) Itzhak Perlman, yet these were very much in the bold Romantic tradition of Brahms, Bruch and Wieniawski. By comparison, Accardo’s glistening, shimmering brilliance felt entirely at one with the composer’s sunlit Mediterranean inspiration, and the scintillating results made him a Yellow Label star, especially the tinkling ‘La Campanella’ finale of Concerto No.2:
At first Accardo found his formidable reputation as a Paganini specialist difficult to shake off, something that his ventures into the Italian Baroque with I Musici and a stylish collection of Haydn Concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra under Edo de Waart did little to dispel:
Then the Holland-based label Philips (now Decca/Universal) had the inspired idea of recording Accardo in the mainstream Romantic repertoire that had been his bread and butter when he first burst onto the music scene in the late 1950s. The complete violin works of Max Bruch, expertly accompanied by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur, found immediate favour with critics and collectors, especially as at the time only the First Concerto and Scottish Fantasy were at all well known. The opening movement of the Third Concerto proved especially congenial to Accardo’s tonal purity and heart-warming espressivo, entirely free of portamento excess. Also unmissable is the tantalising dichotomy between his seamless, light-as-air legato and flying spiccato brilliance:
The astonishing range of Accardo’s repertoire reflects his rare ability to adapt to virtually any style ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to pieces written especially for him by the likes of Salvatore Sciarrino, Franco Donatoni, Walter Piston, Astor Piazzolla and Iannis Xenakis. As the celebrated American critic and writer Boris Schwarz memorably put it after hearing Accardo’s US debut recital in 1980: ‘He played Bach like a virtuoso and Paganini like a musician.’
Accardo is also an expert chamber musician – he formed his own string quartet in 1992, and loves nothing more than joining colleagues in the masterpieces of the repertoire, as witness a glowingly affectionate 1980s performance of Mozart’s G minor String Quintet K516, recorded by Unitel:
Accardo’s two main instruments during his career have both been Stradivari: the ‘Firebird ‘ex Saint-Exupéry’ of 1718 and the ‘Hart ex Francescatti’ of 1727. Yet perhaps the most famous instrument he ever played is Paganini’s own 1742 ‘Il Cannone’ Guarneri del Gesù, on which he recorded a special album in 1995, which includes a winning performance of Elgar’s La Capricieuse:
Accardo is also a much sought-after and devoted teacher (a number of recent filmed masterclasses are currently available on DVD) and during the late 1980s enjoyed no small of success as an operatic conductor. Yet it is as a violinist that he will be principally remembered and at the age of 74 he is still going strong, as witness a dazzling performance of Nathan Milstein’s finger-crippling Paganiniana, recorded just a few months age, in January 2015, which would grace any player half his age.