Conductor, chamber musician, ardent pioneer of contemporary composition and an adventurous soloist, Thomas Zehetmair is equally at home with violin concerti from Mozart to Karol Szymanowsky, and from Schumann's chamber music to Heinz Holliger's most recent works. In addition, as his thought-provoking 2004 ECM recording of the complete sonatas for unaccompanied violin by Eugčne Ysa˙e proved, virtuoso pyrotechnics can be surprisingly multi-faceted and complex when tackled by a musician with a rare awareness of stylistic layers and expressive traditions. Zehetmair now brings a similar dazzling approach to the Caprices for solo violin by Niccolō Paganini (1782-1840), a set of 24 hair-raisingly difficult studies which, when first published in 1820, immediately established new standards of violin technique.
Zehetmair's (long deleted) Teldec version of the "Capricci" dating from the early nineties quickly won the status of a new benchmark recording and in December 2007 he went to the Austrian monastery of St. Gerold to record a second - even more ambitious - interpretation. Its improvisational freedom conveys all the demonic and haunting aspects of the music. Zehetmair: "As a violinist you grow up with the Caprices; like the cycles by Bach and Ysa˙e, they are one of the main challenges you have to face as a violinist - and a creative musician," says Zehetmair in the CD booklet liner notes. "I've often performed the complete cycle in concerts, and I also enjoy combining the Caprices with solo works by other composers. In order to recreate something of that intensity in the recording, I played the complete cycle twice in three days. The second performance was to an audience. While these live versions are the backbone of the recording, I also recorded the Caprices in groups of four to six per day."
Zehetmair's tempi are always flexible, his array of sound-colours is uniquely imaginative and in the "Da-capo" repeats he offers stunning variations and embellishments. "I really do think that there is scope for this kind of interpretation. Modifications of this kind and a greater level of virtuosity can add a whole new dimension to what would otherwise simply be literal repetition. Sometimes I just feel like taking the game to an even higher level. There's no getting away from it, in Paganini's music there has to be something of the circus ring. The Caprices are absolutely wonderful improvisations; they all very much have a character of their own. But they don't hit the mark unless there's also that hint of the circus." Although Zehetmair's enormous stylistic scope certainly informs his interpretation of Paganini's Caprices his basic approach is marked by gripping physicality. "Above all I approach them as a violinist, this is where the violinist is in his element."
Thomas Zehetmair (born 1961 in Salzburg) is one of the most distinguished violinists of his generation. He has collaborated with all major orchestras and important conductors and plays most of the violin repertoire from the Baroque (in historically informed interpretations) to contemporary composition. He has premiered violin concerti by James Dillon and Hans-Jürgen von Bose and, for ECM New Series, recorded the concerto by Heinz Holliger which was dedicated to him. Zehetmair's account of the complete solo sonatas by Eugčne Ysa˙e won great critical acclaim in 2004. In The Guardian Andrew Clements wrote: "Zehetmair's performances of these hugely demanding sonatas are fabulously impressive. This is a perfect example of how a great interpreter can transform musical base metal into something infinitely more precious. Zehetmair's achievement is to unite all conflicting creative currents into a single, surging flood of invention. The playing is so assured, so instinctively musical, that you take everything he plays on trust, believing with him that it is genuinely great music." The violinist's most recent disc on ECM - Bartķk's fifth quartet coupled with the fourth quartet by Paul Hindemith, played by the Zehetmair Quartett - was issued in 2007. Zehetmair will perform the complete cycle of Ysa˙e's six sonatas at this year's Salzburger Festspiele on August 28.