Magazine article Gramophone

Ruggiero Ricci: Tully Potter Considers the Long and Varied Career of the Italian-American Violinist Who Made Playing Paganini and Unaccompanied Recitals, Both Live and on Record, His Calling Card

Magazine article Gramophone

Ruggiero Ricci: Tully Potter Considers the Long and Varied Career of the Italian-American Violinist Who Made Playing Paganini and Unaccompanied Recitals, Both Live and on Record, His Calling Card

Article excerpt

Many famous violinists came and went during Ruggiero Ricci's 85-year career, from 1928 to 2003. For most of that time, and especially in the three decades after World War II, he was in the top echelon of soloists, with a reputation for playing Paganini and other virtuoso fare. Short of stature, he dominated the concert platform with the assurance and seeming permanence of a miniature oak. With nothing more than his violin and bow, he could keep an audience enthralled for an hour or more.

For such a confident performer, he had a stressful start in life, and it is doubtful that he was well taught--he confided to me that playing the violin had virtually deformed him. Born to Italian immigrant parents on Presidio army base, San Francisco, on July 24, 1918, he was named Woodrow Wilson Rich by an army doctor but christened Roger Alexis Rich. His six siblings were all musical; the piano was Roger's first love but his father, a trombonist and bandmaster, insisted on his becoming a fiddler. At eight he went to Louis Persinger, whose assistant Beth Lackey took him and cellist brother George to New York, overseeing his five hours of daily practice. She gave the boys the professional names Ruggiero and Giorgio Ricci (their father's real surname). On November 15, 1928, Ruggiero made his recital debut in San Francisco, billed as eight years old and playing Vieuxtemps, Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn and Wieniawski. From 1929 he appeared in New York with great success. His parents had been suing Lackey for control of the boys' careers and late in 1930, after 41 court hearings, the family was reunited.

An unsettled period ensued: abortive lessons with Mishel Piastro, a tour of Europe, more studies with Georg Kulenkampff in Germany and the Auer disciple Paul Stassevich in Norway and America, then a return to Persinger. At 16 he nearly gave up the violin for the piano. 'Then one day I came across a pile of old newspaper cuttings and I realised how really good I had been just five years earlier.' He regained his form through a note-by-note analysis of Paganini's Caprices and in 1938 made his first 78rpm discs in Berlin.

World War II matured him. 'Entertainment Specialist Ricci' was one of five leaders of a crack US Army Air Force orchestra in uniform, with a party trick of playing Paganini's Moto perpetuo backwards. He booked Town Hall, New York, on November 21, 1946, for an unaccompanied recital: Stamitz-Kreisler, Bach, Ysaye, Hindemith, Kreisler, Wieniawski and Paganini. Mischa Elman said he was crazy, but he triumphed. Thereafter he repeated the pattern worldwide.

Ricci premiered Ginastera's Concerto in 1963 and von Einem's Concerto in 1970. He introduced Paganini's Fourth and Sixth Concertos to America, as well as music by Prokofiev, Goehr, Rodrigo, Lees, Pizzetti, Flury, Arnold, Jaques-Dalcroze, Schurmann and Zimmermann. He could play 30 or 40 of his 50 concertos at short notice, and he unearthed pieces by Joseph White, Ole Bull, Louis Spohr and Heinrich Ernst. After more than 6000 appearances in 65 countries, he gave his last public performances in 2003. He taught at Indiana University, the Juilliard School, the University of Michigan and the Salzburg Mozarteum. At various times he was based in Europe or America and latterly in Palm Springs, California: he died at home on August 6, 2012. He played hundreds of costly violins by Stradivari, the Guarneri family and other classic Italian luthiers (even Paganini's 'Cannon' Guarneri) after borrowing a Strad in 1929. …

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