By Tony Woodcock
The great American violinist Ruggiero Ricci died this week at the age of 94. I had the great privilege of seeing Ricci perform many times and of working with him on countless occasions.
The first time I saw him live I was a boy of 14 with very “sophisticated” tastes. His programme, which I remember vividly, started with unaccompanied Bach—the B-minor Partita, then Prokofiev F-minor Sonata with Ernest Lush at the piano, Brahms D-minor Sonata and then a host of Paganini showpieces. Ricci was in great form that night, but this “sophisticated” kid turned his nose up at the blatant showmanship of Paganini and commented to the nice lady next to him that if I were at the end of the row I would leave at this point. Pretentious…moi?!! So I stayed…and, oh my God, was that a revelation. I have never seen or heard anything like it. Just impossible kamikaze violin playing. Breathtaking.
Twenty five years later, I found myself with my wife Virginia at the Wigmore Hall, London, for a Ricci extravaganza. All the Bach unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas and all 24 of the Paganini Caprices, over two nights. Ricci was just staggeringly brilliant, and the audience knew it and was going wild. For an encore, he played Paganini’s Variations on Paisiello’s “Nel cor pìu non mi sento” for violin alone which has to be the extreme range of what the violin is capable of, what with left hand pizzicato accompaniments of the bowed melody. The daring and technical bravura ignited the audience still further until people were applauding and cheering between phrases!!! I have never heard the like, only when the Red Sox beat the Yankees…which happens. Years later, I mentioned this recital to Ricci over dinner and he said, in that slightly rasping American accent of his, “Oh, yeah…you got to be motoring real hot to play like that.” Well, he was a Ferrari that night.
I wonder where God will seat Mr. Ricci in his celestial orchestra. Surely next to Mr. Heifetz or Mr. Oistrakh or…and I would love this…right next to Senor Paganini. We will miss him here on Earth.