Some time in early 1978 I received a phone call in my 5th floor walk up artist’s garret in New York City. The voice at the other end said, “Hello, this is Ruggiero Ricci.” I promptly replied, “Yeah, and I’m the Pope!” And then, certain that one of my friends was playing a practical joke on me, “Who is this?”
“This is Ruggiero Ricci,” the energetic slightly raspy voice at the other end replied.
This was how I came to meet Ruggiero Ricci, the legendary violin prodigy who survived and flourished through a long career during which he was justly celebrated for carving out new creative space and daring ever more impossible feats, remarkable even amidst the great galaxy of talent drawn to the violin over the course of the 20th century.
Shortly after that first phone call I went to Ruggiero’s apartment and played for him. Among other things, I played my transcription for guitar of Paganini’s Capriccio 24. I remember that in one of the variations in this piece I had learned one wrong note in the midst of a chromatic scale. Ruggiero heard it immediately and helped me to correct it. Over the years we would develop a long and productive friendship during which we often discussed this sort of minutiae: questionable accidentals in various Bach movements or in Paganini. Like me, Ruggiero was not interested in taming the geniuses of the past by “correcting” their occasional unconventional choices. Both of us shared the belief that the old masters were likely to have been more daring than the opinion makers of the classical music establishment of today.
So many memories of Ruggiero float back to me as I think back on the more than 3 decades I was privileged to have been his friend, admirer and, indirectly, also his student.
His ground breaking recordings of Paganini (including his famous direct to disc or “live” concert recordings of all 24 Capricci!), his wonderful versions of Chopin piano Nocturnes, and all his many versions of all the traditional and (un traditional repertoire) for the violin remain an inspiration. Before anyone else came up with the idea Ruggiero even recorded the dozen and a half major cadenzas for both the Brahms and Beethoven Concertos in such way that the listener could choose his preferred cadenza and pre-program the the CD player to play either of these great masterpieces with a cadenza of choice. In so may ways Ruggiero was more youthful than the young people he taught!
Ruggiero was also a great racconteur…in music and away from it. Of all his many stories I think i like this one best: Ruggiero was practicing in one of his residences (I think this one was in Switzerland.) On the day in question Ruggiero was using a thick practice mute, meaning that only a faint squeak could have been coming from the violin. Nonetheless, there was after a while a knock on the door and when Ruggiero opened, a tall, elegant gentleman with a refined accent said, “Would you be so good as to stop practicing?” To which Ruggiero’s response was an immediate stream of invective. To this the elegant gentleman replied, “You ARE a nasty little man, aren’t you?” To which Ruggiero’s even swifter response was: “Yes, I am!”
To hear Ruggiero tell this story used to put us all rolling on the floor, partly because his delivery was always spot on but also because it gave the sense of Ruggiero’s wonderful pugnaciousness, of his ability to take on the whole world all by himself when necessary.
Yet I also profited greatly from Ruggiero’s considerable wisdom. His counsel was always a source of great ideas in music and outside of it. Each time I’d steal another work for the guitar from the violin repertoire Ruggiero would suggest yet another theft, often lending me his own music to facilitate the robbery. One of his really great ideas after he heard all my Paganini Capricci was to suggest the Rochberg Caprice Variations, 51 Variations on the 24th Capriccio of Paganini. This solo violin work became one of the most successful transcriptions I ever made and was greeted enthusiastically by Rochberg himself as a “recomposition”. Listening to some of Ruggiero’s many CD’s I got ideas for other “thefts”: Locatelli, Fiorillo, Ernst… When I heard Ruggiero play his transcription of the most famous of all guitar pieces, Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra on the violin, I felt that things had really come full circle.
Not just musically but philosophically Ruggiero was a great influence. Ruggiero was completely uncowed by the snobs and the phonies. As he was rolled into the OP for yet another of the many operations he had to have in the time I knew him, he called out, “Cancel the Berg Concerto!”.
Later in private he would say that the operation had at least saved him from having to learn that piece, one of the few major works he had not yet performed.
Yet Ruggiero was no enemy of modernity. I remember hearing a live recording of his hair raising performance (with Bernstein) of the Ginastera Concerto, and once he even participated in a totally crazy set of concerts set up by my first wife, Lydia, wherein he and I shared the stage with the wildest of all wild experimental jazz drummers, Ronald Shannon Jackson. When I saw Shannon almost 20 years later he asked after Ruggiero and still thought of him as “the Maestro”.
It is so difficult to explain the essence of what made Ruggiero great. But if I had to say it in one word I would say it was his eternal freshness. He never did anything on or off the violin that seemed other than completely genuine, spontaneous and unspoiled. His intuitive way of playing belied the great musical mind and sense of structure that underlaid everything he did on the instrument. Ruggiero played completely naturally and straight from the heart always. Anything he touched seemed to have always been part of him. Now he is part of all of us forever.
Boston June 20, 2010