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Ruggiero Ricci: Child prodigy who became one of the finest violinists of the 20th century


Ruggiero Ricci was that rarity, the child prodigy who survived the hazardous transition from wunderkind to adult virtuoso, and went on to become one of the world's most famous violinists. He knew only too well the scars that remain from the formative years of prodigies, and he would retort: "At nine, some uninhibited critic called me the greatest violinist playing. I have had to fight that kind of competition ever since." He would add, deadpan, his remedy for that precocity. "First shoot the parents of all prodigies and then put the kid against the wall and finish the job."

Ricci was born in San Francisco, the son of a poor Italian immigrant trombonist. The family had anglicised their name to "Rich" and called their son Woodrow Wilson in deference to the president of their adopted country. When the child began to show a marked talent for the violin, they reverted to the Italian, but "Woodrow Wilson Rich" always remained the name on Ricci's passport.

He received his first music lessons from his father and could not ever remember being without a violin in his hands. At seven he was taken on by Louis Persinger, who had recently launched the young Yehudi Menuhin. One year later he won a gold medal in a local contest, and at the age of nine was awarded the Oscar Neil scholarship, despite being the youngest contestant. He gave his first public recital on in November 1928 in San Francisco, wearing a black velvet suit and playing a $30 fiddle. He gave a brilliant performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto and was hailed as a genius.

The following year he made his orchestral debut with the Manhattan Symphony Orchestra and the New York Times, wrote: "It was immediately apparent that the boy had something to say, that he was playing with a native fire, musical sensitivity and taste which are much more phenomenal than the mere physical dexterity ... It was the playing of one born to play the instrument." A year later, at his Carnegie Hall recital debut, a capacity audience was ecstatic and would not let him go. Instead of flowers he was presented with a model aeroplane and found his dressing room piled high with toys and boxes of sweets.

Ricci made his London debut at 14 with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Hamilton Harty. The London critics had been chary of the extravagant praise meted out by their American colleagues, but the Times critic had no doubts: "He played the Mendelssohn Concerto ... as though he had been born playing it."

From this point Ricci captivated audiences in every city in Europe. When he played in Budapest under Dohnanyi, Kreisler called him the greatest genius since Mozart. In Berlin, Chancellor von Papen cheered him from one box and Albert Einstein from another. At the age of 24 he was earning more than the US President.

His career was disrupted by his call-up to serve in the US Army; for three years he performed at army camps and hospitals, and it was the frequent unavailability of a piano that caused him to explore the unaccompanied literature for his instrument. He realised such performances gave him the chance to bring out a single interpretative point unaffected by the disagreements that so frequently occur between soloist and accompanist. After discharge, his first recital included solo sonatas by Bach, Ysaye and Hindemith, two Paganini caprices and unaccompanied pieces by Wieniawski and Kreisler. Soon he was giving this type of recital all over Europe.

Ricci had always been fascinated by Paganini and it was through intense study of his music that he overcame many of the difficulties of the solo repertoire. As a result he was often branded as a "Paganini expert" by those who refuse to equate a flawless technique with musicianship. On the contrary, Ricci not only possessed a fine musical mind but was also something of a purist, which he considered stemmed from his early reaction to Persinger, a stylish player who revelled in glissandi and portamento playing. Ricci had an aversion to all such excesses and thought too much so-called "feeling" could lead to over-interpretation.

He began by concentrating on the music of Paganini, and carefully analysed all 24 Caprices down into a system where he could see Paganini's manner of fingering, shifting and bowing. He claimed that he learnt more about technique from Paganini than from any of his teachers. Ricci was one of the few violinists who played all the Caprices at one performance and was also the first to record them. In 1989 he re-recorded them using, for the first time, Paganini's own Guarneri del Gesii violin, the "Cannon", loaned to him by the city of Genoa. He gave the first performance of a newly-discovered Fourth Paganini Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic in 1971, and introduced the Sixth to the US in 1976. A year later he brought out a hitherto unknown 25th Caprice.

When it came to technique he had few equals. His performances, though dazzling, were always musical, despite the fact they were often the most difficult pieces in the repertoire. He was always concerned at the attitudes towards virtuosity the latter half of the 20th century. He once told me: "Somehow there has been for some time a stigma on virtuosity, as though it were socially unacceptable. But this is nonsense. It should signify that one is master of one's instrument The fiddle is a virtuoso instrument."

The recognition of Ricci's brilliant technical gifts always tended to overshadow other facets of his career. Like Joseph Joachim and Josef Szigeti before him, Ricci was a great programme innovator. His repertoire, which contained over 60 concertos, was probably the largest and most original of any of his contemporaries. In a series of concerts in New York in 1964 he played 15 great concertos from the baroque to the avant-garde, and in 1969 he gave a London recital which included the Prokofiev sonata for two violins, a set of songs for soprano and violin by Villa-Lobos and the Saint-Saens Fantasie for violin and harp.

Ricci's last appearance in this country was at a packed Wigmore Hall in 1998. He played magnificently and even included some Paganini in his programme. Ricci was liked and respected; he was a brilliant conversationalist and would express his views in a direct manner. He achieved considerable success as a teacher, at the University of Indiana from 1970-73 and at the Juilliard from 1975 until 1990, when he was appointed violin professor at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, a position he held until his death.

Margaret Campbell

Woodrow Wilson Rich (Ruggiero Ricci), violinist: born San Francisco 24 July 1918; married 1942 Ruth Rink, 1957 Valma Rodriguez 1957, 1978 Julia Whitehurst Clemenceau; two sons, three daughters; died 6 August 2012.