American Record Guide

When I was an undergraduate composition major at Eastman back in the 70s, I remember hearing these performed in Kilbourn Hall by, I believe, Zvi Zeitlin. I was completely blown away by this hour-and-a-half long postmodern virtuoso extravaganza. I ran down East Main St to the Music Lover’s Shoppe and bought the score, anxiously awaiting release of a recording.

30 years later, here it is. And what a recording! Rochberg’s 1970 compendium holds up well after all these years, and violinist Skaerved, playing on Francois-Antoine Habeneck’s 1734 Strad, handles the work’s many terrors with appropriate style and gusto. These are 51 dazzling variations on Paganini’s wellworn tune. There are guest appearances by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler; Webern and Offenbach pop in also, as well as Rochberg’s Penn colleague, George Crumb. But the piece has an astonishingly convincing flow, and I actually never get the feeling of mere pastiche.

It’s a thrill a minute, and it’s outrageous enough to impress Paganini himself. This sort of thing is surely out of fashion now-a work like this can’t have any effect in apathetic, ahistorical times-but I well remember its (liberating) effect back then, and I had a great time reliving it again now. Violinists will definitely want to hear this, and so will anyone interested in the music that helped set off the attempted overthrow of academic musical modernism.

The piece is 13 minutes too long to fit on one CD, so rather than sacrifice many repeats, Metier elected to append a second disc to hold the last six variations. I salute that decision, even though the composer allows the performer to make certain cuts if necessary. Lengthy, unfocussed notes by the violinist.

—Allen Gimbel