If the cover of this CD seems vaguely familiar to fans of George Rochberg’s music, there is a good reason: it is practically identical to the one used for the 2003 release by Métier of this very recording of the Caprice Variations (MSV 92065). On its website Métier, these days part of Divine Art, bills itself as “The Label for New Music”. On this release the meaning of “new” is stretched in some other ways too: Rochberg’s Violin Sonata is nearly twenty-five years old, the Caprice Variations more than forty years.
In fact, all that is really new here is the publication of Skærved and Schorr’s recording of the Violin Sonata , though the session itself took place seven years ago. Written in 1988, the Sonata has been a long time coming, but it is certainly worth the wait: this is a major discovery – a work that is complex, virtuosic, haunted, uncompromising, and yet which still exudes, like much of Rochberg’s music after his abandonment of serialism in the 1960s, a considerable amount of lyricism, passion, melody and tranquillity. All four movements share certain characteristics and reflect these attributes to different degrees, but of especial noteworthiness is the second movement scherzo capriccioso , which is a quite beautiful cacophony, a frenzied bare-knuckle fist fight at times between atonality and neo-Romanticism.
The timing for the Caprice Variations given above is not a misprint – this really is ninety minutes of solo violin variations of a single Caprice by Paganini. That may not strike many as the best way to attain listening nirvana, but Rochberg clearly had other considerations besides the stamina of audiences and soloists. There is no doubt here that Rochberg’s boundless imagination and application of sometimes outrageous technique might well have surprised even Paganini himself. Just when Rochberg seems to have said everything that was left to say – especially given what the likes of Paganini, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Blacher and Lutoslawski have already said – he comes up with another amazing slant or insight.
Also, and perhaps more importantly to anyone quailing at the thought of an hour and a half of the kind of modernism turning up in the Sonata , it is not until Variation XVIII that there is something of an aural shock, delivered out of nowhere by very high-pitched jabbings that reference Rochberg’s own superb String Quartet no.3 , re-released incidentally in a two-disc set by New World last year – see review. Violence returns in Variation XXXV, but otherwise most of the music could almost have come from Eugène Ysaÿe’s pen seventy-five years earlier, and some of it actually sounds like Paganini himself – or even Bach. This epic work has time to pay tribute by way of quotation to Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler among others, and closes with Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice in all its glory – well, in some of it, because Rochberg only gives it 35 seconds before abruptly pulling the plug on the whole work!
From an audience perspective, 90 minutes is a long time to sit and listen to solo violin or variations on a theme, let alone both at the same time. Listeners will probably want to break the experience up into smaller chunks, and Rochberg himself would likely not have minded: he did in any case stipulate that violinists may play any number of the Variations in any order in performance. On the other hand, the Caprice Variations are still 70 minutes shorter than Indian-born Swedish composer Claude Allgén’s incredible Solo Violin Sonata – see review for details.
Sound quality is high as far as the Violin Sonata goes, although Skærved does move about in his creaky chair a bit. There is otherwise no indication that this is a live recording – not a cough or rustle to be heard. The Caprice Variations are not accompanied by any creaking, and the church acoustic is atmospheric, but traffic noise is just audible through headphones, and the microphones are a little close to Skærved to be considered ideal.
In his eleventh recording for Métier Skærved plays a fine 1734 Stradivarius, one of the last made by the Italian master. The violinistic terrors that lurk within both the Sonata and the very capricious Variations are, with few exceptions, water off a duck’s back to Skærved, who gives a very expressive, technically assured performance of enormous strength, even if he did wisely record the Variations over three days.
In a 1993 Nimbus release, guitarist Eliot Fisk recorded his own version of Rochberg’s Variations , fashioning them, not entirely to Rochberg’s liking, into eight suites with two leftovers – see recent review. Fisk sidestepped at least one of the ‘problems’ with this work, the fact that it does not fit on a single CD. Art is not required to take into consideration the technical caprices of the electronics industry, and those who use a computer, iPod or some other modern device to listen to their music will not be bothered by such matters. As already mentioned, Rochberg allowed for abbreviated performances, yet for posterity’s sake at least, Skærved and Métier served music lovers and especially violinists well by recording all 50 variations and the paraphrase.
The CD booklet is glossy and very informative, with interesting personal recollections by Skærved of his friendship with Rochberg in his final years, though their sometimes rambling nature would have benefited from tidying up by an editor.
In the final reckoning this is a quality release, and Métier must be forgiven for re-issuing the Caprice Variations . In fact, they should keep on doing it every few years until the world starts taking more notice of George Rochberg’s unique contribution to music history.