The Strad

American composer George Rochberg was a pupil of Gian Carlo Menotti and though his early style was heavily influenced by Serialism, in the 60s and 70s he declared the methods too limiting and his language became more focused on tonal idioms with overlaid chromaticisms.

Here the ever-resourceful Peter Sheppard Skærved plays Rochberg’s epic 51 Caprice Variations for solo violin, composed in 1970. This quirky, witty, beautiful and often bewildering 90-minute work – based on Paganini’s famous theme – bears a hotchpotch of different influences, with variations making reference to composers from Brahms to Schubert, Mahler to Webern. A more coherent introduction from Sheppard Skærved would have been helpful – his notes are often insightful but jet off at puzzling tangents rather than giving any sort of overview of the work…

His performance, however, is far more convincing, and apart from some tuning that is not quite true in the opening variations – never usually a failing of his – he gives a highly imaginative reading. Moments that particularly impress are the delicate sweetness of Variations 12, Andante con moto (after Brahms); the aching loveliness of the all-pizzicato, Bach-like Variation 14; and the amazing symphonic feel of Variation 44, Scherzo (after the Scherzo of Mahler Symphony no. 5). And with the brief statement of Paganini’s theme – which appears at the end rather than the opening – the work’s sense of shape and purpose feels brilliantly complete.

—Catherine Nelson