In the view of many, Rochberg’s Caprice Variations for solo violin is a masterpiece. From its introduction in 1970 by the violinist Zvi Zeitlin it has been hailed far and wide, even if, because of its ferocious difficulty, not played as often as one might have wished. Zeitlin recorded it brilliantly and aside from an arrangement for solo guitar fashioned and recorded by Eliot Fisk, his recording on Gasparo (originally a Nonesuch LP and then on MHS) George Rochberg: Caprice Variations / Zvi Zeitlin is, as far as I know, the only one prior to this new one by the marvelous British violinist, Peter Sheppard Skaerved. Skaerved had a relationship with the composer before Rochberg’s death in 2005 and he has recorded his Violin Concerto in its original guise (not the somewhat abridged version recorded by Isaac Stern). I’ve reviewed it very positively here at Amazon. George Rochberg: Violin Concerto (Restored Original Version) He also has recorded, I’m told, Rochberg’s Violin Sonata and I gather it will be released some time soon.
Rochberg was enthusiastic about Skaerved’s performance and who am I to say him nay? Indeed, I find this performance to be exceedingly sensitive and technically at a very high level. I may still prefer Zeitlin’s recording by a hair, but that may be because I have listened to it so very many times over the years. The Skaerved recording is in better sound, I do have to say.
What about the music itself? Well, the Caprice Variations are based on the famous 24th Caprice of Paganini, but are unlike anything you’ve ever heard before by others who have used that caprice, such as Brahms or Rachmaninoff. It is stylistically very diverse and, further, makes use of influences from other pieces like the Finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the Scherzo of Mahler’s Fifth, Brahms’s own Paganini Variations, and even Webern’s Passacaglia, Op. 1. Styles vary from faux-baroque to listener-friendly atonality and everything in between, a Rochbergian eclecticism also present in his wonderful Third String Quartet. Rochberg indicated in his score that a violinist could play the whole set in performance, or pick and choose any number of them and play them independently and in any order. Indeed there have been some recordings of excerpts, such as the stunning set of twenty-four of the variations recorded by Gidon Kremer on DG (nla). I’d suggest one listen to the snippets available here at Amazon to get a taste of what one is in for.
All in all this is a valuable addition. It gives us an alternative to the lauded but somewhat aged version by Zeitlin. I’m happy to have both in my library.