Audiophile Audition

To a college music kid caught up in the throes of the avant-garde in the early 1970s, hearing the Nonesuch recording of George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 came as an absolute revelation. Rochberg, like Penderecki, came to understand the need to break away from predetermined dogma in circulation at the time that avoided anything traditionally harmonic and melodic like the plague. Rochberg realized that in order to grow as an artist he needed to be able to embrace anything that contributed to his compositional palate. The Beethoven-like strains of his aforementioned quartet, emerging like a refreshing salve from the midst of chaos, are one of the modern miracles of music.

Rochberg is never one to be penned down, as these current offerings demonstrate. With the solo Caprice Variations we are thrown headlong into the bygone world of Paganini, and not in just some neoclassical fantasy moment, but as a true emulation of style. While the work is hardly a clone of anything that the master violinist did—how could it be when Busoni, Brahms, and especially Bartok hover in the background—those composers are used as leaven in the larger scheme. This is music that Paganini would recognize as valid and of his time, and even as possibly by Paganini himself. It is a remarkable series of 50 variations and an overture, quite long, but endlessly fascinating.

The Violin Sonata is of another mold altogether. While still Rochbergian to the core, it is far more somber in mood, essentially a reflection of the composer’s war experience (and his feeling about war in general) and consequently is not as lively and overtly entertaining as the Variations. There is a middle movement scherzo , but it is more of the Mahlerian type—at least in tone if not completely in style—that does its best to represent the dogs of war. The rest is more intense, and meditative, though the piece in general is anything but depressing. I find it engrossing and highly expressive, a would-be repertory piece if only more violinists had the courage.

The sound on these two discs is very fine, the Variations recorded in 2000 and the Sonata in 2004. Both are quite warm, and the playing by Rochberg friend Peter Sheppard Skærved must be considered definitive in this instance. Warmly recommended.

—Steven Ritter