La Folia

“Rochberg and Skærved unleash an avalanche of questions:
Did Rochberg write Caprice Variations for the solo violinist to study and play alone, to savor countless allusions from Bach to Ysaÿe, via Brahms, Beethoven, Webern, Kriesler, and Rochberg himself? Some quotations are explicit. Many are beyond the violin’s repertoire such as those concocted from Brahms’ Paganini Variations for piano. Mahler makes an inevitable appearance. The opening of Rochberg’s Third String Quartet (not completed until three years later) spikes the 18th variation, startling even those who know this American composer’s music and what he stands for.

How can an audience endure 50 variations (plus paraphrase) on the theme of Paganini’s 24th caprice? In a concert the whole series must be excruciatingly difficult to grasp. Imagine legions of fumbling concertgoers, their noses buried in program notes, pages shuffling constantly. Even the armchair listener is not immune. Skærved’s notes are detailed, describing most of the variations and the composer’s impressions upon hearing him play. Even with the booklet spread open and constant glances at the track counter, it’s easy to get lost.

Is the violinist, live, meant to tackle all 90 minutes in a single go? Right off the top, I have to say that Skærved sounds amazing. He’s playing the 1734 Habeneck Strad. Kudos to Metier’s David Lefeber for capturing the instrument and Skærved’s passionate playing. Skærved took two recording sessions. A single sitting would have been reckless, but might have captured the physical challenges. Skærved has actually programmed the whole expanse. His recollection suggests it was an intense and exhausting experience bordering on the religious. Gidon Kremer recorded a batch of 23 variations plus the theme (DG 415 484-2), and others have dipped into this monumental set: Michelle Makarski tried a few on ECM 1587 and ECM 1712, and Zvi Zeitlin tackled the whole shebang for Gasparo 1010. Several variations come off roughly, such as No. 41, allegedly a Webern take-off. Maybe the Strad doesn’t like Webern.

Paganini’s original appears at the end, absent customary repeats. The cycle closes abruptly, perhaps too late for many. Yet, this music could continue interminably. I’ve played it in the background, catching whiffs of Tchaikovsky or Dvorak as if Skærved and Rochberg are channeling composer’s scraps. These variations-on-variations have grown on me and it’s a treat to hear a Strad sound so good. It’s reassuring knowing that Skærved has tilted at windmills and won. I also picture “Uncle George” sitting in a rocker, spinning the same tales over and over, but with slight modifications at each go. The work’s appeal has grown on others: Eliot Fisk labored closely with Rochberg to transcribe the mammoth set for guitar (MusicMasters 67133-2).

—Grant Chu Covell