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GEORGE ROCHBERG Caprice Variations

Peter Sheppard Skaerved
METIER MSV CD92065 (a+b) [90 mins]


Eliot Fisk (guitar)
MUSIC MASTERS 67133-2 [75 mins]




Peter Sheppard Skaerved has, somewhat belatedly, made the first complete recording of the Caprice Variations by George Rochberg (b.1918), in their original version for solo violin. Composed in 1970, they can be thought of as a 'short history of music', taking the most famous of Paganini's Caprices through its paces in styles of composers through the ages; Brahms especially important for Rochberg, who included his own transcriptions of five Brahms piano variations (Op.35, Books 1 & 2) on the same Paganini theme. Others are 'after' Beethoven Schubert and Webern, and there are numerous newly created character pieces.

Peter Sheppard Skaerved plays all 51 straight through, which makes for a long haul, needing a second CD to complete the project. He uses a Strad which belongs to the Royal Academy of Music, but I found that the close recording did not flatter the instrument.

The variations are better taken in shorter groups; the journey is an impressive one, and should certainly be explored by advanced violinists. some variations do appear to stretch the technique of even this admired and uncommonly versatile violinist, whose enterprising work with string quartet and a contemporary music ensemble based in Germany has earned my aprreciation over the years; most recently the launch of a new Beethoven Explored series for Metier.

Gidon Kremer selected some twenty of them for his 2-CD set of A Paganini - Virtuose musik für Violine, which I have not heard,
Deutsche Grammophon - 415 484-2 CD. However, on this showing Sheppard Skaerved is not a Kremer nor a Vengerov, and some of the Variations seem rather hard going, with patches of slightly suspect intonation. Nonetheless, I have no hesitation in recommending it to advanced student violinists, and to those general listeners (not everyone) who enjoy unaccompanied violin playing at length.

Eliot Fisk made a most successful guitar transcription of the whole work in association with the composer, whose note is reproduced below. Both violin and guitar seem impossible to a mere amateur pianist, and I cannot tell which is the harder instrument to master.

Fisk (with Rochberg at his side) has made incredibly imaginative arrangements, and appears to have reserves of skill for introducing colour and rhythmic subtleties which make each variation a self contained, expressive piece, beyond the formulaic patterning which is intrinsic to variation method. It is therefore recommended as a first choice to general listeners and, obviously, to guitar enthusiasts. They can be played in groups, ordered as the performer pleases, and Fisk has given them in a scheme of eight suites of six variations, the pieces within his groups played continuously; see the track listing illustration below. Some of his tempi are considerably faster than Sheppard Skaerved's, possibly related to the quicker fade of plucked strings?

This remarkable CD may to be temporarily out of stock, but is worth seeking out. (Eliot Fisk has, incidentally, also transcribed and recorded all Paganini's original 24 Caprices for his instrument!)

Caprice Variations COMPOSER'S NOTE

This collaboration with Eliot Fisk has been a great joy for me.
What he has done in adapting this work to the guitar from the original solo violin version is no less than a "recomposition." Besides producing an unbelievable exten­sion of guitar technique, he has at the same time explored and utilized every conceivable expressive possibility of the instrument. No composer I can think of could have imagined these possibilities. One would have to be a guitarist / artist of Fisk's calib to be able to imagine what he, in fact, did.
There are many "borrowings," in the Caprice Variations. For example, I took some variations from Brahms' two sets of Paganini 24th Caprice Variations for the piano and transcribed them for solo violin. "Borrowing" is a time-honored tradition; no period in the history of music has been without it. There are some, of course, who are offended by the idea or concept of "borrowing" but it is quite acceptable to today's musicians.
Many different styles, asthetics, attitudes live side by side in this work. As a whole it represents Paganini, a host of earlier and later composers, myself - and now in this version, Eliot Fisk.

George Rochberg

The virtuosic possibilities of the guitar have been extended in recemt decades by players like Eliot Fisk (to whom Berio dedicated his Sequenza No.XI) and by the Hungarian Bach specialist József Eötvös, who does unbelievable things with the Goldberg Variations and the Art of Fugue.


© Peter Grahame Woolf