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Rochberg caprice TROY1883
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George ROCHBERG (1918-2005)
Caprice Variations for solo violin (1970) [72:58]
Léo Marillier (violin)
rec. 2021, Chapelle de Flamboin, France
ALBANY TROY1883 [72:58]

Having followed the career of the young French violinist Léo Marillier for several years now (review ~ review), one thing has struck me – his unending quest to venture into the recesses of recherché repertoire. It takes a plucky musician to tackle a work such as this. George Rochberg’s Caprice Variations are rarely performed because of the technical challenges and interpretative difficulties they command.

Rochberg hailed from New Jersey and studied composition at the Mannes School of Music in New York from 1939 to 1942. Following a period of military service, he continued his studies at the Curtis Institute and University of Pennsylvania. A scholarship enabled him to travel to Italy, where he encountered Luigi Dallapiccola, a leading exponent of serialism. He himself embraced serialism in the 1950s, but the death of his son in 1964 resulted in a period of six years depression. He emerged a changed man, determined to reevaluate and define a new musical order, embracing a musical language that more satisfied his creative and expressive needs, one of tonal and atonal composition. In a career that spanned three decades, he composed six symphonies, seven string quartets, other chamber works and song cycles and one opera, "The Confidence Man".

The Caprice Variations were penned in 1970 and are based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice, a work that has gained a cult status over the years, due mainly to the endeavours of Eugène Ysaÿe, Brahms, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, just to name a few. There are 51 variations in all and they resemble a vast collage, drawing on the influences of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Webern and Edgard Varèse. Listen carefully and you’ll detect influences of America, Europe and Asia, which confer an exotic aroma on the work. The composer granted the option of the performer playing a certain number, and in any order, if he or she wishes. Gidon Kremer took this option in his DG recording, selecting just 24. Marillier plays the lot in the order they were composed. As I’ve already mentioned, the technical demands are formidable, and he meets the challenges head-on, emerging victorious.

Rochberg’s Variations are well-crafted and notable for their ingenuity and variety. I’d sum them up as - oxygen rich with a kaleidoscopic array of auditory sensation. Some are quite ear-catching. No 5 evokes a misty will o' the wisp, whilst No 18 features a bird whistle. No 35 is bellicose and deranged. No 39 demonstrates intense pain. Pizzicatos, harmonics, a bouncing bow and sub ponticello effects induce a psychedelic spectacular in Nos 47 and 48. The final variation delivers Paganini’s 24th Caprice unadorned.

The Variations have been recorded in a sympathetic acoustic, with sufficient warmth and resonance. Marillier performs on a Nicolas Lupot violin of 1811, with a rich bloom to the tone. The detailed booklet notes are in French and English. My reviews of other recordings by Marillier can be found here.

Stephen Greenbank

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