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Rochberg Caprice Variations



Eliot Fisk has translated Rochberg's solo violin work into a brilliant tour de force for his own instrument, the guitar, in such a remarkable way that the composer, who worked very closely with Mr. Fisk at every stage, calls the result a “recomposition” rather than a transcription. Since their first meeting in the late eighties, Rochberg has written three works for Eliot Fisk: two for him and his flute partner, Paula Robison, and a solo guitar work based on American popular songs. The first performance of Mr. Fisk's “recomposition” of the Caprice Variations took place in Philadelphia in 1992.

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 caliber 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’s two sets of variations on Paganini’s 24th Caprice 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

Rochberg Caprice Variations


At the commencement of his career, Andrés Segovia was significantly preoccupied with the dearth of available repertory for his chosen instrument. In addition to arranging and transcribing suitable music first written for other instruments, Segovia assiduously pursued composers of the day to write original works for the guitar. His successes include Tansman, Villa-Lobos, Torroba, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, among others. Probably inspired by Fritz Kreisler, Segovia asked his favourite guitar composer, Manuel Maria Ponce, to write pastiches in the style of more obscure Baroque composers such as S.L. Weiss and Alessandro Scarlatti. It took more than four decades for the knowledge of who actually composed these repertory favourites to become generally known.

A re-release of material that originally appeared in 1994, the review disc presents just one piece of music in which both arrangement and pastiche play an important role. Originally written for unaccompanied violin, Caprice Variations, by George Rochberg, comprises fifty dazzling variations on Paganini’s most popular Caprice No. 24. Rochberg wrote variations in the style of Bach, Schubert, Mahler, Beethoven, Webern and Offenbach. This composition has been described as ‘a short history of music’ with a journey from Baroque, through Classical and Romantic to current times.

George Rochberg, an American composer, attended Mannes College of Music where his teachers included Georg Szell and Hans Weisse. He also studied at The Curtis Institute of Music receiving tutelage from Rosario Scalero and Gian Carlo Menotti. He was chairman of the music department of the University of Pennsylvania until 1968, and continued to teach there until 1983.

Rochberg’s earlier styles were influenced by serialism. In 1964 his son, Paul, died of a brain tumour and his father expressed the feeling that serialism was empty of expression and emotion - inadequate to express his grief and rage. He compared atonality to abstract art and tonality to concrete art. His later styles have been described as ‘becoming more focused on tonal idioms with overlaid chromaticism.’ One observer described it as ‘neo-conservative post-modernism’.

Eliot Fisk adapted Caprice Variations for guitar. The composer made some issue of Fisk’s efforts, describing the process as ‘recomposition’. Such adaptations are not unique to Fisk. The superb and imaginative arrangements for guitar by Jorge Morel are universally recognized as discrete compositions in their own right. Love or hate them, the same could be said of arrangements by Toru Takemitsu of the Beatles’ music for guitar. Fisk gives special credence to the number 24 - since Paganini had precisely 24 Caprices in Op 1 - and reflects that in his ‘recomposition’. He has ordered the Caprice Variations as eight suites of six variations each, separated in the middle and punctuated at the end by single variations: 24(=4X6)+1+24(=4X6)+1. At the very end comes a slightly embellished version of Paganini’s theme.

The capo, a device that clamps across all six strings of the guitar at a designated position on the fingerboard, is infrequently employed with the classical guitar but very commonly in flamenco. In some of the Caprice Variations, Fisk uses this device described by him as ‘one more trick of the virtuoso’s trade’, to raise the pitch a semitone - as an example, from A to B flat. This half step is an important expressive element in Paganini’s theme. On the matter of ‘virtuoso’s tricks’, Rochberg refers to Fisk’s ‘unbelievable extension of guitar technique’ in adapting and playing this music on the instrument. One could conjecture that the technical extensions displayed by Fisk are more believable than those employed by Kazuhito Yamashita in his rendering on guitar of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. This comparison is made not to discredit the efforts of Fisk, but to give a sense of balance and proportion to his undertakings.

Eliot Fisk is Professor of Guitar at the Universitaet Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, and in Boston at the New England Conservatory. He has been described as a ‘born risk-taker, and a relentlessly, wildly imaginative virtuoso’. Fisk created a corpus of guitar music through commissions of contemporary composers, as well as his own arrangements of adaptable classical repertory. Segovia tutored him privately for several years and described Fisk as: ‘One of the most brilliant, intelligent and gifted young musical artists of our time, not only among guitarists but in all the general field of instrumentalists.’ Referencing Fisk’s adaptation for guitar of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, violinist, Ruggiero Ricci said: ‘he has to be heard to be believed.’

It is probably only the dedicated unaccompanied violin aficionado who will listen, uninterrupted, to ninety minutes of music representing a single composition on one instrument, albeit one not generally acknowledged for its prowess in polyphony. Similarly, the review disc will gain most focus from guitar dedicatees. One of the challenges with the definitive original music is its length; at around 90 minutes it is too long to include on one CD. The options are to edit the music, such as removing repeats and excluding variations or, as Metier did, include a second disc that contained six of the variations (MSV 92065, Peter Sheppard Skaerved). Rochberg indicated in his original score that a violinist may play the whole set in performance or make personal selections, playing them independently or in any order. Gidon Kremer elected to record only twenty-three variations and the theme (DG 415 484-2). At 75:04 in length, the ‘recomposition’ by Fisk makes changes that allow economic use of the recording time available on one disc. The amendments in the music that facilitate this are not referenced, and without access to both scores, these are not easily identifiable.

Regarding Fisk’s performance on this disc, this reviewer remains less effusive than Segovia or Ricci. It must be said that the efforts of Eliot Fisk in adapting the Caprice Variations to guitar are laudable. It is a remarkable piece of music, and to date there appears to be no other recorded version of the definitive work. As it has been composed to facilitate discrete use of the variations, some guitarists have taken that option on recordings. Fisk is renowned for attempting tempi that are beyond his technical capability, and compromising the music. One reviewer referred to him as a ‘scale machine’. This trait is eminently displayed in his recording of the Paganini 24 Caprices, also reviewed in this forum.

That said, this recording can be confidently proposed as one of Fisk’s best, if not the best, to date. The music is noteworthy and Fisk displays more of his strengths than weaknesses in this performance. It is probable than many will already have this disc from the original release. Those who missed it should put it on their purchase list.

Zane Turner,