I first heard Rochberg’s Violin Concerto when I was a ten year old, in the classic Stern recording. From the first outburst from Stern’s fiddle, the ‘great barbaric yawp’ which begins the concerto, I was transfixed, and terrified. It suddenly dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea what went on in the world of music, the world beyond my school, beyond the suburbs in which I was growing up. Until I heard the Rochberg Concerto, I never realized that the violin could be so aggressive, sexual, rhapsodic, pleading, bullying, warlike, sentimental, or so damn frightening. This was my introduction to the music of my time, my first clue that there was a real world out there, beyond the leafy suburbs where I was growing up.
However, I was aware even then that there was some kind of problem with the work as I heard it. Whilst I could call to mind any of the dynamic coups de théatre, timbres and lush melody of the concerto, I simply could not recall the order things arrived. My puzzlement increased studying Rochberg’s music, and later through meeting and working with him. George will sing every note of his works, illustrated with bird-like hand waving, in order to ensure that he really gets the shapes, the drama and intensity that his music demands. He will hold an anacrusis in the air between finger and thumb, as you play, daring you to be the first to break the line or betray an emotion. For Rochberg , just as for Bartok, Beethoven or Frank Martin, the tiniest and largest gestures bear the same fundamental imprimatur, just as the signature of a beautiful rugged coastline is fundamentally constant, seen from whatever altitude.
It was a great relief to receive the reconstituted concerto. Instead of a series of colourful tableaux, a sweep of inevitable development, was revealed, not unlike Beethoven’s Op 131 Quartet, Sibelius’ Voces Intimæ or indeed, George’s own 3rd Quartet. It suddenly made sense. Along with this restoration of structural unity, came not a coherence that had eluded me in the past, the sense of prolepsis, a natural ebb and flow to the drama. This lent ease to learning this giant, rendering even the most fearsome precipices approachable, even inviting, and revealing to me the intimacy that is at the heart of this monumental work.
© Peter Sheppard Skaerved 2004