Beethoven and Rochberg. A saturday morning conversation

Posted on January 5th, 2013 by

Beethoven and Rochberg -A Saturday morning conversation. Wapping 5th January 2013

Beethoven Sonata Op 12 No 1 D Major (2nd Movement-Variation 4) + George Rochberg-Caprice Variations ( Variation 41 after Webern Op 1) Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin, and Aaron Shorr-Piano

I probably talk a little too much about how the composers that I have been privileged to know help me with the ones that I cannot meet. But often the results are very practical. This morning I was/am making the edit map for the disc of Beethoven Op 12 sonatas (with Aaron Shorr) which I am about to release. There is tension when editing, between the choice of a take which pushes the boundaries, takes risks, even fails, but excitingly, and the surgically precise rendition. These two are not mutually exclusive but when the music under scrutiny plays the very same game, there are some exciting aesthetic, even ethical questions as to the choices that we make. This is not a question of patching together some kind of mosaic, but rather making the (often painful) selection of options that I have after time in front of the microphone.


Today was no different. I was trying to choose which version of the penultimate variation in the stormy D minor 2nd movement of Op 12 N0 1. I won’t deny that I was going off down some deadends-at one point led by Mozart, as the similarity of this variation to the K421 D minor Quartet (which is a favourite) turned out to be a distraction, and unhelpful. But the stormy nature of this particular minute of music is Beethoven at his most Mozartian-this is the Beethoven who loved K466. So I found myself with two stark choices. One fiery reading and one more neurotically precise one. What to choose? It’s not as simple as ‘just go for the exciting one’, as we all know that a choice like that can destabilise a structure (and have seen the wonderful film of Gould rejecting exciting takes for precisely that reason).

With George Rochberg at Newtown Square, 2001. At work on Caprice Variations.

Then I remembered how George Rochberg had helped me with precisely the same choice, when working on his epic Caprice Variations . The 41st Variation is an insane overwrite of part of Anton von Webern’s Passacaglia Op 1. I don’t mind admitting that it is one of the toughest bits of violin writing in the repertoire. I had two options. First – the version which would satisfy me that I could play it, and perhaps the members of the 4th Estate who count notes. Secondly one which is best described as the ‘exploding violinist’- in which the performance truly ‘reneged all temper…’. I could not decide. George was in doubt. In fact he forbade me from using the clean version: ‘That’s not what I wrote! Music like this is designed to push you into a place where you are fighting for your life-and it should sound like that.’

So the memory of that discussion helped me out. Here is the take of the Beethoven that I have chosen, with some epic piano virtuosity from the fabulous Aaron Shorr, followed by the Rochberg variation in question. Both performances by the way, are played on the 1734 ‘Habeneck’ Stradivari, which was used to direct the first performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.