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Book review

David Rattray
Masterpieces of Italian Violin Making; Important stringed instruments from the collection at the Royal Academy of Music

Balafon Books
ISBN 187154792X


AmazonUK £67.50  AmazonUS $125


It’s over a decade since the first edition of David Rattray’s ‘Masterpieces of Italian Violin Making’ appeared and a great deal has happened over that time to make a second edition worthwhile and valuable. The text has been updated and there are an additional fifteen instruments documented as well as two sumptuous full colour spreads. Advances in dendrochronological readings mean an extensive dating programme has been undertaken and the results – tabulated as an appendix - list attributed date, maker’s date and the youngest ring date. Tree ring dating is a contentious issue – note the still dangerous area of Oxford’s Messiah Strad – but the widest disparity between dates among the measured instruments here is forty-one years.

All these instruments form part of the collection of the Royal Academy of Music. A private collection, many of the instruments are on loan to players. Now that the RAM has opened its York Gate museum far more people will be able to see and appreciate the richness of the collection (which includes twelve Strads) and to reflect upon the successive bequests from named individuals that has made the building up of the collection possible – there are some two hundred and fifty stringed instruments in total, of which forty-one are illustrated here, an increase over the twenty-five in the first edition. Almost all are in a highly pure state of preservation – the 1695 Rugeri has exceptionally been cut down and there is a composite 1720 Strad; otherwise they are intact. As a result of the initiatives of the RAM instrument loans have increased in the interim and maintenance has risen commensurately as well.

Violin books – iconographic or illustrative – are notoriously expensive. The rarity of the instruments described, their inaccessibility, and the difficulty and relative complexity of photographing and measuring them affords its own problems. The expense of colour plates is not negligible and suitable paper must be used to optimise the clarity and depth of colour of the photograph – this is one area in which a publisher can ill afford to cut corners. These issues collectively mean that such studies are relatively rare and generally priced beyond the means of most enthusiasts or interested readers.

A study such as this, based on an individual collection, such as, for example, Boyden’s Ashmolean Hill Collection stands or falls by the accuracy of its text and the clarity, detail and beauty of its photography. In the first edition of this work, slightly smaller in size (the second measures 13"x9¾"), 72pp as against the weighty 192pp of the second edition, the study illustrated instruments with black and white photographs as well as colour (the second edition is all colour). In respect both of text and illustration this second edition is exceptionally, marvellously successful. Rattray has had the assistance of a distinguished collection of experts in the field and the result is an authoritative and aesthetic triumph.

The format is broadly similar; text on the left hand page with principal dimensions tabulated and a small photograph of the scroll of the instrument. On the facing page are two photographs of the instrument, front and back. Overleaf, on a double spread, are full-page enlargements of the front and back – duplication of course but necessarily so as to afford the opportunity for comparison and closer study. There are particularly stunning spreads of scrolls; that of the 1718 Maurin Strad, glorious in full size is noteworthy but the 75% shots of the Guarneri cello of 1692 are equally remarkable. The photography, it has to be reiterated, is exceptional and those who have seen Sotheby’s Sales catalogues of Stringed Instruments will recognise the style. The text is clear, analytical, accurate and adds practised judgement in matters of the stylistic change of instrument makers. Fruitfully the text also sometimes appends the names of players who have – or have had – use of the instruments and a discography of instruments is also added - so you can find out with what instrument Ralph Holmes recorded Delius (it was the 1734 Habeneck Strad) or Zara Nelsova recorded Bloch (the Marquis de Corberon, a Strad cello of 1726). And many more contemporary players too, such as Clio Gould, Roger Bigley, Kenneth Sillito, Paul Silverthorne and so on.

We can also read in the text of the many distinguished players who have played these instruments at some time during the course of their careers. The names of violinists Frederick Grinke, David Martin, Joan Field and Winifred Small appear, as do those of violists Bernard Shore, Watson Forbes, Yuri Bashmet and a number of other fine players.

There are a few trifling textual errors. Zara Nelsova recorded for Vanguard not Vauquard, and whilst it’s true that she took American citizenship some time in the 1950s I still think calling her an American cellist is like calling T.S. Eliot an English poet. Otherwise I have nothing but the profoundest admiration for a work that explores with such clarity and elegance the R.A.M. collection, that details the instruments’ individual histories with such precision, that reflects upon construction techniques with such acuity and that presents the instruments in such photographic glory.

Jonathan Woolf


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