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by Max Rostal

Translation by Horace and Anna Rosenberg
Foreword by the Amadeus Quartet
With a Pianist’s Postscript by Günter Ludwig
And a History of Performance Practice by Paul Rolland
219 pages
Demy octavo ~ Illustrated ~ 207 music examples~ Bibliography ~ Index
Toccata Press
Paperback ISBN 0 907689 06 X
Hardback ISBN 0 907689 05 1 £15.95/17.50
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Written by a distinguished player and teacher, this book by Max Rostal (1906-1991) can be viewed as a series of ten master-classes in book form, each class devoted to one of the violin sonatas of Beethoven. In addition there is an introductory chapter consisting of densely packed information on "General Principles". This includes discussion of musicological matters such as repeat markings, and playing issues such as fingering and bowing, and agogics – if you know what that is.

The book is aimed at violinists who play, or who aspire to play, these important works of the chamber repertory. It would also be of use to accompanying pianists. There is a postscript chapter "from the Pianists Point of View" by Günter Ludwig that mostly concentrates on pedalling practice.

This English translation was printed in 1985 and the fact that retailers, 21 years on, are still trying to shift copies, one can conclude that the publisher, Toccata Press was over-optimistic about sales. I suspect a misjudgement was made; that the book would have appeal beyond Beethoven sonata-playing violinists. The key is in the subtitle: "Thoughts on their Interpretation". These thoughts are a discussion – frequently bar by bar – of playing issues that are often well illustrated with music examples but the book cannot be read without the scores at hand. This is a manual for specialists yet, even now, Toccata Press is declaring desperately and dubiously on its website that the book "is a ‘must’ for all lovers of Beethoven".

I am not a violinist so the book is not of practical use to me but I did find it interesting – sometimes amusing –in terms of teaching technique and what it implies about Rostal the man. On the evidence of the book Rostal was of the "this is how you do it" school. Many pupils respond to this approach, especially when taught by a distinguished player with a wealth of experience to impart. But some do not. A good illustration of this can be seen in Bruno Monsaingeon’s moving documentary film about David Oistrakh. Oistrakh had a great reputation as a teacher and for years was on the staff of the Moscow Conservatory. There are clips of Oistrakh teaching and it is very much, "watch me – this is how it’s done". One of his greatest pupils was Gidon Kremer who, when interviewed for the film, makes it quite clear, in spite of being as tactful as he can, that he found the teaching style stifling and seems to harbour some resentment about it. Some teachers have the knack of recognising that there are players who have a real need to develop their own personalities and allow them to do so. This does not seem to have been the way with either Oistrakh or Rostal.

A theme running through the book is to point out how often most violinists get it wrong. He is repeatedly "astonished" at this. For example: "It is astonishing how often the secondary theme ……. is wrongly phrased by most players". Pianists are not immune: "It is astonishing how many pianists make a cresc …which is not justified". In fact it astonishing that towards the end the book he still remains astonished by such malpractice. But none of this need detract from the importance of a book which contains within its pages a lifetime of distilled practical wisdom gained from the constant study, pondering upon and playing of these works. Before he died, Rostal had acquired a considerable following and both this respect for others and his unshakeable belief in himself – bordering on conceit – is well illustrated in the following passage: "I prefer this last bowing which I myself and my students (and now, too, my ‘violin grandchildren’) like to use also in other works. Thus it has come about in the course of time that this type of bowing became associated with myself and has entered the world of violinists as Rostal bowing".

Among admiring pupils were members of the Amadeus Quartet and they provide a glowing preface to the book which bears facsimiles of their signatures.

I would have thought that no Beethoven-playing violinist could afford not to have this book on their shelves. For any that do not have it, at least a "new" copy of this 1985 publication can still easily be purchased.

John Leeman


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