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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Max Rostal (1905-1991) - In Memoriam
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Violin Concerto No 2 +
Alban BERG (1885-1935)

Violin Concerto *
Bernard STEVENS (1916-1983)

Violin Concerto #
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Violin Concerto No 1 ^
Max Rostal violin with
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman del Mar 23 December 1962+
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hermann Scherchen 22 December 1953*
BBC Northern Orchestra conducted by Charles Groves 9 January 1948 #
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent 22 August 1956 ^
SYMPOSIUM 1142/43 [2 CD 141.29]


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Symposium brought out a CD set devoted to the art of Carl Flesch that contained some fabulous rarities – live recordings from the 1930s, otherwise unrecorded, which opened up previously unexplorable vistas into the breadth of his playing. And now these CDs dedicated to one of Flesch’s most outstanding pupils, Max Rostal, has in its turn acquainted us with much that might otherwise have been lost. In his own turn Rostal carried on Flesch’s teachings and his responsibilities as a soloist were balanced with those towards his pupils and the nurturing of European string teaching generally. He became known prominently as a teacher in London and later in Switzerland but in fact he had begun much earlier, becoming the youngest professor at the Berlin Hochschüle whilst still in his twenties. As a professor at the Guildhall School he was as influential as his colleagues at the RCM, Albert Sammons and Isolde Menges, and also that much neglected figure Rowsby Woof. For all his many qualities Rostal never quite achieved the international career that might have been expected of him. His early playing is surprisingly engaged and fiery but as time went on it was refined into a more analytical and tonally focused style. The earliest recording preserved here (the Bernard Stevens) therefore finds him in his early forties, living in London, and pursuing a career as soloist, sonata player – with Franz Osborn and later Colin Horsley - and as one of the most significant teachers in Britain.

Yfrah Neaman claims in his share of the sleeve notes – in addition to which there are contributions from Radovan Lorkovic and Rostal himself – that the Bartók was introduced to Britain by Rostal but I always thought that Menuhin took that honour in 1944. Irrespective of first performance privileges Rostal’s contribution to contemporary music was profound, tenacious, eloquent and unremitting; he advanced the causes of composers whom he believed to be part of the evolving fabric of violin composition whilst baulking at the emerging avant-garde. The performance of the Bartók No 2 dates from 1962, the most recent of the preserved concertos. There is some obvious muddiness in the sound but there is little to distract the ear from Rostal’s ardently expressive playing. His tone is not of striking opulence but it is distinctly personalized with an absolute core to its sound and is well attuned to a work of this kind. His characterization of the violin’s volatile line emerges with trenchant understanding and fuses well with the vivid orchestration – the orchestral glissandi, the disruptive and passionate rhetoric. If the first movement cadenza can sometimes seem unduly discursive it is delineated here with Rostal’s characteristic intellectual rigour though without any sense of academic or dry playing. His sovereignty over a large architectural span can only be acknowledged with admiration. In the second movement his "flattened" tone emphasises Bartók’s quixotic writing and he is especially astute in his preparation for the subsequent orchestral outburst at 5.10 – listen also to his high lying playing after 10.05 with orchestral harps and shimmering strings to accompany him. The last movement with its motoric impulse is in fact a set of reflections and refractions of the first and as Rostal points out in his notes is of exceptional complexity and not immediately recognisable as such; tremendously played.

The Berg dates from 1953 and is conducted by Herman Scherchen who had given the premiere, with Louis Krasner, on barely an hour’s rehearsal after Berg had backed out. Again there are the inevitable sonic limitations but the historical value of the performance far outweighs the minor inconveniences inherent in the reproduction – muddied balancing and some acetate thumping. Radovan Lorkovic speculates in his notes that Rostal may have been influenced by the BBC Orchestra and by Scherchen (the BBC had been the second to play the Concerto, with Krasner and conducted by Webern, a performance miraculously preserved by the soloist himself and for some years now available on Testament). But that was a number of years in the past and he is far more likely to have discussed tempo modifications with Scherchen which he felt engaged with the concerto’s centrality of meaning. He is tonally of great clarity and precision, tempi slightly at variance from the norm, with at times an unexpected lightness far removed from more unremittingly solemn performances and as a result the concerto emerges as more entirely whole. Rostal’s vibrato usage is sparing and precisely graded. It’s not perhaps the most emotionally convulsive performance but it is one that allows an unimpeded view of a towering masterpiece.

Rostal believed in Bernard Stevens’ work as he did in Benjamin Frankel whose solo sonata he’d recorded for Decca shortly before making this broadcast performance of the Stevens Concerto. I hope that Rostal’s reading of Frankel’s Violin Concerto, which has been preserved, will be made available. It was Rostal in fact who had suggested that Stevens write a Concerto and it was completed in February 1943. Violinist and composer met frequently to discuss the composition and Stevens willingly accepted Rostal’s many suggestions and it seems to have been a genuinely creative collaboration. Rostal edited both Concerto and Stevens’ earlier Violin Sonata for publication in 1948. This is the earliest performance in this set and is veiled in scratch but the solo violin emerges very forwardly balanced, emerging brightly and unduly spotlit, with the orchestra submerged in the aural perspective. Rostal’s stentorian opening fusillade with brass interjection at 4’50 with horns emerging and a succeeding keening violin line is exceptionally well done. He also lays strong emphasis on the troubled and powerfully straining contours of the music, most explicitly perhaps in the cadenza at 8.50, which one can feel Rostal relating specifically to the sense of fracture and strain embedded in the syntax of the whole concerto. His understanding of the adagio is matched by concomitant technical address and this is playing of real involvement. If there is acetate groove damage from 1.45 in the finale and the orchestra is distinctly unhelpfully recessed here, to the detriment of the architecture, at least one can concentrate on the solo violin’s traversal of the contrapuntal movement and the fractious rhythmic material whose occasional lyricisms are never quite enough. We can also admire the close of the work and the beautifully benign final bars which whilst not untroubled are reflective and interior and movingly realised by Rostal and Groves. Lest I’m giving the impression that this is an unremittingly grey and bleak work the Bloch influences are certainly present and the more one hears it the more it gains in stature.

Expectant applause greets Rostal and Sargent for Shostakovich No 1 from 1956. Sound is rather thin and papery and this does cause some problems not least in orchestral elucidation – the fist movement orchestral counter themes go for nothing here unfortunately. Nevertheless we can hear Rostal’s expressive finger intensifications and the gradations of his vibrato and its tactical deployment in the fabric of the score. He is taxed but overcomes the rigours of the scherzo – his sense of architectural line as ever most impressive and his tone becomes somewhat astringent and wiry at times. There were moments in the great Passacaglia that I found some somewhat tremulous playing, as if over vibrated in response to perceived expectation, and not emergent from direct emotional engagement with the music. There is also some fervently febrile playing in this movement but for once I sensed an ultimate lack of cumulative power, and the Passacaglia remained stubbornly remote and its ramifications not fully explored. In the Burlesque finale there’s a little smeary tone and the CD tracking has gone wrong – it should be track 7 but is actually tacked as part of the Passacaglia. A small point.

This is a document then of real historical interest. It’s a small but valuable legacy of preserved concerto performances by a musician of stature. His association with Stevens is of outstanding import; Scherchen’s involvement with the Berg is a commanding historical detail; the Bartok preserves one of its earliest British performances. Rostal may not have become the international soloist it seemed possible he would but he more than discharged his debt and obligation to Carl Flesch in advancing performing standards, embracing new repertory and stimulating composition in a lifetime’s devotion to music.

Jonathan Woolf


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