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As the title suggests, this volume of nearly 500 pages consists largely of piano lessons in book form. That is, over half of the book – oddly categorised as the ‘appendix’ – is devoted to transcripts of actual lessons preserved on tape. Before this the early sections are entitled Arrau’s Predecessors (including ‘the Lisztian legacy’, passed on through Arrau’s first teacher Martin Krause, himself a pupil of Liszt); Technique (Arrau’s concept of technique and virtuosity); and Teaching (Arrau’s collaboration with Rafael De Silva). The pieces which Arrau uses in the lessons are Chopin’s second Ballade, Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 110, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (Scarbo and Ondine), Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, opus 35 and Strauss’s Burleske. These lessons are obviously extremely detailed and not exactly crammed with illuminating insights. This is not to belittle in any way this great pianist, merely a warning that much of the time is spent discussing alternative fingerings, textual variations in different editions, and purely physical requirements – stretch this, relax that, etc. However, more purely musical points do arise. For example, ‘Beethoven had the freedom of a titan: all of a sudden he changed a bowing [slur]. Why should he want it the same way every time? It’s very much in line with his personality to make little changes like that.’ Elsewhere an annoyed Arrau says: ‘If people say that Beethoven should be played exactly in time, it’s ignorance. Just ignorance!’

The 267 pages of lessons are profusely illustrated with music examples, but the main problem is obvious. most of Arrau’s comments – softer, louder, hold back, etc – are rendered much less interesting simply because a vital element of the one-to-one relationship is missing. We read what Mario Miranda said during the lesson but we cannot hear how he actually played the passage in question. OUP’s accompanying website includes only one brief audio excerpt from the Chopin. This is a beautifully produced book, but readers who will derive most pleasure and instruction will be Arrau devotees – and even so my reservation still applies.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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