Notes 59.2 (2002) 344-346
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Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion. By Charles Rosen. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. [xii, 256 p. + 1 CD. ISBN 0-300-09070-6. $29.95.] Music examples, index, compact disc.
Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. By Robert Taub. Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, 2002. [258 p. ISBN 1-57467-071-9. $24.95.] Music examples, glossary, bibliography, index.
The nearly simultaneous publication of two books about the Beethoven sonatas, each by a Princeton-educated pianist who has performed the complete cycle, is surely a coincidence. Similarities in the organization and scope of the two books are also striking. Although both are informed in essential ways by Beethoven scholarship, neither is a scholarly treatise. "This is a practical book," writes Charles Rosen in his preface, "meant as a guide for listeners and performers to many aspects of the Beethoven piano sonatas not always well understood today" (p. xi). Rosen's book owes its provenance to "the invitation to perform ... the sonatas at the Pontina Festival and to give a seminar on them for the piano students at the summer school in the Caetani Castle in Sermoneta" (p.xi). The polymathic Rosen is, of course, an obvious choice for such a double invitation: internationally acclaimed as a versatile pianist whose recordings include many of the most daunting works in the repertoire, he is even better known as the author of several classic books on music and as a prolific contributor to the New York Review of Books. Against the background of such a voluminously productive career, this relatively modest (though illuminating) volume comes across as the latest of his "critical entertainments." For Robert Taub, also a pianist of international reputation but about a generation younger than Rosen, Playing the Beethoven Sonatas is a first book, and, not surprisingly, its tone is far more earnest. It [End Page 344] is clear from Taub's preface that the project of performing (and recording) the Beethoven sonatas as a cycle has become a central career objective for him to a degree that it never seems to have been for Rosen. The project originated during Taub's three-year tenure as artist-in-residence at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and he writes in his preface that his book has evolved from his years of long and multifaceted experience of the sonatas and "is intended for all music lovers, from the casual listener to the devoted performer" (p. 10). As its title suggests, Taub's is, like Rosen's, a practical book. Indeed it turns out to be even more practical in intent than Rosen's, and correspondingly less readable as a continuous narrative.
Beyond their similarities in provenance and intended audience, these two books, remarkably close in length, also parallel each other in organization. Each divides into two parts, the first of which addresses questions of form, tempo, phrasing, pedaling, and the evolution of the piano that set the terms for the brief discussions of the sonatas themselves that, one by one, comprise the second. Rosen's second part progresses through the sonatas in their order of publication (which, with the exception of the two "Easy Sonatas" (op. 49), approximates their order of composition). But Taub, in keeping with his title, calls his second part "Concert Programs" and discusses the individual sonatas in the order in which he plays them when performing the complete cycle, introducing each program with some remarks about the threads of continuity and contrast between different sonatas that motivate his choices.
As I have already suggested, the two books, despite all these similarities and many agreements throughout about the character of individual works and passages and how to perform them, are utterly different in character. Both Rosen's historical and cultural perspective and his lightness of touch are evident in his opening gambit, in which he grants pride of place to Marcel Proust's grandmother, who knew how a Beethoven sonata should go as well as she knew how food should be prepared and guests received. "Proust's comedy...