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Latest Books ~ Art and Music

"Quintet: Five Journeys Toward Musical Fulfillment"
by David Blum
REVIEW
David Blum led a versatile career that bridged his extraordinary talents as conductor and writer. "Quintet" gathers five of his in-depth profiles published in the New Yorker and elsewhere (from the late '80s and early '90s): Yo-Yo Ma, Jeffrey Tate, Josef Gingold, Richard Goode, and Birgit Nilsson. Each of these portraits reveals Blum's uncanny ability to enter into the confidence of his subjects. He seems to blend the skills of a trusted therapist with the insight of an avid music lover in getting beyond their safeguards and letting them speak from an unusually intimate perspective. Blum conveys their unique world-views through arrestingly apt images, often coaxed directly from the musicians themselves. He also has a gift for elegant, lapidary formulations that go to the heart of the matter. You can read these portraits as compact little biographies that unfold with leisured ease, as essays in the relation of self-knowledge to artistic mastery, and as dazzling commentaries on particular pieces seen from within the musician's mind.

"Gregorian Chant: Songs of the Spirit"
edited by Huston Smith
REVIEW
One of the most surprising musical fads of recent years is the craze for Gregorian chant, a musical form whose recordings were once largely restricted to the pages of the Musical Heritage Society catalog and the output of obscure religious labels. Now, chant in its various permutations is big business and something to be greatly hyped by mainstream record companies. Hopping onto the plainsong bandwagon is "Songs of the Spirit"--published as companion to a PBS special on chant. It's a handsomely illustrated volume of essays and thoughts on assorted styles of chant, complete with a compact disc of examples tucked into a sleeve in the back. This book should satisfy any curiosity on the subject for most people who are neither monastics nor musicians.

"Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life"
by Jeannie Williams
REVIEW
Although Jeannie Williams was not able to get cooperation from Jon Vickers for her new biography of the tenor, he should hardly be displeased with the result. What emerges from this life story is a great artist who is surprisingly simple, true to his beliefs from the very start, and dispassionately aware of the value of his gifts. Williams gives us a man who encompassed three of opera's most demanding roles (Otello, Tristan, and Aeneas in "Les Troyens") in one season at the Metropolitan Opera. Through accumulation of details, Williams conveys a sense of what made Vickers wild and gripping onstage.

"Johannes Brahms: A Biography"
by Jan Swafford
REVIEW
The brilliant biographer of quintessentially American, prototypically modern musician Charles Ives proves just as masterful in probing the life and art of a 19th-century German composer. Writing with passionate clarity that perfectly matches the genius of Brahms (1833-1897), Jan Swafford traces the emotional wellsprings of this secretive man's music without trivializing art into mere autobiography. A composer himself, Swafford understands and lucidly conveys Brahms's unique position in musical history: beloved by many, emulated by few, the triumphant yet melancholy heir of a tradition coming to an end in his lifetime.

"Mozart"
by Peter Gay
REVIEW
In the last 20 years alone, Mozart has been the subject of two fine books: Maynard Solomon's meticulous study, which slides Mozart's rather mystifying psyche under the analytic microscope, and Wolfgang Hildesheimer's more sardonic effort, in which the author seems determined to strip every last bit of romantic varnish from the traditional portrait. Now Peter Gay joins the party with his own brief life. Weighing in at 177 pages, "Mozart" will never displace its deep-focus predecessors. But it's a delightful introduction to the composer, whose entire existence was, as Gay puts it, a "triumph of genius over precociousness."

"The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection"
by Ted Libbey
REVIEW
It's back: Ted Libbey's highly regarded guide has been updated and is now even more full of information than when it was originally published in 1994. As on his weekly NPR "Performance Today" segment, Libbey offers sage and witty advice on 350 core classical works that are essential to a music lover's collection. The discography has been updated to reflect important new interpretations and reissues of classic performances.

NEW Classical Music BOOKs

'The Unconsoled' Some Love it, some don't get it at all

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"Keeping Mozart in Mind"

"The Four and the One: In Praise of String Quartets" by David Rounds
REVIEW
Why have so many great composers reserved some of their most profound, personal music for their string quartets? This question has always fascinated musicians and chamber music lovers; in this book, David Rounds--a teacher, writer, chamber singer, and lifelong quartet addict--suggests an explanation: the instrumental combination resembles human voices, and socially the group resembles a family or a gathering of friends carrying on a conversation. Rounds remarks that the use of the same phrase to denote the musical form and the team of players indicates that a quartet performance is created by the participants' interaction as much as by the written notes. The author's premise, reflected in his title, is that in a quartet, four players and four instruments have to become one unit. To demonstrate the arduous process this requires, he enlisted the collaboration of the Lafayette Quartet, an all- women group in residence at the University of Victoria School of Music in Canada. Attending their rehearsals offered him, and the reader, a unique opportunity to follow their discussions and witness the emergence of an interpretation. The book begins with an introduction to the development of chamber music and ends with a guide to the quartet repertoire. Rounds's descriptions of the music are excellent, though his value judgments can be arbitrary; his hope is to kindle his own devotion to the string quartet in his readers.

"Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes"
by Maria Callas and John Ardoin
REVIEW
Maria Callas conducted 23 two-hour opera master classes in 1971 and 1972; John Ardoin transcribed and arranged these working sessions on more than 70 arias. Far from the stereotypical self-serving diva putting in a personal appearance, Callas was remarkably practical and specific in her observations. Recurrent themes include diction (particularly the expressive uses of consonants) and the necessity of finding a natural flow for the accents of the words, scrupulously applied to the rhythms of the notes. Callas offered her own ornaments, cadenzas, alterations of word placement, and even cuts; all of these are supplied in musical notation among the copious musical examples in the book. Although she might have been expected to concentrate on soprano repertoire, Callas in fact covered not only arias for all of the other voice categories but also duets. Often what Callas asked for was more easily said than done, and the overriding impression is of how exacting the profession really is. (Fans of the Terrence McNally play "Master Class" will be interested to know that Callas actually was conversant with the tenor arias in "Tosca.")

"Shostakovich: A Life Remembered"
by Elizabeth Wilson
REVIEW
This book offers a unique perspective on one of our century's most complex, enigmatic, and controversial geniuses, set in the musical and political context of his time. It is a compendium of official documents, private letters, diaries, and interviews with Shostakovich's family, friends, and enemies (in Russia and elsewhere), as well as articles written especially for the book. The result is a fascinating first-hand portrait of Shostakovich the man as husband, widower, father, and friend, and Shostakovich the composer, who--by turns officially reviled and extolled--became a symbol for the suffering of his people. Indomitably creative despite constant fear, repression, bereavement, and debilitating illnesses, his ultimate tragedy was that the political "thaw" came too late for his failing health. Many of Wilson's respondents are musicians who knew that Shostakovich encoded his music with hidden subtexts to express his secret thoughts. On the other hand, his political statements, written and spoken under duress, were often ambiguous and contradictory, and Wilson quotes both conciliatory and hostile reactions to them.

"The Urbanization of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth Century"
by Anselm Gerhard; translated by Mary Whittall
REVIEW
Grand opera--the genre that flourished in Paris during the mid-19th century--has had a bad reputation for most of its history. Wagner dismissed it as "effects without causes." Characterized by gargantuan choral numbers, schlocky exoticism, and plenty of blood, it represents much of what we perceive as 19th-century opera without the depth of the period's best work. It is rarely performed today. Anselm Gerhard engages in a rich study of grand opera and places it in context. He demonstrates what there is to admire in a genre that led from tragedie lyrique to the achievements of Verdi and Wagner. Gerhard also explores the form's genesis, suggesting that grand opera's emphasis on violent historical events derived from the turbulent history of France after 1789: the 18th century's happy endings gave way to "horrifying" ones. But Gerhard doesn't oversell these operas; he assesses their virtues and their considerable limitations. He persuasively defends the accomplishments of the much-derided Meyerbeer. And though this book is intended for readers with some grounding in the subject, he helpfully includes synopses of these less-than-canonical works.

  • "The Compleat Brahms"
    edited by Leon Botstein
    REVIEW
    "Monumental" is the first word that occurs to you when you begin exploring what has been put together by Leon Botstein and his 29 collaborators. Brahms was the great musical conservative in the creative ferment of the late 19th century. Haunted by the figure of Beethoven, he destroyed much of his own work--carefully tailoring his posthumous image--in fear of negative comparisons. At the same time, he preserved almost single-handedly the great classical tradition embodied in Beethoven's work. Virtually every piece composed by Brahms is discussed in this compendium, lucidly, readably, in biographical and cultural context, and in fine detail. The writers are all scholars or professional performers--often both--but they have worked hard to make their discussions and analyses accessible to the interested general reader, and in their diversity of approaches they have made the book a compendium of the varied techniques for writing legibly about music. You may not agree with every word (a fine seasoning of opinion has been allowed to flavor the masses of fact), and it is not the sort of book that anyone but a fanatic will gallop through from cover to cover. But you will find Brahms here in all his complexity, still monumental but more approachable than ever.

  • "The Literature of Chamber Music"
    by Arthur Cohn
  • REVIEW
    The scholarship, scope, breadth, and depth of this four- volume set are formidable. Arthur Cohn, who died in 1998, was a music publishing executive, composer, conductor, violinist, and passionate chamber music player. Author of compendia of 20th-century music and classical recordings, Cohn brought a lifetime of research and accumulated knowledge to this study. The book is unusual in several respects. Though arranged alphabetically and organized encyclopedia-style, it is no mere list of names and opuses: each work is dated, described, analyzed, evaluated; different editions are compared. The author's attitude is inclusive, covering composers famous and obscure of all periods and nationalities. Cohn's judgments are both knowledgeable and generous; he elucidates abstruse, forbidding styles up to the extreme avant-garde, tempers criticism with praise, and goes to bat for unjustly underrated composers. There are 29 essays discussing the style, background, and historical significance of important major composers; these are written with insight, sensitivity, and affectionate admiration (including an explanatory listing of the often arcane nicknames of Haydn's string quartets). Readers will also encounter names not associated with chamber music, such as Humperdinck, Marc Blitzstein, Furtwangler, Victor Babin, and the writer Max Brod, as well as an extraordinary number of unknown composers. Thus the book can be read for new perspectives on favorite composers and as a guide to unfamiliar ones--though one often wishes for more information about the latter. Inevitably, Cohn does not escape the problems of dealing with one artistic medium in terms of another: music is meant to be heard, not read about. (Musical illustrations would have helped; a few notes can say more than a lot of words.) This results in a somewhat idiosyncratic, convoluted style, especially in the earlier volumes, and an odd preoccupation with numbers: of measures, repeats, key changes, etc., as well as timings. There are some misprints and erroneous translations. But these blemishes in no way diminish the book's value as an extraordinarily comprehensive, endlessly fascinating reference work.

  • "1791: Mozart's Last Year"
    by H.C. Robbins Landon
    REVIEW
    When Haydn left on a concert tour to London in December 1790, Mozart said farewell forever, and most people assumed it was Haydn's health that he was worried about. As we know now, the elder composer was to live for almost two decades more; Mozart, a single year. It was to be a year in which he wrote "The Magic Flute," "La Clemenza di Tito," and the Clarinet Concerto, as well as most of the Requiem; it was also a year of mounting disappointment in his career as part of the Viennese musical establishment, and a year of growing debt. Landon is keen to debunk the myths: Mozart was not poisoned, but died of progressive kidney failure, and Salieri was innocent of his death, though not of promoting his own career at Mozart's expense. Landon defends Mozart's wife, Constanze, against the libels of biographers, though at times his portrait of comfortable bourgeois monogamy sounds like special pleading and overlaps with hints of conscientious bohemian racketiness. This is a wonderful portrait of a great artist and the city where he lived; in passing, Landon tells us everything we need to know about musical life, Masonry, and the truth about that pauper's grave.

  • "Twilight of the Wagners"
    by Gottfried Wagner
    REVIEW
    Gottfried Wagner is a man clearly wrestling with the past. He grew up in a loveless atmosphere in Bayreuth--a mecca for German devotees of composer Richard Wagner, his great- grandfather. But it wasn't until he was an adult that he learned of the far darker overtones of the family home-- their close links with Hitler and a pattern of anti-Semitic beliefs that he traces back to the famous composer. Gottfried, who was born in 1947, has spent years publicly castigating the anti-Semitism of the Wagners and what he calls the "Wagner cult," and this book is his summation of that campaign. Much of his story is not new, but he provides some indelible new details. As late as the 1970s, his grandmother Winifred carefully stored a cache of Hitler's letters in a steel-lined cabinet and kept a photo of him on her desk, inscribed "From Wolf to his Winnie." At its heart, this is neither a historical study nor a family expose. It is the sad story of a son who spent decades rebelling against an icy father and trying to make peace with him. He also searched for his own career in the shadow of his famous family. Gottfried maintains that his outspokenness ruined his chances in the German opera world, where Bayreuth casts a heavy influence. Gottfried finally severed his ties to his domineering father in 1990 when he conducted a lecture tour in Israel. He now calls himself an "anti-Wagnerian," and he has formed a group to foster German-Jewish understanding.

  • "The Symphony: A Listener's Guide"
    by Michael Steinberg
    REVIEW
    Thanks to Michael Steinberg's guidebook, it's easy to beef up your knowledge about the symphony. This well-written tome features 118 entries that cover all the big composers as well as their works. Best of all, Steinberg's writing is smart without being academic. A great gift for the classical neophyte.

  • "The Literature of Chamber Music"
    by Arthur Cohn
    REVIEW
    Looking for a serious classical reference book? This mammoth (and pricey) four-volume set by the late Arthur Cohn is a huge accomplishment. There are 29 essays discussing the style, background, and historical significance of important major composers, and each work listed features in-depth information, as well as a rundown of differing recordings. A truly staggering read.

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