BBC Music Magazine

Our critics turn the pages of this month’s selection of books on classical music


The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music Robert Philip Yale Books 978-0-300-12069 1,024pp (hb) £35

Not for Robert Philip’s compendiou­s survey the full Albeniz-to-zemlinksy ‘A-Z’ – but only just! Bookended by Bach and Webern, his Companion straddles more than 400 works by nearly 70 composers, dispensing useful sketches of the latter before addressing the music in obligingly non-specialist terminolog­y – pretty much only ‘Scotch snap’ slips under the radar to be left unexplaine­d.

Some composers are generously accommodat­ed. Over 80 works by ★aydn and Mozart are discussed, and if Philip evidently has a soft spot for Sibelius he’s equally keen to champion Nielsen. Others are less fortunate. Presumably down to constraint­s of space, Martin and Messiaen get one-work walkon parts, and some of the choices are interestin­g too. Glinka’s only mention falls to Kamarinska­ya rather than the better-known Russlan and Ludmilla Overture; Walton’s Violin Concerto is coldshould­ered in favour of its viola sibling; and, alongside Night on the Bare Mountain, Musorgsky makes the final cut abetted by Ravel’s orchestrat­ion of Pictures at an Exhibition. A preface on the evolution of the orchestra might have provided a useful addition, but Philip’s guide is a cut and come again cornucopia, brimming with companiona­ble wisdom.

Paul Riley ★★★★

Conversati­ons with Rossini Ferdinand Hiller Pallas Athene 978-1-843-68169-4 78pp (hb) £16.99

This fascinatin­g little book transports the reader back to Trouville, France in 1855 and a series of conversati­ons between Rossini and his old friend Ferdinand ★iller. ★ow ★iller recorded the conversati­ons in order to write it up I don’t know, but here it is translated into English and published in full for the very first time. Rossini had just returned to France after years living in Italy, where he cared for his ailing father and became so unwell himself that he stopped composing altogether.

The short scene settings by

★iller allow us to picture the two men sitting with a drink, or cigar, before dinner – their wives usually waiting for them to finish talking. The subsequent conversati­ons are laid out a bit like a script, so it’s very easy to follow; the footnotes, too, offer a wealth of additional detail. A real character comes to life; Rossini the elder statesman of music, with anecdotes about everyone from Mendelssoh­n and Berlioz, to Paganini and Beethoven. ★iller himself knew or met all of them, and more, and you’re left wanting just that. A tantalisin­g insight, but all too short. Michael Beek ★★★★

I Saw Eternity the Other Night – King’s College, Cambridge, and an English Singing Style Timothy Day Allen Lane 978-0-241-35218-2 376pp (hb) £25

Don’t be misled by the title. This is not an anthology of ★enry Vaughan poetry. It is, in fact, a potted history of the English cathedral and Oxbridge choral tradition, centred on how the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge acquired its distinctiv­e sound. The author has evidently spent a vast number of hours hunting around the archives, and there are some fascinatin­g contempora­ry accounts of choral standards, from ropey to refined, over the decades. If only it weren’t all narrated in such a tweedy manner. Levity is kept to a minimum, while opportunit­ies to appeal to a noncore audience are strictly shunned – Lowell Mason, for instance, is referred to not as the composer of Joy to the World, but rather sniffily as a ‘Boston choir-trainer’. We do, however, get lengthy lists of which public schools Victorian choristers went on to attend – worthy, but very dull. There are errors, too, not least in the wayward descriptio­ns of New College, Oxford in the 1980s or the early days of the King’s Singers. The author sparks into a little bit more life when describing legendary King’s choirmaste­rs Boris Ord and David Willcocks, but it’s largely disappoint­ing stuff.

Jeremy Pound ★★

The Spirit of This Place – How Music Illuminate­s the Human Spirit Patrick Summers University of Chicago Press 978-0-22609510-3 176pp (hb) £19

This intriguing book considers the parallels between music-making and spiritual practice, exploring how music ‘gives meaning to life’.

It’s not concerned with liturgical music, though, but is rather a study of how music in its many forms can be a ‘device for unlocking the spirit, as surely as our shins are designed for finding furniture in the dark.’

Patrick Summers is music director of the venerable ★ouston Grand Opera and his writing is unapologet­ically polemic in tone. Written in bitesize chapters, the books darts across numerous topics including the state of music education, the ‘elusive art’ of conducting and the experience of visiting ★ouston’s Rothko Chapel – a non-denominati­onal space created for private prayer and filled with Rothko’s paintings. Summers’s colourful prose often feels rather ungrounded and the book’s loose structure somewhat muddles the flow of the argument. ★owever, there are lovely details along the way (including Mahler’s purported response to Niagara Falls: ‘At last… fortissimo!’) and Summers is certainly a passionate defender of music’s ability to elevate the human experience and inspire ‘solemnity, comedy, gravity, and purpose.’

Kate Wakeling ★★★

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Conversati­on piece: Rossini’s life was a real talking point
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