Our critics cast their eyes over this month’s selection of books on classical music
The Notebooks of
Trans. Simon Nicholls
& Michael Pushkin
Oxford University Press 978-0-19086366-1 263pp (hb) £53
This slim yet scholarly volume is truly an essential addition to Scriabin literature. The composer’s notebooks – covering virtually all his major works – are lucidly translated and richly annotated by pianist and scholar Simon Nicholls, who also includes a pithily informative biography, plenty of photographs, and a detailed account of the intellectual ferment from which Scriabin drew his ideas: a heady mix of Symbolism, philosophy, new theories on psychology, and the then influential teachings of Theosophy. All these ideas led to this talented and intelligent young man to believe he would transform mankind through a musical happening of his own creation. Was Scriabin mad? Nicholls shows how Scriabin’s onetime acolyte and first biographer, Leonid Sabaneyev, did much to destroy the composer’s posthumous credibility by presenting him through the distorting lens of Cesare Lombroso’s now discredited theory that genius was akin to mental disease. Scriabin, it seems, was no less sane than most intellectuals of his time who believed art would transform the soul of mankind – an idea discredited forever when Stalin coined the phrase ‘engineers of the human soul’. Daniel Jaffé ★★★★★
One Hundred Miracles – A Memoir of Music and Survival Zuzana R i ková with Wendy Holden
340pp (hb) £20
It’s a familiar cliché, but Zuzana R i ková was a legend in her own lifetime, chiefly in her native Czechoslovakia, but also abroad as one of the pioneering harpsichordists of the 1960s with a number of distinguished pupils, including Christopher ★ogwood, to her credit. Of crucial personal significance was her experience in the Second World War and her survival, while enduring appalling experiences, of Terezín, Auschwitz and Belsen. Assembled from personal reminiscences by Wendy ★olden, R i ková’s story is not presented consecutively: for instance, the chapter on Auschwitz is framed by those on Munich and Paris. On the one hand this mitigates the concentrated horror of the death camps and on the other provides a dramatic dynamic in which her personal story is touched by the great events that affected many Czechs in the 20th century.
There are fascinating glimpses of her life with her husband, composer Viktor Kalabis, in Communist Czechoslovakia, its vicissitudes and finally the resolution of the Velvet Revolution. Inevitably, the wartime account is harrowing and not always untouched by sentimentality, but R i ková’s highly personal voice emerges with powerful authenticity. Jan Smaczny ★★★★
The Indispensable Composers Anthony Tommasini
Penguin Press 978-1-594-20593-4
496pp (hb) £23.23
Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of The New York Times for many a year, doesn’t set out with any great scholarly ambition in this book. It is none the worse for that. Instead, he simply takes 17 composers – in chronological order, from Monteverdi to Stravinsky – and sets out why they, above all others, are the fundamental pillars on which classical music history stands. In each case, we get a potted biography, the occasional diversion to explain relevant musical terminology and then, drawing on personal experience as both a performer and listener, Tommasini’s explanation of what makes them special. Of course, half the fun of ‘definitive’ guides such as this lies in taking the author to task over who he has left out – I’d have begun with Palestrina and popped Mendelssohn somewhere in the middle. Tommasini is not someone you find yourself wanting to harrumph at for long, however. Every case he makes is convincingly argued, and his style is accessible without being patronising, enthusiastic but never gushily so. It’s a superb read. Indispensable, even. Jeremy Pound ★★★★★
Life, Death and Cellos
Farrago Books 978-1-788-4211-9
320pp (pb) £8.99
Dodgy post-rehearsal curries, friendly insults between musicians, sacrosanct coffee-and-biscuit breaks, tedious committee meetings: welcome to the world of the amateur orchestra. Throw in a stolen Stradivarius, an unexpected fatality and the odd illicit affair and you have Life, Death and Cellos, the first in a new series by Isabel Rogers.
For the most part it’s a fun read; Rogers ‘neglects her cello’, she tells us in her biography, but has clearly picked up a thing or two about music. We follow a cellist who, unexpectedly, finds herself in the hotseat to save an orchestra faced with collapse.
She has the questionable help of an ambitious conductor, a pair of fellow cellists and a tone-deaf diva.
Rogers’s plot construction is careful, her observations about people’s foibles astute. Sometimes she dwells too long on the history of Stradivari or waxing lyrical about Elgar’s Cello Concerto. And a few more twists would have avoided a sense of predictability as the book builds to its finale. It’s no Mozart in the Jungle, but I’ll be dipping into Book 2, Bold as Brass, out later this year. Rebecca Franks ★★★
Scriabin scribbles: his notebooks offer new insights