Our crit­ics cast their eyes over this month’s se­lec­tion of books on clas­si­cal mu­sic

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The Note­books of

Alexan­der Skryabin

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

Blooms­bury 978-1-408-89683-9

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

Is­abel Rogers

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

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