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Classical Music: The Essential Listening Companion
ed. Alexander J. Morin

The Third Ear
ISBN 0-87930-638-6


AmazonUK £15.96  AmazonUS $20.97


The strengths of this 'Listener's Companion' lie in its readability. The layout makes for a fluid reading experience. While Penguin 2002 (seen as the main competition) has a distinct section for each CD this book groups commentary under works and comments on recordings in groups and by cross-reference and contrast. It is a diverting and informative work with the variety of approach associated with so many contributors (54 of them) a virtue by comparison with Penguin Guide's exalted trinity.

The book is inclusively open-minded. Just look at Hecht's Bax entry. The man knows his Bax exhaustively. He even mentions the now long gone Lyrita LPs and Handley's 1966 Revolution LP of the Fourth Symphony. There are spot-on comments about the still unequalled Norman Del Mar LP of the Sixth Symphony. On the other hand there is no mention of Dutton's CD of the Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony - issued in 2001. This last omission is a sign of the debit side of the book - a general infection.

Tully Potter's essay on Moeran shows depth of knowledge. He knows about the Symposium CD of the Violin Concerto (Albert Sammons) though he does not mention the long-gone 1979 Lyrita LP with John Georgiadis, the LSO and Vernon Handley. On the other hand he does mention the Boult Lyrita of the Symphony - still unmatched though jostled by the latest Naxos Lloyd-Jones and the Chandos Handley. Potter is on the ball with mentions of the Naxos and ASV string quartet discs though does not mention the BMS CD of the Piano Trio. On the other hand he scores highly for referring to the limited circulation John Martin Stafford CD of Parkin's survey of the solo piano music.

The issue of publication cut-off dates afflicts Moore's entry on Langgaard. The lamented Danacord LP of symphonies 10 and 14 was issued in CD format early last year but that is not mentioned. Moore claims that one day there may be a recording of the original versions of the early symphonies but for readers not to hold their breaths. However there are already three CDs of these original versions from Dacapo and more to come. They came out in 2001 - another 'victim' of the publication's cut-off date, I am sure of that because otherwise Mr Moore knows his onions even to the extent of being aware of the rare 1986 EMI recording of Antikrist. Moore is superb again in the Novak entry.

Barker's encyclopedic Nielsen entry is admirable - informatively written and sound though I take issue with his dismissive verdict on the Schønwandt Dacapo set.

Diederich C de Jong has been a long-time champion of rare Scandinavian (and other) repertoire. His entry for Janis Ivanovs strikes a chord with me. He praises the Campion CD of the ever-freshly blooming Violin Concerto to the skies and recommends a choral disc I have not heard on the Grindex label.

Ritter's Bloch is wide-ranging but does not reach as far as Micah Yui's Laurel CD of the Concerto-Symphonique on LR-851CD which was issued in 1997. His comments on the Marjorie Mitchell Vanguard recording from 1961 are helpful. Also overlooked is Laurel's London recording of the Violin Concerto. These omissions are all the more surprising given Laurel's dedication to Bloch and the fact that the entry does comment on Laurel's CDs of the quartets and quintets. Ritter's style is pretty much from the shoulder condemning Schwarz's reading of the Epic Rhapsody - America as 'just plain boring' in comparison with the Stokowski version on Vanguard. By the way, Bloch's much earlier national Rhapsody - Helvetia is due to be recorded - a major event for Blochists. Neither the Capriccio nor the Actes-Sud version's of Bloch's opera Macbeth are mentioned.

Hecht's Elgar entry is full of character and interest. I am not sure how he came to the view that the Dupré Cello Concerto as conducted by Barenboim (Sony) was less impulsive than the oft-lauded studio version from Barbirolli (EMI). I think more highly of Solti's emotionally overflowing recordings of the two symphonies than Hecht. George Hurst does not conduct the BBC Symphony on Naxos; it is the BBC Phil. I have heard Hurst's version recently and found it far more consistently impressive than Hecht. However I tend to be a bit of heretic when it comes to Elgar and Hecht is closer to the consensus. .... And Yet when it comes to Ida Haendel's Testament CD of the Violin Concerto with Boult Hecht is gripped and enthusiastic. For me this was a recording I desperately wanted to love but ultimately founded glutinous. I must track down Haendel's live version with Pritchard on a now deleted BBC CD 91942.

About 550 composers are covered with the entries arranged alphabetically rather like a Grove volume in appearance. Even so there are omissions: No Louis Glass, No Mieczyslaw Karlowicz - shame on you. No entry for Constant Lambert, no Bonnal, no Goossens, neither of the two Bushs - Geoffrey and Alan. No Madetoja. Given de Jong's apt encomium of the Ivanovs Violin Concerto there should have been space for the Karlowicz concerto on disc not to mention a slot for the Belgian composer August de Boeck (another fine neglected concerto) and for the Rimskian exotics of Adolphe Biarent (Cypres).

That said, the coverage of composers is good - very good indeed in the case of Americans. The brilliant entries for Griffes, Hanson (good to see Landau's Vox recording of the Sixth Symphony praised to melt by Hecht), Harris, Harrison, Husa and Kernis are representative samples. Nothing however for Converse, Farwell or Kelley.

In the excellent Holst entry Haldemann includes a reference to a BBC Music Magazine front cover disc of Yan-Pascal Tortelier's Planets. I rather regret that he does not mention the old Contour LP of George Hurst conducting the Bournemouth SO in the Planets.

Arved Ashby wrote the useful Kancheli entry but his own recording of Hovhaness's viola and violin music (Ogre/Ogress) does not get a look-in in Crawford's strong piece on the Scottish-Armenian-American composer.

Weaknesses? Well, up to date it is not. The book may carry the publication date 2002 but the cut-off flits between 2000 and 2001. It is intended to be an annual event and this is its first edition so the next might well be more topical and would then be a closer challenge to Penguin as a real-time (well, as close as the printed word gets) guide to the record shop shelves. However the ground work has now been done. It is a matter of revising and extending.

Sibelius: Horst Stein's Pohjola's Daughter and En Saga (classics of the gramophone) are not mentioned - despite being amongst the strongest recordings of these works ever. There is however well-justified praise for the strengths of Stein's Nightride and Sunrise (part of a terrific 'twofer') and Boult's formidable brace of Omega tone poem CDs are referred to via a vibrant commendation for Oceanides. The writer, Moses, is rather too quick to strike down Petri Sakari's good Naxos cycle though I entirely agree with the criticism of Davis's RCA-BMG cycle. I was delighted to see encouragement to reissue Kamu's DG version of the Third Symphony (much better than the bloated prolixity of his Second).

Gimbel's entry for Pettersson mentions the Commisiona double LP (Swedish Philips) of the Ninth Symphony. He is I think unduly harsh about Kamu's early 1980s CBS LP of the Sixth Symphony but that he knows about it speaks volumes for the quality of his entry. A minor regret is the consistent misspelling of Trojahn as Trojhan. Gimbel knows no fear even recommending the Caprice LP version of the Second Violin Concerto for its smoother sound in preference over the CD.

Typos: p.701 Kleigel should have been Kliegel, p.559 Baileys should be Balleys, p.561 Palinicek should be Palenicek and in other places Firkurny instead of Firkusny; Thedèen instead of Thedéen.

The book is printed on clean white paper offering stronger contrast and probably longer readability than the pulpy but easy on the eye Penguin.

Composer names are carried at the foot of each page on the extreme left and right footers with the book laid open in front of the reader.

The contributors include Martin Anderson (delightfully amok amongst the Scandinavians), Peter Bates, Diederich de Jong, Paul Geffen, Stephen Haller, Bret Johnson, Mark Koldys, Tully Potter, Chris Walton (of Martin and Schoeck fame - an outstanding writer), Raymond S. Tuttle and Guy Rickards (also an extremely gifted writer well able to communicate to an audience without technical musical training; he wrote the Leifs pieces amongst others).

The last ninety or so pages forsake composer by composer study and instead look at discs grouped by collection or anthology genres (e.g. overtures, film, electronic, nationalities) and by artist (Yudina, Gringolts, Doktor, Kulenkampff). The artist entries give birth year and death year where relevant. The useful 35 page index offers a key to composer and artist names.

This book makes a better browsing read at the level of survey-continuity than the Penguin but it is not as up to date. Judgements on the acumen shown by such a large team of reviewers will vary depending on your tastes. Well informed infuriation mixed with a consonance of opinion with the knowledgeable reader will often open unexpected doors or 'reassure you that they should stay closed - there is after all only so much time and a Niagara torrent of music to hear. Having your judgements formed, challenged, broken, reformed and even sometimes confirmed are roles well served by this volume. I wish it very well. If you need a guiding hand then this book seems in general to be a sound choice. You will come away from reading its lively and sometimes iconoclastic pages, better informed and often enthused to explore and compare. I look forward to a yet more formidable second edition which I hope might cast its composerly net even further afield.

In the introduction the editor hopes that the book conveys the 'love of music that we share with our readers'. In that goal Mr Morin is secure in his success.

Rob Barnett


price: $25.00 or 20.00 GBP

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