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Book Review

Classical Music

Classical Music -The Listener's Companion

The Listener's Companion

Morin, Alexander J. (ed.)
San Francisco: Backbeat Books. 2002. 1201 pp
ISBN: 0879306386
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Just thinking of the amount of work it takes to produce a book like this staggers you. Many of the contributors will be known to subscribers to various classical-music Internet discussion lists, as well as to readers of books, magazines, and journals.

Both Morin and Harold Schonberg (who writes a brief, on-the-money, and entertaining forward) provide excellent guides on how the book should be used. It is emphatically not a list of the Best Recording of X. In fact, both Morin and Schonberg doubt the Best Recording of X exists. This philosophy influences much of the book. The main disadvantage, however, the editor quickly acknowledges. The catalogue of available CDs doesn't remain static. New CDs appear. Old ones disappear. For the most part, the book sticks with CDs currently available.

The guide consists of three parts. Part I deals with composers and their work, major and minor. It's not complete, either in the composers listed or the composers' works, but you shouldn't expect that. It interested me to see who was in and who wasn't – John Ward, but not Robert; Zwilich, but not Zaimont; Lees, but not Rosner; Gubaidulina and Schnittke, but neither Denisov nor Weinberg. The changes in such a list ten years from now will give me something to look forward to. Still, how many have plowed through the major recordings of Brahms? Paul Althouse, William J. Gatens, and Kurt Moses have. This wealth of listening experience distils into a heady concentration. Part II tours, quick-and-dirty, genres and periods. It's not going to help you pass Music Appreciation 101, but it will help you if you're lost in a record shop (a consummation devoutly to be wished). Richard Traubner on "Gilbert and Sullivan" is superb (although I don't agree with much of it), as is Ardella Crawford on "Children's Music." Part III lists star performers by instrument or by vocal category.

You pick over a book like this, rather than read it straight through. I've looked up favorites and paid special attention to the editorial apparatus. I have most definitely not plowed my way from beginning to end. However, the omissions I've found count for me as the most serious problem of the guide. The editorial viewpoint I think great: describe the qualities of various performances and let readers make up their own minds. I grant the subjectivity of it all, but I don't see how one creates an objective scale. Nevertheless, the section on choral music didn't seem to me to account for major groups, like the Dale Warland Singers (who get one mention in the entire guide). I also find serious problems with Arvid Ashby's discussion of Richard Strauss, mainly because of its niggardly mentions of Szell. I don't care what one thinks of the artistic success of Szell's Strauss recordings; they are at least historically important. Also Ashby likes Karajan's Strauss far better than I do, but that's just pique on my part. Even so, Ashby gives a wonderful overview of the discography of Frank Zappa, of all people.

A project of such size and scope will not likely please everybody all the time. Its virtues nevertheless outweigh its defects. In its descriptive emphasis, I find it much more useful to the classical-music CD buyer than Penguin's parade of rosettes. I wouldn't ignore the Penguin equivalent or Svejda's idiosyncratic (and delightful) Record Shelf or such reviewing web sites as Classical CD Review, and Musicweb International, because the more people you read, the more you will know about a performance without actually hearing it. In general, however, Classical Music listener's companion provides a reasonable overview with a reasonable amount of detail.

Copyright © 2002 by Steve Schwartz