Thursday, 15 April 2010

Some recent reads

The Lives Of The Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg

This is an informative, well-written overview of some of the most important composers of the Western tradition, from Bach to Webern. Schonberg has the power to make the same bare facts of a particular composer's life that I've read before in CD liner notes or reference book entries take on real drama and significance, without distorting the facts. He writes well about music, succeeding in conveying the experience of the various pieces discussed without growing stale or sounding pretentious.

However, I do not always agree with him. He is downright wrong about Mahler, whose music he dismisses as the over-emphasised, over-scored product of a neurotic mind. He accepts that Sibelius was a composer with an individual style, and one whose reputation may well increase with time (these words were written at a time when Sibelius' initial popular appeal had faded and the current revival of interest in him had not begun), but he also pegs him as a minor composer, which is questionable at best. He is similarly cavalier with Bartok. He is also rather sketchy on Shostakovich (although that might be because he wrote at a time when Shostakovich's entire body of work had not yet been thoroughly examined in the west). On the other hand, he very sympathetic to Liszt, and to the French 'impressionists', perhaps in excess in the latter case. By and large, Schonberg overvalues the intellectual aspects of music while showing a certain distaste for the emotional aspect, which may serve as a corrective to a certain tendency to value maudlin displays of emotional excess but is hardly a balanced approach to any form of art, particularly music, which hardly needs to aspire to the condition of science.

Still, a superbly written book, an excellent guide for lay readers who are reasonably familiar with the composers being discussed and can draw their own conclusions.

Hangman's Holiday bt Dorothy L. Sayers

Clever, witty little tales, although the first two either reflect poor research or are rendered implausible by subsequent advances in medical knowledge. Some stories are little more than a puzzle set and solved, other sparkle with great set pieces and character studies. About half are about Peter Wimsey, another handful about the travelling salesman and shrew observer f life's trifles, Montague Egg and there are a couple of one-offs in the end. Some of the stories explore ground that was later covered in more detail in full-length novels, albeit in different contexts and plots.

Laughter In The Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Not the most unique plot of any Nabokov I've read so far, but peppered with amazing little twists of thought and language and a deeply chilling descent to the depths that has an almost Shakespearean weight (Lear/Othello) aside from being played out in a series of virtuoso passages that make much play on blindness and synesthesia.


Space Bar said...

vyu read alex ross' the rest is noise? would be interested to know what you think of it.

JP said...

In fact, Ross' book picks up more or less where Schonberg leaves off , with some overlap (Mahler, Richard Strauss, the 'second Vienna school'). I've read the passages that relate to composers and styles that I have heard. I've skimmed through the rest, but I find it makes more sense for me to listen first and then read about what I've heard, so basically there are things there that I may only read years from now. A very well-written and illuminating book, I think.