Books and CDs


As the festive season fades away, here is an account of what I have been reading and listening to during the Twelve Days.

Alan Walker's monumental "Fryderyk Chopin -- a Life and Times" is a a magnificent successor to his multi-volume study of the life and works of Liszt, this time all wrapped-up in one comforting 700-page doorstop of a publication (Faber and Faber).
There are wonderfully illuminating technical chapters -- Chopin and the Keyboard, for example, is brilliant in its examination of the composer's own keyboard technique and the capabilities of the pianos available at the time -- and much valuable historical context, both culturally and politically.
And it maddens me to read that Chopin visited various venues in Sussex, my home county, including the Pavilion in Brighton, my birthplace. Thanks to Walker's magnificent work I am now, in my eighth decade, at last aware of this fact which I wish I'd known in my bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teens and would have explored enthusiastically.
Also published by Faber and Faber is "The Silent Musician -- why conducting matters" by Mark Wigglesworth, a lovely, thought-provoking apologia from one of this country's leading conductors, dealing with technique, charisma (you can't teach that!), knowledge, persuasive skills, and so much else.
Simon Rattle used frequently to remark that a conductor is the only musician who has no instrument upon which to practise, and he was so right. Wigglesworth's wise little book builds upon that thought, and should be required reading for all aspiring carvers and, dare I say it, for every orchestral player, too.
This is not a handbook diagramming how to beat time, but is instead a thoughtful, brave exposition of the conductor's thinking processes as he prepares a score, approaches rehearsal (perhaps with an orchestra new to him -- scary, believe me), and takes the podium for performance. Very much recommended.
Leading the huge logjam of CDs I was stockpiling for my listening during the seasonal break was "Claude Debussy -- the complete works", a 33-disc cornucopia from Warner Classics issued in the centenary year of the composer's death and bringing performances of everything he wrote, and indeed transcribed.
Some of the pieces received their premiere performances specifically for this project, and from these brand-new recordings we can go back to the dim, whiskery days of acoustic recordings and arrive at the composer himself, accompanying the wonderful Mary Garden in excerpts from Pelleas et Melisande; she sang the eponymous mysterious heroine when this enigmatic opera was first performed in 1902.
And the CBSO conducted by Simon Rattle is entrusted with contributing the important set of Images for orchestra. Look forward to further CBSO connections in Warner's next biggie, the complete works of Hector Berlioz.
Another biggie I enjoyed was the completion, now issued in a box set (in the original sense of this now misused term) of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen on the budget-price Naxos label. The remarkable Jaap van Zweden, now music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, draws glowing performances from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and among the illustrious cast are Matthias Goerne, Simon O'Neill and Stuart Skelton. Again, much recommended.
Christopher Morley

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