Christmas Books: Classical Music - What Makes the Piano Interesting?
Picard, Anna, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
A passionate interest in an unfamiliar subject is, in my experience, more likely to grow from a chance encounter. How many people visited the Chelsea Physic Garden after reading Rose Tremain's Restoration? A fair few discs of Dowland were sold on the back of Tremain's last novel, Music & Silence, I'll bet, and probably more still of Kathleen Ferrier on the back of Ian Jack's beautiful essay "Klever Kaff" in last winter's Granta. Why? Because literary eloquence seduces.
Perhaps such eloquence comes more easily to those whose brains aren't stuffed full of sonata form. To string a sentence together at the level of those who do nothing but write and read is an unimaginable luxury for most music writers. Daniel Barenboim's guarded autobiography A Life in Music (Weidenfeld pounds 18.99) is, for all its fascinating asides on the business of learning, interpretation and performance, no rival to Martin Amis's Experience. (For a less self-conscious and more intimate glimpse of life on the conductor's podium. turn to Harvey Sachs's edition of The Letters of Arturo Toscanini, Faber pounds 30.) Neither do Mirka Zemanova's stolid life of Janacek (John Murray pounds 25), Stelios Galatopoulos's impenetrable Bellini: Life, Times, Music, (Sanctuary pounds 19.99) or even Annette Morreau's elegantly phrased and exhaustively researched biography of Emanuel Feuermann (Yale pounds 25) bear comparison to Claire Tomalin's Pepys. Each of these books assumes a pre-existing passion for the subject and makes little attempt to conjure excitement from curiosity.
In contrast, reading Australian academic and composer Andrew Ford's collection of essays and reviews Undue Noise (ABC; available online from www.abcshop.com.au) is like striking up a friendship with the secret love- child of Virgil Thomson and Clive James. Erudite, unpretentious, provocative, passionate, succinct, kind, combative and sometimes wildly funny, Ford is the least pompous musical essayist I've encountered. Ranging from Arnold Schoenberg's last years to the vicissitudes of historically informed performance ("by claiming that if Mozart had had our modern French horns he would have used them, we miss a vital point. We might just as well argue that Shakespeare would have loved rap music and take this as our cue to speak his blank verse in Harlem accents"), Ford's essays are pitched somewhere between the dinner-party anecdote and the post- doctoral lecture. Specialists will find much fun here, while those who find the conventions of classical music impenetrable will be seduced by Ford's smartly observed pop-culture parallels. …