From Sublime to Ridiculous; CLASSICAL MUSIC

Article excerpt

Opera-lovers might need an extra large stocking this Christmas if Santa is going to bring them the undoubted pick of this year's crop of classical music books.

The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, four fat paperback volumes handsomely presented in a crimson slip-case, is published by Macmillan at pounds 149.00, and, like its stable-mate New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, finds itself constantly in use.

We have here thousands of entries on works, composers, performers, librettists, companies, locations, and associated topics, up-to-date as recently as the early 90s, and liberally laced with photographs, costume illustrations and music examples.

As with any decent dictionary, browsing is fatal, dipping into one entry leading the reader on an inexhaustible trail of cross-references. Jan Smaczny's concise but comprehensive entry on 'Birmingham', for example, includes mentions of Welsh National Ope ra, City of Birmingham Touring Opera (with its sensational two-night Ring in 1990), Anthony Lewis' baroque Barber Operas at the University of Birmingham, Midland Music Makers' proud record of amateur production, and much else, starting trails which will keep readers absorbed the whole time between Christmas and New Year, and then constantly returning ad infinitum.

Also from opera-land comes the unpleasant He who does not howl with the wolf (Sanctuary Publishing Ltd, pounds 16.99) by Gottfried Wagner. One of Richard Wagner's many great-grandchildren, Gottfried here tells the story of his life at Bayreuth, the strai ns and stresses of living in a family tainted with its cult of Nazism, and generally protests his own good-guyness at the expense of practically everyone else.

Now, with Gottfried's father Wolfgang approaching old age, the question of the succession to the Bayreuth flame is splitting the family. Anyone who thinks the Simpsons are dysfunctional (which they certainly are not) should try this lot.

In-fighting also comes into Maureen Garnham's As I saw it, a memoir of her time working as a secretary for Benjamin Britten's English Opera Group during the mid-1950s (St George's Publications, pounds 7.99). This fascinating little book shows us the pers onality traits which caused Britten to find offence with many of those closely supporting him whilst lacking the gumption to air any difficulties himself; yet Garnham remains engagingly loyal to a composer who headed an enterprise which gave her so much pleasure as an insider in heady times. A worthwhile read, not least for its insights into post-war social and cultural history.

Two of our century's great conductors of opera (and of everything else) have been the subject of important publications this year. Erich Leinsdorf on Music is a stimulating collection of essays and thoughts on performance-practice, composition and critic ism from the Austrian-born maestro who served his apprenticeship under the likes of Webern, Bruno Walter and Toscanini (Amadeus Press, $34.95, no sterling price available).

Richard Osborne's Herbert von Karajan: a life in music is a magisterial overview documenting the public and private life of this charismatic conductor. …