Classical guide invites readers to learn, listen, enjoy

Critical Eye

July 23, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

CLASSICAL MUSIC MAY NEVER BE AS popular as it deserves to be.

Like all great art forms, it requires effort on the part of the beholder to gain real appreciation. And effort is the last thing a lot of people today will apply to anything. (That must explain why you can now buy a pre-made, crust-free, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.)

Even folks willing to dip their toes into the waters of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms every now and then may still find themselves too unsure, too intimidated or just insufficiently grabbed to give it more frequent attention.

But if the thoroughly uninitiated, or just moderately interested, could be coaxed into spending some time with The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music (Workman Publishing, 979 pages, $19.95), a whole wave of new fans might be generated.

Author Ted Libbey has created the reader-friendliest, yet fully substantive, publication of its type I've seen come along yet.

(Disclosure time: Libbey gave me my first big break in journalism, inviting me to be a freelance reviewer at The Washington Star when he was its music critic, but our careers went separate ways something like 25 years ago. And my own humble little tome in 2002, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music, is unrelated, by publisher or marketing, to the new Libbey book or his previous NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection.)

In addition to the quality of the text, there's an unusual extra: access to a Web site of 527 musical examples, adding up to a good 75 hours of recordings.

And I'm not talking sound bites, but extensive aural complements to the book's entries -- all 31 minutes of Liszt's B minor Sonata, the long Dies Irae section of Britten's War Requiem, complete tone poems by Tchaikovsky and Strauss.

And if you're a little rusty on isorhythmic motets, you can get an earful of one from the 1400s by Guillaume Du Fay to go along with the explanation in the text.

It's one thing to find a book / compact disc product. The "Unlocking the Masters" series from Amadeus Press, with one or two CDs per volume, is an attractive current example.

But in a first for musical reference books, the encyclopedia provides an aural entry point into about six centuries of music, thanks to a collaboration with the extensive Naxos record label.

Naxos created the Web site that contains the music files. The book's introduction tells readers how to register free at the site, create a password and gain unlimited access.

Little CD icons sprinkled liberally through the encyclopedia signal the availability of audio to illustrate, say, polytonality (the appropriate spot in Ravel's Bolero) or the strikingly dissonant piece that made Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki famous (a complete performance of Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima).

I did spot a few slip-ups.

Some icons are missing in the book. And some music files on the Web site are faulty -- at least, I assume an aria from Bellini's La sonnambula wasn't supposed to cut off in mid-cadenza, and a crescendo-demonstrating clip of Beethoven's Fifth wasn't meant to drop off in volume midway.

Other online hiccups -- patches of wavery streaming, sudden disconnects or frozen moments -- just required a quick logoff and re-logon. Mostly, it was smooth cyber-listening, with fine sound quality and ease of connection (I was using a DSL line).

Free record library

The musical examples are of compositions and terms, not artists. It would be cool to hear, say, soprano Claudia Muzio or pianist Josef Hofmann or cellist Mstislav Rostropovich while you're reading about their lives and careers. But that would require arrangements with multiple record companies, a tricky business.

This Web site isn't just a great big ad for Naxos products, though. The music files don't even provide identification of the artists on the recordings.

And it's worth noting that most of Libbey's recording recommendations in the book are for non-Naxos releases.

The cool thing is that the reader gets a big, free record library, available around the clock.

But the book would be worth having even if it didn't have that aural bonus. Libbey is an engaging, often eloquent and truly informative (rather than merely informational) writer.

Describing one of the Four Last Songs of Strauss: "The poem's final line -- Tief und tausendfach zu leben ("To live deeply and a thousandfold") -- elicits a lyrical extension on the word tausend that goes beyond the bounds of human breath, so that the word and the idea it represents become a single expressive entity, the very highest achievement of the songwriter's art."

Libbey taps into the broader and subtler details of composers and performers. Pianist Eugene Istomin: "A die-hard Detroit Tigers fan, he is probably the only concert pianist in history who kept a complete regulation baseball uniform ... in the closet next to his tails."

Balanced views

The author is no spin-doctor, though. He doesn't stifle his less complimentary views about some musicians or their work.

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