One of the best non-aural, musical stimulations is reading a well written article, review or book on music. I am one third of the way through Alan Walker‘s magisterial biography of Frans Liszt (three c 500 page volumes) which is both immensely readable as well as being scholarly. I am now convinced that Liszt is the greatest musician who ever lived, which I will explain when I have completed the trilogy, at some point in the future.
There are two major CD magazines which the serious collector has to read – the best known is the Gramophone. The other is the International Record Review. In recent years I have been a little suspicious of the Gramophone, as I suspect it pays more than lip service to its major advertisers. Some of the reviews are too short, and can be badly edited (by which I mean they don’t give all the information you want), and I don’t trust one or two of the reviewers. They used to have all the great writers – William Mann and John Steane, to name but two. Rob Cowan is is extremely knowledgeable but I think his natural medium is the radio, not the page.I find myself getting more and more pleasure from the IRR. It seems to take pleasure in the quality of the writing. The reviews are given ample space, they normally give the necessary information and there isn’t too much flannel. When there is, it is often a history of the work which doesn’t go beyond the bleeding obvious. I don’t always agree with their opinions but find the reviews sincere. What always gives me pleasure are the “summary” reviews. In last month’s magazine (January), there are articles on C Major’s (Record Company) release of 8 early Verdi operas on DVD; Vocal issues on the Eloquence label; Cesar Franck‘s complete chamber music and organ works ; Bruno Walter’s Mozart; and Historic recordings and reissues ( a monthly staple).
As an admission of my own ignorance I have never enjoyed Cesar Franck’s music as much as I feel I should. I quite enjoy the Symphonic Variations and the D minor Symphony. I know the Violin Sonata is a masterpiece, I think I like the Piano Quintet, and despite my general enthusiasm for the organ and knowing Franck is a first rate composer for that instrument, I don’t really know his music. According to Robert Matthew-Walker his music was very popular 80 years ago. He ascribes its falling out of favour to fashion, rather than critical perception. What Matthew-Walker’s article has encouraged me to do is put Franck on my list of composers to get to grips with and really get to know….such is the power of the (well) written word.
One of the real challenges for amateur music lovers is that we all know the music we love. Much of it is probably “great” music so we can continue to re-listen to it with great pleasure and a degree of intellectual self-satisfaction. There is an awful lot of great music out there that most of us amateurs don’t really know if we are honest with ourselves. Those with time and money might go to concerts of unknown or lesser known music. Many of us, I suspect, listen to the radio. In addition to this, well written articles and books also have a role to play – often in provoking yet more spending on CDs. So this year in addition to getting to grips with vast chunks of Liszt’s music, trying to take advantage of the Verdi, Wagner, Britten and Alkan anniversaries, I now have Franck’s music to add to the list. A very busy, but potentially very rewarding year, which I will report on later.