Classical Music Unbuttoned

5th December 2003 at 00:00
CLASSICAL MUSIC UNBUTTONED. By Fred Plotkin. Aurum Press pound;12.99

There is an unnecessary amount of throat-clearing in this 680-page book.

Some is literal, as when the author recommends a particular brand of wax-wrapped cough sweet to take to concerts. Some is metaphorical; he expends inessential pages on his parents, his New Yorker's view of the international music business, his favourite reviewers. These preliminaries distract from his true purpose.

Plotkin writes with undeniable enthusiasm about the music he loves, and does his best to explain to newcomers how to listen to it with close attention and understanding. There are rather too many lists - one of conductors covers two pages - but also room for accounts of hundreds of Plotkin's favourite works. These include oratorios and song cycles as well as countless symphonies and concertos. Early and contemporary music make fitful appearances.

There are illuminating interviews with great performers such as Emanuel Ax and Marilyn Horne, allowing them to speak of how they shape repertoire pieces. Plotkin includes some elementary music theory, but deliberately omits any notation. This has some disadvantages. He has frequent recourse to adjectives such as "towering", "sublime", "dazzling", and "wonderful", which lose their value after a while. Sometimes, as with Debussy's "La Mer", he marshals cliches - "ominous waves" and "purling waters" - that the music itself transcends by several dimensions.

His comparison of Vaughan Williams's deeply subtle 5th Symphony to Olivier's delivery of the Agincourt speech in Henry V seems bizarrely misconceived; the vast process whereby Britten's "War Requiem" moves from an opening discord to a final harmonic resolution is ignored.

Nevertheless, when he throws words away and urges you simply to listen, Plotkin remains worth hearing.

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