Fanfare for an uncommon band

23rd November 1995 at 00:00
A Young Person's Guide to Music, By Neil Ardley with music by Poul Ruders. Dorling Kindersley Pounds 16.99 incl CD, 7513 5320 5, Age range 8 plus

At first sight this looks like another example of DK's standard high-quality fact-books. There is a long detailed section on how orchestras work (including the conductor) with close-up pictures and complex explanations set out in well organised paragraphs. You learn how to obtain a vibrato, you see different bows and mouthpieces, the underside of a guitar soundboard, the workings of trumpet valves and much more. Lively explanations such as "the bass clarinet sounds the way burnt rubber smells" or "the contrabassoon like a gentle snore" help where space is limited.

There is also a history of (essentially) western "classical" music strung out along a sinuous time-line that snakes over eight illustrated double-page spreads. Ex-planations here are brief and it probably doesn't edify you that much to have the Ring cycle summarised in 20 words. But even the small pictures are enlightening if closely scrutinised. Palestrina giving a new work to the Pope, the Esterh za Palace where Haydn found his patron, Ravel gazing contemplatively from the keyboard, Toru Takemitsu's noble head these don't tell much about the music itself but they show something of the people and places it came from. It's good to see such recent landmarks as Turnage's Three Screaming Popes and Boulez' ... explosante-fixe being adventurously pointed out.

But the book's real distinction is the accompanying CD. This features a new piece by Poul Ruders, Concerto in Pieces. As its title suggests, this a concerto for orchestra, giving many opportunities for instrumental groups to strut their stuff. It's also a set of 10 variations on an original theme by Purcell. If that reminds you of Britten, you're right. Ruders's work is a 50th anniversary tribute to the Young Person's Guide as well as a celebration of Purcell's tercentenary. Ruders, one of the most exciting composers in Europe, is well served by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis, who also contributes a lively analytical and descriptive talk.

The piece is easily approachable through the numbered CD tracks, cross-referenced throughout the book. The commentary draws our attention to orchestral and structural features, to instrumental colours and to the effects such as brass hocketing in the third variation, the bluesy alto sax wavering against distorted gongs and bells in the fourth or the col legno cellos playing against muted trumpets in the eighth. Like the Britten, the work ends in a tremendous fugue with the Purcell theme emerging triumphantly at the climax. Listen to it for national curriculum Attainment Target 2 if you like, but listen to it anyway.

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