A spirited musical compendium to the best of the best.
New York Times chief classic music critic Tommasini (Opera: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings, 2004, etc.) picks the “unfathomable achievements of indispensable—and indisputably great—composers.” His goal is to keep his assessments simple, insightful, and jargon-free, and he succeeds. The author draws on biographical and historical materials, revealing anecdotes, and his extensive personal exposure to innumerable musical performances and skill as a pianist to provide succinct, highly readable miniprofiles of the greats. Entertaining, highly enthusiastic, and very knowledgeable, he’s the perfect guide. Tommasini begins in the 16th century, with Monteverdi, the “creator of modern music,” and ends in the 20th with a “modernist master,” Bartók. The author is awestruck with the “staggering genius and superhuman achievement” of Bach’s “innate musical talents of astonishing depth.” For “all [of Handel’s] genius as a musical dramatist,” Tommasini suggests, he had his “show-biz side,” and “reaching the public was crucial to his aesthetic.” The author marvels that over a 75-year period, one city, Vienna, “fostered the work of four of the most titanic composers in music history”: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, that “uncanny…hypersensitive outcast (a gay outcast?).” Recalling an “extraordinary” performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, Tommasini can’t help himself: “This is Beethoven! This is life!” If the author could go “backward in time to hear just one legendary composer in performance,” it would be Chopin, “for sure.” He encourages listeners to “see through the nastiness of Wagner the man to the beauty of his art.” And “if there is one word that gets at the core of Brahms’s music for me, it’s breadth.”
Also starring Schumann, Verdi, Debussy, Puccini, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and, briefly, some up-and-comers like Philip Glass and George Benjamin, all exuberantly presented for your edification and enjoyment.