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The symphony : a listener's guide /

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Anyone compiling a guide to the symphony faces two problems: impartiality versus personal enthusiasm and detailed musical analysis versus help for the newcomer. Michael Steinberg succeeds brilliantly at the task, as he has with his guide to the concerto. He has pared this vast repertory down to 118 entries (Franck and Bizet being the surprising omissions), thus keeping room for music by Schmidt, Hartmann, Harbison, Piston, and Tippett. Many of the chapters have helpful general introductions; the brief one on Mendelssohn and the longer one on Schubert are ideal. The Mahler chapter is superb, with consideration of the original version of the First Symphony and the unfinished Tenth Symphony framing a chronological discussion of the works. Steinberg includes all texts and translations of vocal movements and places even isolated works (such as Górecki's wholly atypical Third Symphony) in context. Absent is the clubby tone that infects classical music programming on public radio, and readers will not need to follow scores to understand Steinberg's points. There are some great but peripheral tidbits in the footnotes, as well as frequently trenchant quotations from various composers' letters. Best of all, Steinberg has clear concerns and enthusiasms: orchestral seating plans for the violins and the reasons that repeats in first movements are so often disregarded become refrains. The descriptions of William Schuman's Sixth Symphony and Bohuslav Martinu's Fantaisies Symphoniques may send readers rushing to listen, and the overly familiar Beethoven Eroica and Schubert "Unfinished" are once again fantastical, odd, and fresh in these pages. In Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, we read, "the oboe is the sweetest and most seductive of tour guides." Steinberg might well have been describing himself. --William R. Braun

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