is the first word that occurs to you when you begin exploring what has been put together by Leon Botstein and his 29 collaborators--and it's appropriate. Seen from a distance (and how else can we see him more than a century after his death?) there is also something monumental--almost forbidding--about the figure of Brahms himself. He was the great musical conservative in the creative ferment of the late 19th century. Haunted by the figure of Beethoven, he destroyed much of his own work--carefully tailoring his posthumous image--in fear of negative comparisons. At the same time, he preserved almost single-handedly the great classical tradition embodied in Beethoven's work, particularly the tradition of the symphony and other abstract works using sonata form, which was nearly engulfed in Brahms's lifetime by Lisztian tone poems, Wagnerian "music of the future," the rise of musical nationalism, and even the first stirrings of impressionism. In this context, Brahms becomes a lonely figure but a vital one.
Virtually every piece composed by Brahms and not sacrificed to his uncompromising critical standards is discussed in this compendium, lucidly, readably, in biographical and cultural context, and in fine detail. The writers are all scholars or professional performers--often both--but they have worked hard to make their discussions and analyses accessible to the interested general reader, and in their diversity of approaches they have made the book a compendium of the varied techniques for writing readably about music. You may not agree with every word (a fine seasoning of opinion has been allowed to flavor the masses of fact), and it is not the sort of book that anyone but a fanatic will gallop through from cover to cover. But you will find Brahms here in all his complexity, still monumental but more approachable than ever. --Joe McLellan
From Publishers Weekly
Botstein, president of Bard College and director of the American Symphony Orchestra, presents this helpful and user-friendly compendium as the "first and only annotated catalog of Brahms' music in English." Essays by such scholars as Walter Frisch and Michael Musgrave (whose Cambridge Companion to Brahms is forthcoming) are gathered into chapters on Orchestral Music, Chamber Music, Solo Piano Music, Solo Lieder and Vocal and Choral Music. Botstein himself, who writes on many vocal works, has a welcome tendency toward brevity, and never goes on too long about minor works or even major ones. All the essays are anchored in the composer's life, revealing such matters as his relations with Robert and Clara Schumann as well as other still-debated details of his love life. Some of the more outstanding essays in this vein are by Jan Swafford, author of Johannes Brahms: A Biography, who introduces the "Alto Rhapsody" in a way guaranteed to appeal even to those who consider Brahms to be merely "Gloomy Joe," as the EMI record producer Walter Legge used to sarcastically refer to him, adding: "The main problem with Brahms is that he never got syphilis." By contrast, the book's writers' are all Brahms enthusiasts, and their excitement is infectious, in good part because the essays are not permitted to go on to Brahmsian lengths. Botstein has compiled a valuable, welcome addition to the bibliography.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.