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The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto, edited by Simon P. Keefe
Pub: Cambridge University Press, 2005 (1st ed.) 309 pp.
Paperback: ISBN 052154257X £17.99
Hardback: ISBN 052183483X £45.00


Contents:

The concerto: a chronology
Introduction - Simon P. Keefe
Part I: Contexts
Theories of the concerto from the eighteenth century to the present day - Simon P. Keefe
The concerto and society - Tia DeNora
Part II: The works
The Italian concerto in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries - Michael Talbot
The concerto in northern Europe to c.1770 - David Yearsley
The concerto from Mozart to Beethoven: aesthetic and stylistic perspectives - Simon P. Keefe
The nineteenth-century piano concerto - Stephan D. Lindeman
Nineteenth-century concertos for strings and winds - R. Larry Todd
Contrasts and common concerns in the concerto 1900–1945 - David E. Schneider
The concerto since 1945 - Arnold Whittall
Part III: Performance
The rise (and fall) of the concerto virtuoso in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - Cliff Eisen
Performance practice in the eighteenth-century concerto - Robin Stowell
Performance practice in the nineteenth-century concerto - David Rowland
The concerto in the age of recording - Timothy Day
Notes and suggested further reading
 
There have of course been many books dedicated to the concerto before, and there will hardly be a music lover around who cannot have some understanding of what a concerto is. Whilst the majority of other books have concentrated on delivering essays on specific works or the best known works of specific composers, this volume takes a very different approach: it examines works within the wider views of contexts and performance issues. The aim is to expand the reader’s understanding of the concerto as a musical form, social entity and consumed cultural entity.
The cover blurb proclaims that "No musical genre has had a more chequered critical history than the concerto…" My feeling is that this book’s coverage for the general reader might be a little chequered too, though with a good prior knowledge of musical terminology and with a basic stylistic understanding of composition from c. 1700 to the present one could get a lot from it. It is far more likely to be used as a primer text for students, to point them in the direction of authors and texts for subsequent investigation. The tone and style is suitably academic ("As Keefe observes…") and the text is inevitably peppered with brief quotations, the sources of which are only identified in the endnotes, which along with the recommended further reading lists account for some 35 pages.
The book starts with a useful chronology of concerti – should you want at a glance to know who produced what when – but this in itself points up two slight niggles: inevitably selections were made of major works and several minor ones, but even a more extensive list would have been useful. It also shows up the main geographical ‘catchment areas’ that the book concerns itself with: Western Europe, Russia and the USA - anywhere else simply falls off the map.
Simon Keefe’s introduction makes heavy weather – I must assume for the benefit of a non-UK reader – of the Morecambe and Wise Grieg piano concerto ‘performance’ with ‘Mr. Andrew Preview’ by means of illustrating the interactions at work within a concerto. His subsequent chapter on theories of the concerto from 18th century to the present inevitably takes the form of a brief survey that can appear hurried when reading, and highly referenced too. It does however wear better than Tia DeNora’s section that includes a case study on ‘gendering the piano concerto’ which frankly left me cold. Interested though sociologists might be in the percentages of male and female pianists performing Beethoven’s concerti between 1793 and 1810, it did not impact one jot on my understanding of the works themselves, which would ostensibly be my reason for investing in such a book. Others may think differently and indeed have other motivations for reading.
The most interesting section in my view focused on actual concerti, though here one must be prepared often for the thinnest references to specific works, as a tight fabric of associations is woven across the seven chapters of Part II. By way of randomly chosen example, pp. 95–100 take the reader rapidly through Dussek, Johann Baptist Cramer, Hummel, John Field, Ries, Weber, Moscheles and Schubert via mentions of Mozart and Beethoven’s influence, along with a score of other names.
Reading this though inevitably led to frustrations – wanting to know more than was given in thumbnail sketch available – which I suppose is where another volume or volumes centring on specific works or composers would enter the frame. More than once I reached for my Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians just to put some more meat on the bones. But this book creates the associations between composers adequately enough to start you off. However, I suggest that pointers the book gives for many will only really be useful when applied in listening, either in the concert hall or more likely utilising recordings. Hyperion’s Romantic Piano / Violin / Cello Series would seem made for the purpose – though each series is more wide-ranging in coverage than this volume. These series are referred to also in Timothy Day’s chapter on concerto recordings, which charts the fortunes of the form across the history of recorded performances. Good though to see the difficult area of twentieth and twenty-first century concerti getting a reasonable amount of attention across two chapters. It remains to be seen exactly how many of the more recent works stand the test of time.
Cliff Eisen opens the third part that focuses on performance issues effectively with a discussion around the terms ‘virtuoso’ and ‘virtuosity’ in the 18th and 19th centuries, and with it the idea of the virtuoso as artistic conservator by dint of their expert skills. His comments about the disapproval of virtuosos that fail to enter the "spirit of the composer" (already critics were concerned by 1799) led me to wish perhaps that the chapter were extended to the present day to include comment on the current situation. But I fear that were such comments included lawsuits might have ensued. Better therefore to let each reader form their individual and private views on the matter.
The two chapters that follow focusing on performance practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cover their ground efficiently, each having sections that examine topics such as the use of period instruments, instrumental techniques, the role of continuo, national styles, expression, tempo, orchestras, arrangements, etc. All these matters are of interest in tracing changing attitudes towards performance, and the discussion gains from referencing contemporary sources to support the arguments put forward.
In summation, despite occasional unevenness, a book that has the potential to be informative in the right hands, and one that serves as the springboard for further reading on this absorbing musical genre.

Evan Dickerson

 

 



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