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Mozart: His Life and Music by Jeremy Siepmann

Published by Naxos Books, 2005. Paperback. ISBN: 1-84379-110-2. 224pp.

Includes two full CDs of music and accompanied by a free access dedicated website.

 

Let anyone recently arrived from the moon be aware that we are on the cusp of yet another Mozart-packed year (2006). To get things started, Naxos offers this attractive volume, with more than just the contents of its pages to occupy the purchaser.

In the preface, Jeremy Siepmann states that he has "attempted to give the book some of the immediacy of a novel by allowing its protagonists wherever possible to relate the story in their own words". In respect of the Mozart family he was undoubtedly fortunate as they always seemed to have been scribbling down their thoughts in letters, journals and the like. I agree with him that this gives "a far richer and more fascinating portrait of both the characters and their time than any amount of subjective ‘interpretation’." Nothing beats going back to the source, and this book does so with tremendous frequency.

This book is anything but dry, turgid and academic as a result, which is much to its overall advantage. Siepmann’s style is clear and his points are lucidly made. The structure and layout of the volume also say much about its overall ambitions: it weaves chapters of biographical content with interludes that concentrate on the music. Each narrative can be followed independently or sections read in isolation – and either way the text reads well as it glides accurately and effortlessly over the main facts, theories and intricacies of Mozart and his music.

Siepmann uses the word ‘masterpiece’ with amazing frequency – I lost count after about the twentieth time – and were Mozart not the subject I would take greater exception to it. It is in any case a word all too often twisted uncomfortably from its original meaning. For a book pitched at a generalist level such a situation might be expected, however in future greater care should be taken to both credit the reader with critical faculties and also help to inform and develop them.

There seems a slight discord though between the editorial direction of the book and the author’s opinion: the preface proclaims a split between biography and musical commentary of about two thirds and one third, but Siepmann claims on page 153 in the chapter ‘Mozart the Immortal’ that "All that matters is the music". The comment comes after briefly touching on whether or not Mozart had Tourette’s Syndrome, but taken more widely, the musical commentary would have been more rewarding if it had greater equality of space overall.

It is however, a well intentioned primer on both man and music, and as such is likely to be of most use to one approaching either for the first time rather than someone like myself who has spent the last 15 years or so regularly digesting Mozartiana. The glossary of musical terms, brief notes on personalities that appear along the way of the Mozart story, annotations to the CD tracks and a short bibliography are likely to encourage the interested reader to take things beyond the confines of this volume.

The website I found serviceable and informative, showing that Naxos have purposefully taken a leaf out of many more scholarly publishers’ current practice. The two CDs cover in over two and a half hours some 25 examples of Mozart’s music, from his Minuet in G, K.1 (played by Siepmann) to the Requiem, K.626. The tracks benefit from presenting complete works or movements and many of the artists will be known to those familiar with the Naxos catalogue: Jenő Jandó on piano, Capella Istropolitana or the conductor Michael Halász, to name but three. Whilst none of the performances scales the sublime heights of Mozartian interpretation, they nonetheless provide the novice listener with a averagely decent starting point. Those that expand their horizons to complete recordings would in the long run do well to explore other sources for their purchases, providing their budget allows.

Mozart and Beethoven (the subject of another volume also written by Siepmann) are obvious choices to launch such a series with, and hopefully as it grows through taking in major figures, space will be found to accommodate some more esoteric names too, thus complementing Naxos’s approach to recording music. Mozart celebratory year or not, his is a story that can never be told too many times – and having a love of his music is one of the supreme joys in life by which few can remain unmoved.

Evan Dickerson

With each Life & Music biography comes access to a dedicated website for that composer, containing hours of extra music to listen to. The works featured on the CDs may be enjoyed in full on the website (so in the case of Mahler, there are seven symphonies and four major vocal works!) plus many pieces by contemporaries of the composer. There is also a substantial timeline showing the composer’s life beside concurrent events in arts, literature and history.

These websites, together with the book and CDs, make for an unrivalled multimedia approach the biographical format and a uniquely rounded portrait of each composer.

 

 



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