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Chopin. His Life and Music: Jeremy Nicholas
Naxos Books (ISBN: 1-84379-115-3) [268 pages; illustrated in black & white and including 2CDs [75:14 + 79:41] of music spanning Chopinís career + free access to a dedicated website with hours of extra music to listen to, and other bonus material]



Books about Chopin are not exactly rare on the ground Ė as the selected bibliography in the end of the book tells us Ė but it also seems that latterly not many have been published. Given the short turn-over time for books few may be available in the stores.

This well-written overview certainly fills a need and Ė as far as I know Ė it is unique in that it is not just a book; it is part of a multimedia concept. It includes two well-filled CDs and access to a website. The content of the CDs is culled from Naxosís complete Chopin cycle, played by Idil Biret. Even though there may be individual recordings by other great Chopin interpreters that are even better Biretís remain consistent and illuminating readings. I collected several of the discs when they were new and have found much to admire, the snag being a somewhat clangy sound, robbing the music of some of its poetry. As so often happens, though, one gets used to it and adjusts.

The choice of music is excellent. It is presented chronologically with references in the text and also annotations for each of the musical numbers at the end of the book. By acquiring this book the Chopin newcomer will gain a fine cross-section of his best compositions. These are to be savoured a few at a time or will provide continuous listening for years to come.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters. We follow Chopinís life and career from the cradle to the grave. In an Epilogue Jeremy Nicholas brings together all the loose ends: what happened to those who were close to him and survived him? It turns out that some of their lives occupy the rest of the century, his early love Maria Wodzińska died in 1896 and George Sandís daughter Solange in 1899.

Under Jeremy Nicholasís skilled guidance we get to know everything that was important in Chopinís life and about the steady stream of people that walked in and out of his salons. So many of the greats of the first half of the 19th century were there, not only musicians but also painters, authors, all kinds of cultural personalities. It was a good idea to have a section entitled Personalities with thumbnail biographies.

I can sometimes become fed up with too much information of "whom he met", "where he travelled then" etc when reading biographies, but I must say that this presentation really held me. The reason is at least two-fold: firstly Nicholasís style of writing has the right light touch, addressing the reader personally, He also finds some humorous twists. Secondly he lets us look straight into the heart and soul of the main characters, especially Chopin himself, by frequently quoting from letters and diaries. Not that this format is novel but is done skilfully and the effect is heightened through italicizing the quotations.

The target-group for this book is more the general music-lover than the specialist, but I believe even the latter category will find several grains of gold.

The actual life story of Chopin occupies only the first 194 pages. The rest is a very useful appendix, comprising a Music Chronology with all his published compositions and with comments on all but a few minor works. This is very valuable as a reference. There are also lists, with comments, of "Chopin on Film", "Chopin in the Theatre" and "Chopin Plagiarised" to mention some. Sooner or later, theyíre going to steal those melodies", Chopinís teacher Elsner is quoted as saying in the film A Song to Remember, and the list of stolen tunes includes among other things Minute Waltz "every note of [it] sung by Barbara Streisand". Since a couple of Gigli recordings are also mentioned I would like to add, since I reviewed it recently, his version of the Etude, Op. 10 No 3, while to the list of arrangements of Chopinís music Julius Jacobsenís hilarious version of the Minute Waltz for trombone (!) and piano, played on a BIS disc by Christian Lindberg and Roland Pöntinen, should also be added.

A glossary with simple explanations of central terminology adds to the value of the book, especially for the newly converted. Finally there is a very detailed index.

At an asking price of £16.99 this book+CDs would be a valuable addition to any music loverís music library.

Göran Forsling

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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