Christmas Books Special: Music books reviewed

Musical memories of Bruch and Bob
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The year began spectacularly with Richard Taruskin's six-volume Oxford History of Western Music (OUP, £425). Since then we've had a surfeit of media and anniversary tie-ins. Bucking the trend, my first choice is an updated reissue. Despite the permanence of Bruch's First Violin Concerto in Classic FM's Hall of Fame, Christopher Fifield's Max Bruch: His Life and Works (Boydell Press, £19.99) remains the only English-language treatment of a figure otherwise barely known.

From the same source, Diana McVeagh's Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music (Boydell, £25) is brand-new, albeit so long in the making that it can seem as much a period piece as its subject, the composer of Dies Natalis. McVeagh underplays Finzi's suppression of his Italian/Sephardic heritage, setting every expression of his self-created cultural identity within a lucid chronological narrative peppered with excerpts from his widow's journal.

Finzi reviled Benjamin Britten, preferring Sir Michael Tippett, whose own centenary this year comes too soon to impact on a reputation mired in the critical trough that often awaits the artist acclaimed in life. The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, scrupulously edited by Thomas Schuttenhelm (Faber, £25), prove as scatty and endearing as Tippett's opera libretti. It's a handsome production which doesn't try to be a surrogate life.

Michael Berkeley's Private Passions (Faber, £14.99) is a spin-off from his much-admired Radio 3 series, showcasing the music chosen by every guest since its inception. Sadly, its foundations are built on inaccurate clerical records. Since Sebastian Faulks's entry credits Dionne Warwick with the composition of songs by Burt Bacharach and the Bee Gees, she has been enrolled in the book's league table of composers requested in order of frequency.

There is one misattributed photograph in Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone's Messiaen (Yale, £29.95) but here we're in a different world - and not the alienating world of classical modernism you might be expecting. If you've ever responded to the Turangalîla symphony's weird erotic charge, this is one picture book you ought to acquire.

Another classy example of the genre, though more predictable in subject matter, is The Bob Dylan Scrapbook (Simon & Schuster, £30). Never mind the text, by Robert Santelli. The subtitle, "An American Journey, 1956-1966", tells you that this is the book of the Martin Scorsese documentary. It arrives bedecked with facsimile memorabilia in the manner of Weidenfeld's Ono-sanctioned Lennon Legend.

Cynthia Lennon's John (Hodder, £20) is plainer, the second "corrective" biography penned by this first of the Beatle wives. Alas, for the most part she comes across as droopily self-effacing, contributing only a radically unattractive portrait of John's Aunt Mimi to the parade of familiar grotesques.

Three unimpeachable reference books to conclude. Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia (Penguin, £30) is erudite, lively and up-to-date. Where else could you find Buddy Bolden and Jamie Cullum almost side by side? Celebrating its 30th anniversary under the watchful eye of Ivan March, the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs (Penguin, £25) may be faulted in detail, yet no similar publication matches its consistency and authority in the mainstream classics. Lovers of classical song can get their fix from The Book of Lieder (Faber, £30), 1000 original texts, translated and annotated by Richard Stokes. Appearing when record companies are increasingly loath to provide translations, this impeccably organised work exudes quality.