Christmas books: Classical - They should let the music speak for them

Michael White on divas, diaries and disasters
Biographies of composers are predisposed to interesting failure because composers tend to live only in their work, and after 407 pages of Stephen Sondheim: A Life by Meryle Secrest (Bloomsbury pounds 20), you won't feel appreciably closer to the presiding genius of post-war lyric theatre than you did at page 1. He slips through the text: a veiled intelligence that doesn't open up - not to Ms Secrest (who falls back on sheafs of pre-published quotes and comments, including mine in this newspaper) or to anyone. And just as group photographs with Sondheim often show him on the edge of the shot, ready to up and leave at any moment, so it is with this book.

In fairness, Secrest does sketch a sharp picture of Sondheim's childhood, coloured by a disfunctional mother who dumps her marital frustrations on her son to such a degree that he finds himself another family and another life. That the new family happens to belong to Oscar Hammerstein II is fortuitous and leaves Sondheim well-placed for his first Broadway success (as lyricist of West Side Story) by the age of 27. But at the same time he's developing an effective system of self-protective retreat. As a child he learned to suppress his Jewish origins, in a succession of pristinely WASP-ish schools. As an adult he has something else to hide: his homosexuality, which is so effectively contained that he doesn't manage to make a relationship of real significance until he's in his sixties. Through the intervening years, he plays a game like Britten's, dropping veiled but unavoidable signals of sexual self-declaration into his work which fuel the image he builds of himself as Broadway's voice of disillusion, isolation and defensive irony. None of those themes, of course, are what Broadway was designed to sell. So he settles into a recidivist pattern of stageworks that overestimate the sophistication of their audiences, demand serious critical attention, sweep the awards circuit, but never achieve the box office of Andrew Lloyd Webber - whose pattern is exactly the reverse.

Sondheim is a newcomer to the biographical market in that other studies have been more in the nature of critical appreciations than lives. Herbert von Karajan is anything but a newcomer; and the quantities of print he has inspired tend toward extremes of love or loathing - depending largely on the author's view of Karajan's ambigious war record. That he was a Nazi is beyond dispute. The questions are whether he was a Nazi of ideological conviction or convenience; and whether, either way, it should colour the judgement of history on his indisputable achievements in later years. That Richard Osborne is a Karajan apologist was obvious from his previous book of conversations with the meister. But his new Herbert Von Karajan: A Life in Music (Chatto, pounds 30) is nonetheless the most balanced, thorough, readable and altogether admirable of any treatment of its subject I've encountered. Osborne knew the man quite well. He also knows the facts, and delivers them unadorned: including the full script of Karajan's evidence at his own de-Nazification trial, which has never appeared in English before. It makes absorbing reading. And with Osborne's expert, if loyal, assessments of Karajan's performing history, in concert and on disc, it's probably the most significant strictly classical music book to have surfaced in this country all year.

Other contenders, though, include Shostakovich Reconsidered (Toccata pounds 45) by Allan B Ho and Dmitri Feofanov: a polemical book that sets out to prove - in self-consciously legalistic terms - the validity of the testimony-line on Shostakovich. In other words it marshals the arguments for Shostakovich not being a Soviet lackey but a secret dissident whose music censures rather than celebrates the regime he was obliged to serve. In doing so it sells a message that most of us have already bought, although the sell is certainly persuasive for any who haven't.

Another contender is Elizabeth Wilson's Jacqueline du Pre (Weidenfield pounds 20), a nicely put-together example of covert polemicism: written with the cooperation of Daniel Barenboim as a "corrective" (to quote the publisher) to the account of life with Jackie published recently by her brother and sister. Well-researched, perceptive, but with the sympathetic viewpoint of someone who knew du Pre as both a friend and pupil (the author studied cello before she took up writing), its line is gently forceful and with the detail weighted toward music rather than gossip. Which is as things should be.

Then there's Hans Werner Henze's autobiography Bohemian Fifths (Faber pounds 30), immaculately translated from the original German by Stewart Spencer with an ear for the endearingly deliberate, over-careful way that Henze has when he speaks English. You really hear his voice in the words - which is important because the level of address in this book is so personal and intimate, it reads like it's been whispered into the word-processor. The wrong tone could have made it as mawkishly embarrassing as Michael Tippett's memoirs (composers aren't good at this sort of thing), but it comes across with touching candour: the record of a conscientious rebel who won his way to the heart of the European musical establishment without losing his integrity. Or his sense of humour.

Voice enthusiasts will want to know that there's another bean-spilling biography out on Kiri te Kanawa, Her Unsung Story (HarperCollins pounds 17.99), and two on Cecilia Bartoli (Women's Press pounds 17.99 and Chatto pounds 17.99) but I wouldn't waste an evening in for any of them. More commendable is Helena Matheopoulos's Diva: The New Generation (Little Brown pounds 18.99) which repeats an exercise the author has done before - collecting interviews with famous singers - but this time, as the title says, with the younger ones. The Gheorghius, Borodinas and - yes - Bartolis of current fame. The snapshot nature of the portraits rules out too much gush, and they build into a state-of-the-art summary of welcome optimism. Last time round it was all dark talk of singing in decline and roles no longer possible to cast at strength. Now things are looking up, with a sudden rush of talent from America and Russia which has set the tone for a new kind of singer: dramatically sophisticated, musically intelligent and (with a few exceptions) too professional to play the Diva as we knew it. So much for Matheopoulos's title.

For the reference shelf there's a novel kind of dictionary, Who's Who in Opera (OUP pounds 20), which is not the catalogue of living worthies you'd expect but a gazeteer of fictional characters, invaluable for Yuletide quiz-games. Name four operas with a leading lady called Marie. With this book, you can. As for stocking-fillers, Hugh Vickers's Bumper Book of Operatic Disasters (Pan pounds 6.99) is an old favourite updated to include the recent history of Covent Garden as an OD in its own right. On that subject, Mary Allen's memoir of misery A House Divided (Simon & Shuster pounds 17.99) makes you wonder whether the Garden's plight would have been so grim had Ms Allen devoted more time to her job and less to writing diaries.