CLASSICAL MUSIC BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS Pigs' bites and a marxist view of top C

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The Independent Culture
DIMITRI MITROPOULOS conducted usually without a baton and invariably without a wife: two omissions that marked his card in the American concert world of the 1940s and 50s and don't escape the scrutiny of William R Trotter's Priest of Music: The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos (Amadeus Press pounds 22.50), which is perhaps why the book carries a commendation from Joan Peyser, queen of music-outings. Anyone who read her ruthless life of Leonard Bernstein will know how Bernstein sat at Mitropoulos's feet when the older man was running the Minneapolis Symphony and New York Philharmonic, and know too that their relationship encompassed sexual attraction - made famous by a close encounter in a Boston restaurant where Mitropoulos fed his 20-year-old disciple oysters from his own fork.

Heady stuff for 1937, and still turning chapter-heads in Mr Trotter's book. But, unlike Peyser, Trotter is as good a scholar as he is a storyteller, and the result is one of the best-researched, most thoroughly considered and ultimately unsensational music biographies I've ever found to be, at the same time, a compelling read. Mitropoulos was a powerful and charismatic figure whose reputation contracted after his death in 1960 (from a heart attack while rehearsing Mahler's Third Symphony). It's time he had a study of this calibre to do him justice.

Jeremy Siepmann's Chopin: The Reluctant Romantic (Gollancz pounds 22.50) is a reasonable, readable and unassuming book that doesn't claim to be rewriting history or Setting Records Straight, but does demonstrate how the balance of Chopin's musical personality has been misrepresented by a tendency to focus on the earlier, "feminine" works rather than the later, "masculine" ones. Siepmann's Chopin is a kitchen radical, stirring the pot of new ideas that will eventually get cooked by Wagner. But he is also, paradoxically, an arch-Romantic who considers his work a product of the classical past: a connection observed in performance more faithfully by some pianists than by others. Arthur Rubinstein, arguably the greatest Chopin exponent of modern times, believed in playing (as he said) "without affectation, without the swan-dive into the keyboard with which pianists customarily alerted the audience to the fact that they were listening to the music of Chopin". One of the added bonuses of this book is that it includes a survey of the playing of Chopin through the past century, from the severity of Rubinstein, the dynamism of Horowitz, the elegance of Perahia, to the sheer, wanton briliance of the young Evgeny Kissen. Very useful.

Less useful is Anthony Holden's new biography of Tchaikovsky (Bantam Press pounds 18.99) which I'd feel better about if it hadn't been so spuriously hyped by its publishers as definitive, revelatory, reopening the files, and so on. It is nothing of the sort, and there is no substantial information in the book that has not been exposed in print, on the radio, and at Hampstead dinner parties for the past ten years. In fairness to Holden, he admits this in four pages of "acknowledgements" which the Bantam blurb-writers don't seem to have read. What his book actually does is popularise the research of established Tchaikovsky scholars like David Brown and Alexandra Orlova; its conclusion that Tchaikovsky died not from cholera, as history records, but from arsenic (suicidally administered under the threat of exposure as a homosexual) is only what these scholars have been saying all along. Holden is a professional biographer (Lord Olivier, Prince Charles) and accomplished at the craft of recreating flesh and blood in print. But new light and reopened files? Not here.

Phaidon's new paperback series on 20th Century Composers (pounds 14.99 each) has a stylish illustrated format, and in some cases the pictures outclass the text. The first six off the press certainly show seriousness of purpose, with titles devoted to Bartk, Anton Webern, American Pioneers: Ives to Cage and beyond, Stravinsky (one of the best general introductions on the market, written with clarity and perception by Michael Oliver) and The Beatles (well, why not?) given the full analytical treatment by Allan Kozinn. But the one that claimed my immediate interest was Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze by Guy Rickards: a nicely alliterative grouping governed by the fact that although these composers are distinctive in age, attitude and style, they shared the experience of life inside the Third Reich and firmly rejected its values - which, come the end of the War, gave them the status of clean-handed inheritors of the Great German Tradition. Essentially theirs is the age-old story of art and politics - separate or indivisible? - and, as the Hindemith Centenary last month recalled, it's a story to which that particular composer returned time and again in his work.

The ultimate fireside companion this Christmas must be Penguin's new Opera Anthology (ed Stephen Brook, pounds 20) which romps comfortably through the whole ridiculous, fanatical, occasionally glorious history of the medium, as seen from both sides of the safety curtain. Starting with Dr Burney's weary comment on a 1780 performance in Padua that with "choruses of 100 virgins, 100 soldiers, 100 horsemen in armour ... it is hardly possible to fatigue an assembly at greater expense", it proceeds through fascinating data on castrati (4,000 Italians a year took the chop at the height of the vogue, even though it was strictly illegal, for which reason the results were usually attributed to the bite of a wild pig) and on to Hans Werner Henze expounding a Marxist critique of top Cs. One surprising omission is Boulez's famous demand for opera houses to be burned down (I always wonder where he was the night the Barcelona Liceo caught fire), and the quantity of eye-witness reportage is sadly outweighed by third-person material from modern commentaries. But never mind: it's entertainingly informative and with enough badly-behaving diva stories to see you through Boxing Day.

Most of these diva stories are quoted from Rupert Christiansen's Prima Donna (Pimlico pounds 12.50) which is out in a new, enlarged edition with Cecilia Bartoli - one of the new-style, calorie-controlled divas of our time - to make the point. A book like this could easily become a heartless bestiary of chirruping viragos. But what Christiansen provides is an intelligent and sympathetic catalogue of women who necessarily live on the edge of their nerves and whose behaviour can be explained (if not always excused) as part of the armoury of self-protection required in a world where they would otherwise be exploited. It makes a book of, I think, classic stature: beautifully written, especially perceptive in its evaluation of pivotal figures like Maria Callas, and not camp.