Bach: find works – all from same CD

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Naxos Life and Works
WORKS: find works – all from same CD
PERFORMER: Written & narrated by Jeremy Siepmann
CATALOGUE NO: 8.558051-54
At first sight, these four-disc boxes look old hat – narrative biographies with musical illustrations. What immediately distinguishes them from those turgid ‘music appreciation’ lessons is Jeremy Siepmann’s engaging presentation. I survived 24 discs without tiring of his relaxed conversational style alternating with first-class actors – Bob Peck’s gritty, humble-born Beethoven, Nicolas Boulton’s chimerical Mozart, Malcolm Sinclair’s sardonic Tchaikovsky.

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Such accessibility doesn’t compromise scholarly accuracy. Siepmann’s selections from journals and diaries (notably of Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven), and letters (Mozart), paint striking portraits. But the sensational stuff – Brahms’s piano-playing in the bars and brothels of Hamburg, Beethoven’s cruel abuse from his father, Chopin’s affair with Georges Sand – is balanced by a wealth of perceptive ideas: about the contrasting compositional methods of Mozart and Beethoven, the significance of Bach’s religious convictions, Brahms’s ruthless self-criticism. Although the starting point is biographical – the ‘Life…’ – Siepmann throws in revealing commentary on the music: the operatic elements in Bach who never wrote for the stage; Chopin’s composing ‘through his fingers’ and advocacy of quiet playing, within the scale of salon rather than concert hall; Mozart’s mastery of ‘dramatic psychology’, creating operatic characters, not caricatures. He throws in some memorable asides, too: ‘a Tchaikovsky not in emotional turmoil… would hardly have been Tchaikovsky at all’; Mozart has been grossly mis-represented on film as ‘a bird-brain who couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag’; ‘[Beethoven’s] genius derives from the clash – or at least the friction – of opposites’.

All the music comes from the Naxos catalogue, so there are some significant gaps – Siepmann mentions but can’t illustrate Beethoven’s Missa solemnis or Mozart’s Mitridate – but it’s a tribute to the accumulated scale of the Naxos enterprise that musical portraits are largely complete. Inevitably the quality varies. The 15-CD Chopin series by the Turkish pianist Idil Biret is a remarkable achievement – she creates a glorious tone opening the F minor Ballade for instance, but the Op. 18 Waltz labours under dry staccato first-beats. For Beethoven, the Stuttgart Piano Trio positively sparkles, but the elegant Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia misses some symphonic ‘friction of opposites’. The Bach keyboard recordings are all uncompromisingly on the piano, often finely played; I enjoyed Wolfgang Rübsam’s dancing Partita movement. But Siepmann’s historical justification – Bach trying out fortepianos in Berlin – disregards the fact that the modern concert grand is a wholly different beast.

Siepmann introduces whole movements at strategic points, though more frequent extracts drove me to my CD collection to hear the rest – exactly the aim of the exercise, educationally (and commercially). While, on the discs, ‘Life’ takes precedence over ’ and musical commentary is studiedly untechnical, generous booklets include extended essays on ‘Major works’ and an invaluable ‘Graded Listening Plan’, together with historical background, the composer’s place therein, and a year-by-year life-calendar.

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Complemented by Naxos’s traditional but probing ‘Classics Explained’ and ‘Opera Explained’ series, these sets are a powerful learning resource for any inquisitive listener, for ears both innocent and already informed, in school, college or simply by the fireside.