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In fewer than 500 pages Nicholas Kenyon has created a valuable addition to the musician’s home reference library. ‘There is nothing original in this book,’ he says, modestly, and warns that the text is not to be read straight through, but to be used as a resource. Despite those caveats much here will be new to many readers. His section ‘Bach: the music work by work’ is extensive, and helpful.

Kenyon has ranged widely, even going as far as to include a section ‘Bach in the Media’. In tune with our age, he observes that changing styles of Bach performances in recent decades have been a microcosm of the revolution in performance generally. One applauds his inclusion of the Swingle Singers, Jacques Louissier, Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach, and the newest of the Bach improvisers, Venezuelan-American pianist Gabriela Montero. Montero is a virtuoso from whom we’ll hear much more. And their performance at the Salzburg Easter Festival 2010 earns plaudits for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Kenyon says that the widely held belief that Bach was known only to a small circle until the romantic movement stimulated a growing interest in his art will not stand up to scrutiny. Many performances of Bach’s work took place before Mendelssohn’s famous 1829 performance of the St Matthew Passion. Kenyon sees that event not as a revolution, but as the culmination of a long process of revival. Nevertheless, he considers that particular performance to have been a great event.

The section ‘Things people said about Bach’ tells us that his hands were gigantic. He would reach a twelfth with the left hand and fill it in with the middle fingers.’ Strangely, Tchaikovsky did not regard Bach as a great genius. The composer is said to have left the late Bernard Levin cold (though Levin’s opinion was inconsistent), while Stephen Hough is quoted as saying: ‘I’m quite embarrassed about this, but I don’t like Bach.’ He added: ‘I admire him enormously, of course – who couldn’t?’

In his foreword, Simon Russell Beale says that Nicholas Kenyon has here offered us a great gift. I’d echo that sentiment.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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