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Many of the essays included here began as programme notes. ‘My approach is usually more historical than analytical,’ writes the author. Convivial, often humorous, never dry, they are so well written that I am reminded of those equally essential collections by the late Michael Steinberg. Justifying his exclusion of ‘any duos in which one of the instruments is a piano’, Keller explains that ‘much of that repertoire does invite a “soloist-plus-accompanist” aspect that is quite different from the general democracy of, say, a woodwind quintet.’

Of course this volume will primarily be used as a reference book, but it will also give great pleasure if read straight through. A tune from Ibert’s Trois pièces brèves is neatly described as ‘both absent-minded and unforgettable’. Elsewhere the received opinion that Mozart disliked the flute is justly challenged. Every few pages I found a gem of information. Richard Mühlfeld taught himself the clarinet and played with a big vibrato. Wolf, who found Brahms’ symphonies ‘absolutely repulsive’, thoroughly enjoyed the same composer’s first string quintet. The frequent references to other writers (Clara Schumann, GB Shaw, Eduard Hanslick, WW Cobbett, etc) are always revealing – Bartók’s generous review of Kodály’s serenade for two violins and viola, or Nadia Boulanger’s admiration for Copland’s two pieces for string quartet: ‘a masterpiece – so moving, so deep, so simple’. These two works illustrate Keller’s inclusiveness, as do the three pieces by George Crumb, three by Ligeti, two by Martinů, one each by Nielsen and Poulenc. Other less predictable composer-entries include Arensky, Golijov, Glinka, Fanny Mendelssohn, Revueltas, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Steve Reich, Joan Tower, Enescu, Clara Schumann, Weber, Ives, Ibert and Webern. Less familiar compositions include Hindemith’s septet, Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio, Janáček’s Capriccio, Dvořák’s Terzetto and Beethoven’s serenade for flute, violin and viola.

Discussing Elgar’s popular pieces, Keller fails to mention Chanson de matin and Chanson de nuit on p185. Also, his namesake Hans was Austrian-born, not German. These miniscule errors should not detract from this volume’s strong book-of-the-year ranking.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Classical Music, 2011 - ©Rhinegold Publishing