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Robert Philip’s hefty tome which unpacks 400 orchestral works by 68 composers and runs to nearly 1,000 pages is an extraordinary achievement. It’s also a labour of love based on the scholar, broadcaster and musician’s own personal selection. Starting around 1700 with Corelli and ending in 1950 with Shostakovich, Philip focuses on well-known repertoire for orchestra, taking in concertos, overtures, suites and ballet music.

His in-depth knowledge is impressive, not only about the composers and the works themselves, but the context in which they were written. This could be the relationship to the composer’s overall body of work, the influence of other composers or just an interesting connection. For instance, take In the South. Philip points out Elgar’s debt to Richard Strauss along with another unusual link. Elgar wrote out the first eight bars of the overture in the visitor’s book of his friend George Sinclair for his bulldog Dan, who features in the Enigma Variations.

As a music critic, I put the book to the test before a Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert. Not realising that all the main works were listed in the content section at the front of the book, I went to the index first. So it was frustrating not to find a specific page number for Schumann’s cello concerto or Beethoven’s Symphony No 8. Having these page numbers in the index, as well as putting the main reference in bold type, would have been helpful.

And with these compendiums there will always be the question of what, or who, has been leftout. Philip is judicious in his choices; quite a lot of early symphonies by composers are omitted. But where were the likes of Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger or Sofia Gubaidulina? There is not one female composer listed. Maybe we can look forward to Philip’s incisive and informed analysis being applied to these works, as well as more contemporary repertoire, in future volumes.

This is a book the musically curious will want to keep handy to dip into for sheer enjoyment, or to seek an informed opinion before listening to a live or recorded performance.

SUSAN NICKALLS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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