Opera and the Morbidity of Music

By JOSEPH KERMAN

Alas, the title Opera and the Morbidity of Music is a dirty gyp. The cover photo of a bloodied and demented Joan Sutherland hides a book of sane intelligence. The ostensible catalyst for most of Joseph Kerman?s collected essays is the book review, but he ranges both widely and deeply, from William Byrd?s Catholicism and music inspired by labyrinths to a note on the program note and a somewhat more than half-hearted defense of Rach 3. Some topics rate only a few pages, but Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, and Wagner each generate substantial groups of essays. Unlike many critics, Kerman is at his best — ­specific, passionate, attuned — when he praises. His description of Charles Rosen?s work gives a sense of what he values: “his is criticism building on what we actually hear in music, even on what we feel about what we hear (though to my taste there is too little here about that).” This admirable attitude serves him well but perhaps makes him strangely sympathetic to political readings of nonverbal music, such as feminist interpretations of Beethoven?s Ninth Symphony as “horrifyingly violent” and a “sexual message.” He writes, “What is so very awful about these interpretations? They draw attention­ — violently, to be sure, and so what? — ­to a cardinal feature of the first movement?s recapitulatory passage….” Kerman himself eschews trendy language and extreme judgments; his work over the past 30 years paves a critical via media through turbulent times. -

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