A to Z of Classical Music
Technically, the insides of this package from Naxos deliver what the outside promises: an "A to Z" compilation of classical composers, a 562-page book, and over 150 minutes of music. The implication would be, however, that the book is coordinated with the music, which is only loosely true. The book is a little biographical dictionary covering quite an assortment of classical composers. It is not comprehensive (Aubert is included, but not Chaminade, although many would suggest a reversal in status these days), but it's impressive enough for a volume that will fit in a coat pocket. Each composer's entry is rounded out with recommended recordings -- which are, of course, drawn exclusively from the Naxos catalog. (This may explain why some composers are included and others omitted.) The selections on the two CDs are included in these recommended-recordings listings but not otherwise elaborated in any special way -- there is no attempt to tell listeners what they're hearing in any specific case, or to put it into any chronological or historical context.
The music on the two discs does, however, stand out in one respect from other collections that purport to offer an introduction to classical music -- it is one of the few that tries to run through the whole history of the music chronologically, starting with "Gregorian" chant (the term isn't much used anymore by those familiar with the music) and the chants of Hildegard of Bingen and ending with the Philip Glass "Violin Concerto" of 1987. There's a lot to be said for this approach -- the listener obviously can't grasp the whole stylistic constellation of an era by listening to a couple of pieces but will be witness to the birth of Renaissance polyphony, of the Baroque orchestra, of the concerto and piano sonata, of Romantic excess, neo-classic cool, and various modern developments. There are major omissions -- you jump straight from Hildegard in the twelfth century to Palestrina at the end of the sixteenth, and there is no operatic vocal music at all -- but almost all the selections, with the exception of a sinfonia movement of Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, can be justified in their inclusion. The program does especially well by including some warhorse numbers, like "Pachelbel"'s "Canon," at their proper places in the historical sequence; the listener who buys this set will learn to hear the "Canon" as a manifestation of Baroque structural exuberance, not as the icon of sentimentality it has become. The performances are adequate or better, and the diverse materials do not jar against one another sonically. In the end, although this package is not a wholly coherent one, it may serve the needs both of listeners wanting a handy pocket biography reference and those in search of an overview of classical music's millennium-long (or longer) history.