The sheer size of Robert Philip’s Companion is testament to the weight of his scholarship. Other guides to the orchestral repertoire offer neat thumbnail sketches, but Philip delves deeper as he surveys the history and analysis of 400 concert works from Corelli to Shostakovich.
That sort of writing seems designed to entice anyone to listen to the composition under examination with new ears, even when it is already very familiar, and it is probably for the old war horses of the orchestral repertoire that this book is most valuable. Although it sometimes seems otherwise, the catalogue of works that feature in orchestral seasons is in a constant state of flux, so the omission of a work like the Britten Violin Concerto here seems a little dated, given that it is now much more often played than was once the case. And the absence of Dvorak’s Symphonic Poems would have been odd in an earlier era as well as the current one. But even if you find yourself looking for background to a work that Philip has not included on occasion, this is nonetheless a very wise and useful companion that music lovers old and new will want to keep close at hand.
In this new book, which has been painstakingly prepared over a number of years, Philip turns his attention to more than 300 orchestral works dating from late 17th century Corelli and Vivaldi to 20th century Britten and Tippett. The scale is breathtaking, the choice both comprehensive and representative, but most importantly the scholarship is profound, perceptive and concise, with a directness of language that completely avoids pomposity. That applies to the obvious contenders for inclusion – the Mozarts and Beethovens of the musical firmament – and to the less well-known, so the language explaining the ear-teasing complexities of Webern’s 12-note technique in his 1928 Variations, for instance, is every bit as friendly and familiar as that bringing fresh insight to the symphonies and concertos of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Rachmaninov. Philip’s wide-ranging enthusiasms draw the reader in; they never frighten with pointless jargon.