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Sunday, December 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gift Guide

Classical-music books that warrant a gift wrap

Seattle Times music critic

There's never a shortage of new books on classical music, and here are a few recent arrivals that will please music lovers.

"Violin Dreams," Arnold Steinhardt (Houghton Mifflin, $25.95): The first violinist of the renowned Guarneri String Quartet, Steinhardt also is a first-rate prose stylist, and this wonderfully affectionate memoir takes the reader along with the author on a journey illustrating Steinhardt's great love of his instrument. Steinhardt proves a natural storyteller and a vivid writer. The book is utterly authoritative and deeply touching at the same time: the work of a gifted man who has lived his whole life in music, yet still has the novice's unspoiled wonder at the beauty of the violin.

"The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music," Ted Libbey (Workman, $19.95 paperback, $29.95 hardcover): Libbey, a former music critic and longtime NPR record-library curator for "Performance Today," spent 11 years on this magnum opus, an encyclopedic but very personal account of great artists, top recordings and immortal works. The biographical entries are particularly nice, full of the sense of character and style, and illuminated in many cases by letters and by his own recollections. Great for that person who vows that 2007 will be the year to learn about classical music.

"Johann Sebastian Bach," Martin Geck (Harcourt, $40): This comprehensive biography by German scholar Martin Geck (officially out Tuesday) doesn't just analyze counterpoint â۠it also places Bach's music in its historical and social context. Full of wonderful details, such as the account of Mendelssohn's teacher obtaining the score of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" from a cheese shop, "where it was being used as wrapping paper." Or the fact that it would take 20 feet of shelving to hold Bach's theological library, a testament to his deep understanding of that subject.

"Eyewitness Companions: Opera," Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding (DK Publishing, $25): This "Eyewitness Companions" series, familiar to anyone who has ever browsed the travel section at the bookstore, is branching out into other fields â۠specifically opera, with this eye-catching, beautifully illustrated handy guide to 66 composers, singers, performances and stories of more than 160 great operas. Every page is a visual feast, including the cover photo of glamour puss diva Renée Fleming.

"Mozart and His Operas," David Cairns (University of California Press, $29.95): Critic, professor and conductor David Cairns uses Mozart's operas â۠among his finest achievements â۠as a window into the composer's life and his creative methods, delving into the often-overlooked opera "Idomeneo" as well as more frequently analyzed works (such as "The Magic Flute"). Central to Cairns' thesis is the idea that drama, the core of opera, is an essential ingredient in all of Mozart's works; that the piano concerto, for example, was to Mozart "a form of theatre."

A local note

"Six Years of Grace," by Jennifer Sokol (Tate Publishing, $12.99): Local music lovers who fondly remember the Sokol family (Vilem Sokol was music director of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra for nearly three decades and a University of Washington music professor for many years) will enjoy this loving and poignant memoir of the final six years of the family matriarch, Agatha Sokol.

Subtitled "Caregiving Episodes with My Mother," this inspiring book was written by daughter Jennifer, a gifted violinist who had just emerged from a decade in a Carmelite monastery when her mother suffered a debilitating stroke. (The author is the right-hand helper of her father, Vilem.) Honest and intimate, full of both music and faith, these chapters also will resonate with the many readers who face caregiving decisions in their own lives.

mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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