Music-lovers wanting something for their holiday reading might find something of interest in the following recommendations, each coming with a bit of local colour.
As well as being a respected pianist in his own right, Kenneth Hamilton is also a lecturer in the Music Department at Birmingham University. He has recently published After the Golden Age - Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred attack upon what he sees as sterility in the approach of many of today's players.
He cites an impressive roster of pianists from the last 200 years, quoting contemporary descriptions of their playing, and concluding that risk-taking and spontaneity of emotion (and audience reaction) make for a more "authentic" response to the music than one which is studied and "safe".
As recently as last week I was fortunate enough to witness one such performer who would surely earn Hamilton's approval: Piers Lane in recital for Birmingham International Piano Academy at Birmingham Conserva-toire, who brought flair, spectacle and a wall-of-death ex-hilaration to a programme of Romantic greats.
What a contrast to the anecdote Kenneth Hamilton relates at the very beginning of this fascinating book:
"I recently, regrettably, attended a recital of four Beethoven sonatas given by an internationally lauded player in a large hall. The artist was unexpectedly preceded by a herald with frowning brow and solemn countenance.
"His function was to admonish the audience that they should not cough or make any noise whatsoever during the performance, owing to the supposedly fatal effect this would have on the pianist's laser-like but evidently precarious concentration.
"With the vulgar multitude suitably chastised and a stunned atmosphere created, the grim visage of the great player consented to appear before his unworthy auditors. He predictably proceeded to perform with all the spontaneity of a tenth take in the recording studio - and the programme featured the supposedly improvisatory "Quasi una fantasia" sonata (op.27) too. It was a miserable experience."
Yes, Kenneth Hamilton pulls no punches. He goes on to argue that such a concert experience would have been very different from any Beethoven himself would have known. He also points out that however scrupulous the performer's adherence to the score, the sounds produced by a huge, modern piano would create a vastly different aural panorama from that conceived by the composer.
Indeed, and Chopin is one particular composer who would have been appalled at the idea of his music being heard by a huge audience in a vast hall on a Chelsea Tractor of an instrument.
And it is a very early piano which is the subject of Mr Langshaw's Square Piano, Madeline Goold's lovingly detailed, imaginatively coloured account of the history of a battered old Broadwood instrument built in 1807 - exactly the kind of piano on which Beethoven would have performed (to return to Kenneth Hamilton's point).
Mrs Goold bought it at auction four years ago for the ridiculous price of £100.00, but its meticulous restoration to perfect playing standard has obviously cost her a lot more since. It now sits in a corner of her delightfully elegant drawing-room in Hagley, looking for all the world as though it had been in this beautiful house for centuries.
Mr Langshaw's Square Piano is part detective story as the author traces its progress down the years to some unlikely places both within this country and across the seas, part social history (the importance of the canal system in transporting such articles cannot be overestimated), and partly an admission of her own love-affair with this exquisite artefact which she has restored to life.
The international pianist Mark Bebbington, also Hagley-based, has played Beethoven on this piano privately to Mrs Goold and her husband, and there has been talk of making a commercial recording of some of that composer's sonatas which particularly exploit the colours of such an instrument. I have even had the privilege of playing it myself.
My only complaint about this absorbing, generously illustrated publication is that despite a huge bibliography attesting to the assiduous research which has been undertaken, it contains no index - a vital tool for those interested in using this as source-material for any number of reasons.
Finally, Music in the British Provinces, 1690 - 1914 is a rewarding bran-tub of a book, great for dipping-into but also of much scholarly value for more serious purposes.
Its editors Rachel Cowgill and Peter Holman have assembled an impressive collection of chapters from an array of enthusiastic, well-informed contributors. Among the offerings are explorations of Musical Revolutions in 19th-century Staffordshire (actually quite a hotbed of musical activity, and an area which gave great support to Elgar even when he was still a comparative unknown), the career of the organist and composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley, strongly linked with the Three Choirs cathedrals of Hereford and Gloucester, and a survey of The Provincial Musical Festival in 19th-century England.
Birmingham naturally crops up in page after page, though I wish it had had a chapter to itself. If there is anything to cavil about in this book, it is the detection of a slight northern bias, originating as it does from the University of Leeds.
* Kenneth Hamilton: After the Golden Age pub OUP. Madeline Goold: Mr Langshaw's Square Piano pub Corvo. Rachel Cowgill and Peter Holman (eds): Music in the British Provinces, 1690 - 1914 pub Ashgate.