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Originally published Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Gift Books '07

Classical | Adventures and musical intrigue

Classical music

By Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times music critic

"Musicophilia" by Oliver Sacks (Alfred A. Knopf, $26). The physician and author of "Awakenings" has produced an enthralling book about some of the lesser-known effects of music on the brain, written from the standpoint of both medicine and aesthetics. His amazing case studies include those of a disabled man who committed 2,000 operas to memory; a man who was struck by lightning and suddenly became a pianist at age 42; and children born with Williams Syndrome (who have IQs of under 60 but are extremely musical from birth). Along the way, we learn about the surprising relationship between perfect pitch and speaking Mandarin. Sacks' book is colorful, factual, compassionate and consistently thought-provoking.

"The Rest is Noise" by Alex Ross (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, $30). The New Yorker music critic and prominent blogger tells the story of the chaotic 20th century in music by linking composers and works to their social history. Ross details a vast canvas of events that shaped musical history, leading to new developments of all kinds: serialism, neoclassicism, surrealism, minimalism, and many other isms that jockeyed for supremacy during the last century, as classical and popular streams more widely diverged. He may be a bit too sanguine about the lasting influence of twelve-tone composers, whose net effect has mainly been to send audiences running in the opposite direction, but Ross has a brilliant command of his dauntingly complex subject matter, and he is always engaging to read.

"The Adventures of a Cello" by Carlos Pietro (University of Texas Press, $24.95). From the cellist Carlos Prieto comes this affectionate and intriguing history of his beloved 1720 cello, a Stradivarius nicknamed the Piatti, and its adventures over three centuries. "The Red Violin" has nothing on this saga, which details the cello's travels from Italy to Spain, Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, the US and Mexico. The instrument's narrow escapes (it was once left lying in the street all night) are accompanied by a wealth of information about the cello world — the instruments, players, repertoire and performances that will be of interest to any music lover. The bonus: a CD of Prieto playing the Piatti, which he has owned since 1978 as his musical soul mate.

"The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music, 2008" (Penguin, $30, paperbound). Now clocking in at a staggering 1,588 pages, the hefty new Penguin Guide cataloges and rates the major classical discs and DVDs issued (and reissued) over the past five decades, from Adam to Zwilich. A vital tool for aficionados and collectors, and also useful as a self-defense device if hurled at intruders.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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