If you're stuck for a Christmas present for a classical music or opera lover, here are a few ideas. I've included a bunch of things at different price brackets.


Alex Ross "The Rest is Noise": the story of the 20th century music, blending music and musicians with the political, historical and cultural background that shaped their lives and work. Ross's book has truly gigantic scope, putting all the music of the twentieth century (encompassing classical, jazz, rock, pop and soul) into its historical context. It's a fascinating read for anyone who wonders how all this different sort of music started, where it came from. Ross shows you some of the now accepted masters of classical like Mahler, or Richard Strauss, some of the attempted new movements, those who failed and those who succeeded, as well as delving into jazz from its European roots to its American homeland. With such huge scope it isn't a book you would necessarily want to read all at once, but it is a book you would continually want to dip into, and which constantly amazes one Ross's intimate knowledge of so many of the participants.

Dan Levitin "This is your brain on music": what's known about how and why the human brain reacts to music, full of fascinating insights drawn from the combination of a great love of music in all its forms and some serious neurological research.

Christopher Hogwood: "Handel": Hogwood's fine biography allows you to step into Handel's time, learning about the effect on him of the South Sea Bubble, his views on Opera in the English language, his competitors and detractors, his patrons and fans. I have seldom read a biography which gives me a better idea of the culture, life and times of the era, so for anyone interested even remotely, in the England of the eighteenth century this would be a real treat. For anyone trying to understand how Opera was viewed in those far away times or interested in the finances of Opera then, this is illuminating. It has been written by a real music scholar, but reads like an adventure. I recommend it highly.

CD collections

Shostakovich: Complete Symphonies: an 11-CD set recorded by Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic for the Russian label Melodiya, and has been reviewed as one of the best complete sets ever. It also includes a selection of other Shostakovich works.

Wagner: The Great Operas from the Bayreuth Festival: a 33-disc set with all of the important Wagner operas, at a bargain price. Great present for Wagner lovers, or for opera lovers unfamiliar with Wagner who want to get started: you get the whole lot at price that would often be paid for just a couple of operas.

The Complete Flanders and Swann. It's stretching a point to include this in a classical listing, but it scrapes in because of "Ill Wind", their glorious take on the Rondo from Mozart's K495 Horn Concerto (including a wonderfully improvised cadenza by Flanders). For those who don't know them, Flanders and Swann were a comedy duo from the 1950s and 1960s: their material remains hilarious today, as well as having some great music - a firm favourite of my kids as soon as they heard them.

Opera DVD collections

La Scala Collection from Opus Arte. Another bargain collection: this contains eleven operas, mainly conducted by Ricardo Muti, and includes Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, Rossini's Guillaume Tell and others.

Arthaus Mozart Glyndebourne Collection. This has the six most famous Mozart operas: Cosi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Entfuhhrung aus dem Serail, Idomeneo, Die Zauberflote in a single set - not quite as much of a bargain as the Opus Arte set, but a better buy if you want the mainstream operas and would rather stay away from the more obscure works.


Opera glasses. If you can't always get seats in the front stalls for opera or orchestral concerts (you may not even want them, since the sound is often better further back), use these to actually see what's going on.

...or if you would rather go with a reputable make of optics and aren't too worried about the styling,  they're also made by Olympus.

Noise canceling headphones: while none of these are perfect, they're a real help for getting rid of background wash, particularly on airline or train journeys. Of course, they're also a backhanded present for a partner whose music is being played a little too loud... I haven't tried this particular Sennheiser model, but their headphones are usually amongst the best, and they're at a sensible price, unlike the...

Bose Quiet Comfort 3 noise canceling headphones. These are reputed to be the best on the market, and they come with a price tag to match. If your loved one does a lot of airline travel and your executive pay package has survived the credit crunch, these might fit the bill.

iPod classic: if they're into music but haven't hit the iPod generation yet, you can always go for one of these. Of the several models available, the best bet is the iPod classic if you want to add a substantial classical collection (or "rip", as the jargon goes). The smaller models are cheaper and fun, but you'll run out of space. If you share a computer, you can improve the present by opening it first, setting it up and preloading a bunch of your favourite CDs - a true labour of love. And a word of warning - don't buy one of these for anyone who doesn't have a computer!

Riptopia: if they've already got an iPod but just can't make time to get all their music onto it, you might want to try Riptopia. They promise a service where you bundle upto 200 CDs into a parcel with your iPod, send it off to them, and they do the rest to get everything loaded onto your iPod, complete with cover artwork.

Finale Print Music. This is a fabulous piece of software which lets you create truly professional looking music scores, and even play the music back to you on your PC. A particularly good present for a child or teenager who is just getting into music and is starting write their own. Alternatively, there's...

...Finale Songwriter, a slightly cheaper version aimed specifically at people who just want to write songs.


Of course, you can always go for concert or opera tickets: get out your diaries and look at our concert finder to see what's on.