After having been bored and disappointed with Foreman's new biography of Bax, I found myself the same but more so while reading this new biography of Sibelius. The problem is that it isn't in any real sense a biography at all. It is an exhaustive (and exhausting) annotated chronological inventory of all Sibelius's compositions, interspersed with cursory descriptions of his activities during a particular year. The approach is hopelessly clerical and dreary. Year by year works are listed in a narrative of the "and then, and then, and then" variety. Events in Sibelius's life are approached in the exact same way: "on so and so a date he travelled to this or that place where he conducted such and so a piece after which he returned home". There is no sense of depth, let alone of getting to know the composer. What about his alcoholism, which was at times extreme (at one point, a drunken Sibelius stopped the orchestra in the middle of a performance because he had forgotten he was conducting a public concert and thought he was at a rehearsal!). What about the silence of the last 30 years - did a man of Sibelius's artistic integrity really stop composing simply because he finally achieved financial stability? Or is there more to it? Don't expect Barnett to dwell on such essential matters. People around the composer, like the vibrant if bibulous circle of artist friends in Helsinki, remain mere ciphers, and references to the wider historical and cultural context are scanty at best.
Moreover, the urge to mention every composition precludes any in-depth analysis of the works as such; any average CD-booklet does better. Descriptions of the character of a piece are of necessity subjective and inevitably meaningless to anyone who hasn't heard that particular work - and most readers will not have heard most of the works that are mentioned. It is of little use to be told that the Marche triste, JS 124, "...is in ABA form, with outer sections that are dark-hued, astringent and defiant. By contrast the middle section, in 12/8, is sweet and idyllic, like a memory of lost happiness"; it is of less use still to be showered with similar descriptions of literally every piece the composer ever wrote.
Musicological analysis is superficial and mostly limited to the identification of a few recurring musical signatures, especially the "S-motif". Due to lack of integration with the text, the musical examples provided in an appendix have little added value. By and large the same goes for the select list of recordings, which is again subjective, and prone to get dated.
The frustrating thing is that in the sparse moments when there is a brief lull in Barnett's obsessive-compulsive disorder, it becomes clear that he is quite well capable of writing engagingly about the composer himself. That's why the final part of the book is the most readable; for despite the deliberate but abortive effort to dispel the myth of the "silence of Järvenpäa", the fact remains that the composer wrote next to nothing new in the last three decades of his life, and so the biographical narrative is no longer pushed away by the catalogue. It remains typical of the book, nonetheless, that exactly 30 pages are spent on these 30 years, while for instance the years 1899 and 1900 together get 20.
All in all this book shows the author to be a devoted and very determined bookkeeper, while we catch only very brief glimpses of his capacities as a writer; regarding his talents as a musicologist, historian or psychologist I remain much in doubt.