A wonderful book. Michael Steinberg is probably the premier writer of program notes for symphony orchestra concerts in the English-speaking world, and his two books, The Symphony: A Listener's Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995, 678 pages), and its companion volume The Concerto: A Listener's Guide (Oxford UP, 1998, 506 pages), are probably the two best collections of program notes on the symphony and the concerto that have ever been published in English. Steinberg formerly wrote the program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and currently writes them for the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He was music critic of the Boston Globe for twelve years. These two books come with glowing recommendations from such distinguished musical figures as Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, Andre Previn, Herbert Blomstedt, Roger Norrington, and John Adams. Speaking as one who has attended countless symphony orchestra concerts on the East Coast, West Coast, and in Dallas for more than forty years, and has always read the program notes, I can say that I've never read any as good as these. They are readable, learned, witty, accessible, and delightful, full of important biographical and historical information, and of course musical description, evaluation, and analysis that is genuinely illuminating and enlightening, without being so technical you need to be a musicologist or seated at a piano to understand it. (Inevitably, there are some musical examples, but these are relatively few, usually fairly simple, and you don't have to understand them to grasp the meaning of the text.) I would recommend these two books strongly to any lover of classical music, anyone who attends symphony orchestra concerts.
Having said this, I can't help noting a few unfortunate omissions. The Symphony is a thick book and perhaps one is ungenerous to cavil at such a generous and generally inclusive and comprehensive volume. All the Beethoven symphonies are included, of course, as are all the symphonies of Brahms and Schumann, and all the major symphonies of Haydn (only two symphonies before No. 86), Mozart (no Mozart symphonies earlier than No. 35, "Haffner"), Tchaikovsky (three symphonies), Dvorak (four symphonies), and Bruckner (six symphonies). The two greatest twentieth-century symphonists, Mahler and Sibelius, are covered in full, including all of their published symphonies and the unfinished Mahler Tenth (but not the early Sibelius "Kullervo" symphony). The third great twentieth-century symphonist, Shostakovich, is represented by seven of his fifteen symphonies. Both Elgar symphonies are included. The most striking lapses are in the French repertoire: the Franck D minor symphony and the Saint-Saens Third ("Organ") are unaccountably omitted, and these are serious omissions. The Schubert Fifth is omitted. Copland is represented by his Second ("Short Symphony"), not his much better known and more frequently performed Third. The same can be said of Hanson, who is represented by his Fourth ("Requiem"), not his Second ("Romantic"). Among the moderns, there are some strangely arbitrary (and, one suspects, personal) choices and omissions: for example, Roy Harris' Third is omitted, although symphonies by Harbison and Hartmann are included; the Harris is surely better established in the standard repertoire than either of these composers. For Vaughan Williams, two of his most popular and accessible symphonies, the First ("Sea") and Second ("London"), are omitted in favor three later symphonies (only 4, 5, and 6 are covered).
Despite these omissions, I recommend this book and its companion volume warmly and wouldn't be without them. Now I wish Mr. Steinberg and Oxford University Press would give us a third volume, covering the large body of orchestral music that is neither symphony nor concerto (such as tone poems and symphonic suites and dances, ballets and ballet suites, incidental music to plays and pageants, major overtures and preludes, et al.).