Lebrecht compellingly demonstrates that classical recording has reached its end point-but this is not simply an expos? of decline and fall. It is, for the first time, the full story of a minor art form, analyzing the cultural revolution wrought by Schnabel, Toscanini, Callas, Rattle, the Three Tenors, and Charlotte Church. It is the story of how stars were made and broken by the record business; how a war criminal conspired with a concentration-camp victim to create a record empire; and how advancing technology, boardroom wars, public credulity and unscrupulous exploitation shaped the musical backdrop to our modern lives. The book ends with a suitable shrine to classical recording: the author's critical selection of the 100 most important recordings-and the 20 most appalling.
Filled with memorable incidents and unforgettable personalities-from Goddard Lieberson, legendary head of CBS Masterworks who signed his letters as God; to Georg Solti, who turned the Chicago Symphony into " the loudest symphony on earth"-this is at once the captivating story of the life and death of classical recording and an opinioned, insider's guide to appreciating the genre, now and for years to come.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 38.
- Review Date: 2007-01-15
- Reviewer: Staff
British novelist and music critic Lebrecht (The Song of Names) revisits the question raised in the title of his 1997 exposéWho Killed Classical Music? Here he delivers a barbed requiem for the classical recording industry, reviewing its historical and technological arc from "Caruso's first scratchings to the serenity of the CD," while measuring the rise and fall of classical music in terms of its popularity, availability, producers and performers. His dishy, personality-driven prose features both intelligence and point of view, while his commentary and list of the best and worst recordings—arguably the freshest element in the book—make plain the author's pugnacious, critical tastes. With subjectivity acknowledged, the author's pick of the best includes discs that have influenced public imagination or the development of recording. The worst recordings note the "things that can go wrong when we aspire to the highest." Finding favor is a 1987 release of Debussy's La Mer and Elgar's Enigma Variations performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. The Debussy, says Lebrecht, "shimmered like the English Channel at Eastbourne on a summer's day, a pointillist's paradise." Among the worst is a 2000 recording of Verdi's Requiem featuring tenor Andrea Bocelli, whose technique is deemed so insufficient that he "is exposed as cruelly as a Sunday morning park footballer would be in the World Cup final." In its arguments and attitudes, this is a lively approach to this art form. (Apr.)
This is the ultimate book for classical music record geeks. Imagine John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity obsessing about Wagner's Ring instead of the Velvet Underground, and you'll have an idea of the passion with which British music critic Norman Lebrecht details the century-long decline and fall of the classical recording industry.
The Life and Death of Classical Music is a sad and sordid talein other words, a real page-turner. Lebrecht does not hold back from expressing his Old-Testament-prophet horror over the unholy marriage between art and commerce. His lament is all the more lyrical because of his comprehensive grasp of the social and political context in which the quality of classical music recordings waxed (vinyled?) and waned. It's bad enough to know that von Karajan's recording career flourished under the Nazis; to learn, however, that the label Deutsche Grammophon employed slave labor during the war (including inmates from Auschwitz) to press those von Karajan recordings is enough to make you want to pull those old DG LP's off your dusty shelf and smash them.
There's something gleefully perverse about a book that hopes to sell by kvetching about how its subject won't sell anymore. Lebrecht loves the recordings he loves, but he loves hating the recordings he hates even more. That's one sublime geek.
Michael Alec Rose is an associate professor of composition at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.