Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Review - The Life and Death of Classical Music

This book, The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made (2007), isn't quite titled correctly. What Norman Lebrecht, longtime chronicler of the world of classical music, is writing about is not the death of classical music, but the death of the classical music recording industry.

It's no secret that classical recordings have gone through peaks and valleys since the earliest Caruso records were cut 100 years ago, but it does appear that the Internet has dealt a death blow to the traditional model of artist and recording company making a CD and selling it in stores. This is what Lebrecht is writing about here, the arc of this industry, and that constitutes the first half of the book.

Unfortunately, a lot of this half is fairly tedious. It's really something of a corporate history, as we see companies rise and fall, executives installed and deposed, and, at times, there is too little about the glory of the music. It's an important history, I'm glad Lebrecht (who seems to have been around for the whole of the century) has put it down in print, but it's not the greatest read...excpet for the stories he weaves into it.

There are fascinating, if occasional, looks at the performers and conductors who made up 20th century classical performance (as such, this book is a useful counterpoint to The Rest Is Noise, which dealt exhaustively with 20th century composition, but spoke almost not at all about the performers). Lebrecht is extremely opinionated, very British-centric, but endlessly entertaining.

Where opinion really takes over is in the second half of the book where Lebrecht picks his best and worst recordings. These are not truly meant to be the best or the worst, but the most significant and the most maddening. This part of the book is a lot of fun, with anecdotes that justify the choices (the most entertaining, of course, are in the too short worst section; Lebrecht makes the recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto with the dream team of Karajan, Richter, Oistrakh, and Rostropovich seem truly excruciating).

If this review whets your interest, you can get plenty of Lebrecht at his web site ( He is no less opinionated and entertaining on-line. The book is good, but I would recommend dancing through the first half, picking out the anecdotes (unless you have a real interest in the corporate machinations of 20th century record companies, of course).

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