Monday, February 26, 2007

Lebrecht's "The Life and Death of Classical Music"

I have been reading the galley of Norman Lebrecht's new book The Life and Death of Classical Music, which is scheduled to come out April 10th. It is published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, and will be available just about everywhere.

I like reading Lebrecht because he is such a good writer, but I fear that he has pieced together a scenario about the death of classical music based on only the most visible aspects of upper echelons of the commercial market. Like The Maestro Myth and Who Killed Classical Music, this book is a serious (and very revealing) expose of the people and entities that push money around and make big decisions in the corporate levels of the classical music world. This book covers Lebrecht's view of the recording business from the beginning of commercial recordings until as close as he could get to the present before going to press. I have no doubt that much of what Lebrecht writes about is true, but he has chosen, while playing the role of classical music's coroner, to marginalize a good deal of what I find positive about recent developments in the business of recording and, by extension, classical music.

His list of the 100 most important recordings, or as he puts it "Milestones of Recorded History" does include some important recordings, but his list seems to concentrate on recordings put out by the biggest of the big league labels: Columbia (CBS), EMI, RCA, DGG, Decca, Nonesuch (Warner), London, Philips, and Teldec. There are single entries for record labels that I consider quite important: Hyperion, Supraphon, Vox, Telefunken, Wergo, Chandos, Harmonia Mundi, Naxos (!!!!), and Erato, and single entries for smaller labels who have recorded "name brand" musicians; Arte Nova, LSO Live, and Onyx. Most of the recordings are from "back in the day" (before the current century and digital recording technologies), and most of the recordings are orchestral recordings, operas, and recordings of big choral works. He does include Milstein's 1973 solo Bach, David Monroe's Ecco la Primavera, Glenn Gould's Bach Goldberg Variations, and a bunch of other recordings that are of undisputed importance, but I am surprised how little chamber music he has on his list.

I have been reviewing chamber music recordings for the American Record Guide for 14 years, and I worked as the classical music director for a radio station for 13 years. I spend a lot of time listening to and playing chamber music. My list of the 100 most important recordings would be very different from Lebrecht's, as would many of the people who will be part of the book's first audience. Lebrecht's list of the 20 worst recordings is quaint. He has obviously not heard some of the recordings that I have heard.

In eulogizing classical music Lebrecht might actually be generating more interest in the market for classical recordings, particularly the ones on his list. When I first got my hands on the galley I went directly to Lebrecht's list. Who wouldn't? And who wouldn't be curious to hear the recordings he finds so important? He gives excellent cases for their quality, and interesting stories about the circumstances surround their existence as recordings. Who wouldn't want to hear the recordings on his list of worst recordings?

We'll see what happens after the book comes out in April. Knowing the scandals and the corporate history of the honchos in the recording business might actually get people interested in classical music that have never been interested in it before. I'm looking forward to the excitement.

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