Classical music is dying again. It's a morbid habit that it just can't shake, at least according to Norman Lebrecht, who has built a career as classical music's Jeremiah, or perhaps its Chicken Little. A cursory glimpse at his backlist gives some idea: The Maestro Myth, about conductors behaving badly and bringing their profession to the "brink of extinction"; Covent Garden: The Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War 1945-2000; and When the Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music, published in the US as Who Killed Classical Music?. Now the carnage continues with Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry (Penguin, 324pp; $49.95). Only this time, Lebrecht brings worse tidings than usual: classical recording has not only died, it has shamefully died.
Lebrecht begins his obituary with a summary of the life that was. He examines recording's influence on musical taste, and the blindsiding impact of rock 'n' roll: "the major labels, terrified, could not tell a hit from a whooping cough." Lebrecht is always dependable for the titillating fact, such as the extra million dollars that Decca snuck Pavarotti without telling the other Two Tenors. But this part of the book is too loaded with hyperbole to function usefully as history and, at least in Lebrecht's telling, is not much of a yarn either. Lebrecht tries for the breezy anecdotal style of a Harold C Schonberg, but he lacks Schonberg's charm and his patent love for his subject. Schonberg's irreverence, in Lebrecht's hands, becomes a gleeful poppy-lopping. Thus Our Joan is a "gawky soprano at Covent Garden" and Maria Callas a "fat Greek soprano". Never one to miss a chance for doomsaying, he interprets Glenn Gould's posthumous sales as "the mark of a doomed civilization that worships its dead". But surely worship of the dead is a premise of classical music, and has been since the rise of the historical program in the nineteenth century?
You would expect Lebrecht, as a music critic, to be as much in love with the dead as the rest of us. But perhaps that is asking too much. In the first half of the book, the music is incidental to musical politics and the capital-C characters that come with it. Columbia's Walter Legge, for example, was "an egotistical intriguer with a sadistic streak ... rumpled and smoke-wreathed, he was a menace to lone women in dark corridors". Even the bit parts come with lurid portraits. You go to the trouble of summoning up a character in your mind's eye, with the full quota of eccentricities, and by the next paragraph they've gone and another personality disorder has come grinning onto the stage, demanding to be known. Lebrecht has the keen eye and wit of a cartoonist, but he attempts a panoramic view of an industry in 140 pages and in so doing loses sight of the forest for the quirky-looking trees.
If tenacious readers make it to chapter eight, ‘Post Mortem', they discover that the causes of classical recording's shameful death are not so very shameful after all. Marking key words in bold, for those of us now lagging, Lebrecht names "Corporatization" as the number one culprit. He laments that "labels were pushed by corporate owners to chase the popular buck." He quotes Paul Burger, an ex-president of Sony Europe, saying that "Wall Street killed [the classical record] ... We were happy to carry on making records in that area, even losing a bit of money. But investors aren't like that." So it seems that Lebrecht feels classical music requires special pleading. But turn back one page, and Lebrecht is suddenly a believer in the market. Never one to let a contradiction spoil a good rant, he rues subsidised recordings as "a kind of vanity publishing that lacked editorial rigour and commercial rationale" (my italics).
Lebrecht then addresses corporatisation's accomplices in murder, "arranged in binary Os and Is" and, inevitably, marked in bold: "Overproduction ... Indestructibility ... Ohga ... Internet ... Other media ... Invention [failure thereof]". I can think of shameful ways to die, but none of them looks quite like this. "Ohga" refers to the former Sony president Norio Ohga, "capable of intense concentration and extreme rage", who over-commissioned CDs and thus hastened their demise; "indestructibility" refers to the fact that CDs, unlike vinyl records, do not carry a built-in redundancy; and "invention" refers to a number of things, including the fact that classical musicians no longer record the works of their contemporaries (which was never the mainstay of classical recording anyway) and that "the failure to explore multicultural sounds was the final dereliction, the dying man losing touch with the world." This last sound-bite comes out of nowhere and rapidly departs to whence it came, leaving only an intriguing echo of sitars and the taiko drum.
Curiously, three of Lebrecht's villains are technological, or products of invention: indestructibility, the internet and other media. He writes, "why consumers would take their music from record companies when they could receive it live from opera houses and concert halls was an unanswered question." Why indeed? If Lebrecht's prognosis is correct and the recording century is at an end, it would not be the first time classical music has had to reinvent itself. The freelance composer was one such reinvention, the modern recital another, recordings only the more recent. Now Martha Argerich has her own MySpace page and Evgeny Kissin performs La Campanella on YouTube. New technologies might actually be our best chance at reaching beyond the "regressive, ageing, heterogenous audience" that Lebrecht finds so disappointing.
Is a move from recordings back to live performance really as tragic as the "drowning of Venice"? Lebrecht makes a convincing case for recordings in the second half of his book, as he lists his hundred favourites, belatedly revealing that he does rather like music, after all. There is the occasional tone-deaf utterance: how could you describe the Bach solo-cello suites as "utilitarian", for instance, or imagine that Bach's purpose in the Goldberg Variations ended at the soporific? Yet Lebrecht is often insightful, and writes best when he is making nice. He identifies the "dangerous undercurrent of mental imbalance" in Horowitz's recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto, and says of Cortot, Thibaud and Casals in the Mendelssohn D-minor Trio that "the conversation between the three instruments turns alternately social and philosophical, pleasantries interspersed with reflections on the meaning of life." It might not sound like much, but it is exactly right.
Despite such glorious artefacts, there is much about recording not to like. The legacy of a recorded century might be a more sophisticated public and international musical careers, but it is also a sameness in interpretation and an expectation of flawlessness in performance that discourages risk-taking. Lebrecht mentions Otto Klemperer's eruption on discovering tape edits: "ein Schwindel!" Klemperer was right. What are studio recordings but forgeries of performance? Of course there are enthusiasts who prefer the forgery to the real thing, and for whom the ‘Decca sound' is preferable to the risk of a human on a stage, but there is a whiff of the taxidermist about them.
With one notable Canadian exception, most musicians feel some ambivalence about recording. Lebrecht's book is full of examples such as Jacqueline du Pré bursting into tears after her legendary Elgar recording, saying, "That is not at all what I meant." The process forces you to confront your own standard as a musician, which can be painful as well as educative. It also, more problematically, demands some sort of definitive statement about a piece, when there is rarely a definitive statement to be given. Schnabel, who was served well by recordings, claimed that they "are against the very nature of performance, for the nature of performance is to happen but once, to be absolutely ephemeral and unrepeatable". Music is an art written in air, and capturing it is like bottling a vapour. Its transience is an element of its beauty, and surely it is at its best when alive - even if beamed halfway around the world by iPhone.
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