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The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made Paperback – April 10, 2007


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400096588
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400096589
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #572,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The history of recording classical music spans the twentieth century. Competing intensely for market share, EMI, Decca, RCA, Columbia, and DGG exploited technological advantages and vied for star performers. Now, despite clear, undistorted digital recordings that capture only the music, the classical music recording industry has collapsed, perhaps largely because of competition with other forms of entertainment and changes in musical tastes. In a fast-paced narrative history, Lebrecht, assistant editor of London's Evening Standard, first introduces all the personages and describes the rivalries that made and broke the business. Then, in the book's second part, he lists and comments about the 100 most significant recordings and the 20 recordings that never should have been made. These are subjective choices, yet they illustrate the recording-industry history of the first part. A remarkably concise and thorough compendium of the larger events and milestones in the rise and fall of the classical music recording industry, for die-hard record collectors and the more casually interested alike. Alan Hirsch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

The author manages to weave all this together in an irresistibly interesting story that reads like the best suspense novel.
Ilkka Talvi
While I don't subscribe to his theory about classical music's death, I accept that the 20th century was a great time in the classical music and its recording industry.
Larry VanDeSande
A very sloppy and unprofessional approach to a job overall and a personal insult to the dead composer's memory and the English.
Kenneth M. Pizzi

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

66 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth M. Pizzi on June 21, 2007
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A fascinating and absorbing read, Lebrecht's expose into the demise of classical music is as revealing as it is heartbreaking. Ten years ago, I was fortunate enough to work at one of the top classical radio stations in the US--(KDFC Classical 102.1 FM in San Francisco)there, I acquired a passion for classical music, reading Grammaphone and the Penguin Guide to Classial Compact Disc's with a fervor as children do with comic books. In short, it was an education in many ways--music as an art form, the aquisition of a refined taste, and a practical education into a highly unpredicatable business.

Lebrecht's book sheds light on all the vanities, egos, and personalities in the industry--past and present. Here is Karajan--masestro grandioso--feared but respected, whose net worth at his death was estimated at over $500 million with most of it derived from reissues of his earlier and better performances. Here is Bernstein, who, considered a somewhat of a second-tier conductor, plagued with insecurities and pretentious self-doubt, would often exasperate orchestras without punctuality or form (often forcing entire orchestras to wait an hour or more before he took to the podium) with his disdain for the inviolate nature of some works that are an inherent part of a country's national identity. Although venerated as a national treasure, Lebrecht paints another dimension to Bernstein; he recalls how the conductor completely botched a recording session with BBC Orchestra to produce one of the "worst classical recordings of all time"--Elgar's Enigma Variations in 1982. A very sloppy and unprofessional approach to a job overall and a personal insult to the dead composer's memory and the English.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By MacroV on March 16, 2008
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Unlike a lot of musicians and music lovers, I generally quite like Norman Lebrecht, find him one of the more interesting and provocative writers about the music scene, and have read several of his books. The first part of the book is interesting for his account of the many behind-the-scenes goings-on that have gone into the making of so many recordings, the personalities and egos of the musicians making them and, perhaps more critically, the enormously small stakes involved. Even though I've often been amazed that commercial enterprises would spend so much money producing recordings that at best will appeal to five percent of the record-buying public, it's still astonishing to learn just how few copies some classical recordings, even by major artists, tend to sell.

My major criticism of this book (and indeed most of Lebrecht's books) is that it's sloppy. He could use a good editor and fact-checker to catch such obvious errors as saying that around 1970 the Boston Symphony was still a non-union orchestra that worked "cheap." He also criticizes companies for continuing to issue new performances of the same repertory (fair enough), but then also ridicules them when they make recordings of less familiar repertoire that fail to sell in order to satisfy egomaniac conductors. Also, he often strings together anecdotes with very little thematic context or chronological coherence, often jumping several decades in the space of a sentence or two; if you aren't at least vaguely aware of a lot of these events, you'll be entirely lost (then again, if you're not vaguely aware of them, you probably won't be reading this book).

As for his 100 best/20 worst list, his 100 best has a few whose significance I would question, and excludes some others I would add.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Ilkka Talvi on May 10, 2007
Format: Paperback
Norman Lebrecht belongs to a rare group of people who not only know more about classical music than most music encyclopedias but also are extremely gifted with writing. All his books are fascinating and even if the reader doesn't always want to agree with his often pessimistic views of this art form's future, one cannot brush aside the facts he so powerfully presents.

"Life and Death of Classical Music" is two books in one: exactly a half of it is dedicated to the history of the recording business, the other listing one hundred recordings that were in Mr. Lebrecht's opinion milestones in the recorded history, plus another twenty that should never have been made. The first part tells generally previously unheard behind-the-scenes stories of all the leading recording companies, their bigwigs both in management and their cash cows, the conductors and other artists, since the very beginning of the industry. The author manages to weave all this together in an irresistibly interesting story that reads like the best suspense novel. As the title indicates, the story doesn't end with a 'they lived happily ever after' but paints a rather dark picture of the collapse of the industry, well documented by nose-diving global sales figures, and the reader at this point is not surprised by the reasons. It is hard to put the book down during the first 150 pages as the writing is so captivating.

I read the 'worst' list before starting with the 'best', as I found it more tempting. Many music lovers have traditionally bought recordings, both LPs and CDs, based on the familiarity and reputation of the artists on the cover.
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