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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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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.)
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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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (April 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400096588
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400096589
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #464,424 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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68 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth M. Pizzi on June 21, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By MacroV on March 16, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By V on November 3, 2009
Format: Paperback
The other reviewers provide an adequate overview of Norman Lebrecht's THE LIFE AND DEATH OF CLASSICAL MUSIC, so I'll limit myself here to a few particular observations.

It has been pointed out that the title is off-kilter, since the book focuses on the vicissitudes of classical RECORDING rather than those of classical music as such. A similar criticism can be leveled against Lebrecht's THE MAESTRO MYTH: the title invites one to expect that the author will do something courageously revolutionary, viz., make a case against the importance of the conductor for the performance of concerted music; but what he actually delivers is a very-UNrevolutionary broadside against the personality cults that have developed around certain celebrity conductors. And THE LIFE AND DEATH OF CLASSICAL MUSIC supplies much the same unflattering, now-get-a-load-of-this gossip about classical music celebrities in general but about Herbert von Karajan in particular.

Lebrecht plays fast and loose with his facts. Speaking of Caruso as of 1902, he claims on p. 11: "Short, fat and ugly, Caruso was an unlikely star...." This judgment can be tested against 1902 photographs of Caruso in Francis Robinson, CARUSO, HIS LIFE IN PICTURES. After recounting how the sales of Caruso's G & T recordings from April, 1902, jump-started the commercial recording industry, Lebrecht states on page 12: "The last Golden Ager to hold out [on making records] was...Feodor Chaliapin." This is very mistaken: Chaliapin recorded cylinders as early as 1898 and recorded discs for Emil Berliner as early as 1901.

Lebrecht's facile dismissal of the acoustical recording era (roughly, the interval 1888 - 1925) is equally bone-headed. P.
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