Norman Lebrecht, The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the
100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made
(Anchor Books, 2007)

In his 1997 book, Who Killed Classical Music (UK title, When the Music Stops), award-winning novelist and music historian Norman Lebrecht predicted the downfall of the classical music recording industry. Ten years later, he documents it in The Life and Death of Classical Music (UK title, Maestros, Masterpieces, and Madness).

Most readers will likely go right to the two lists, but they will miss a short and sharp, but also exhaustive and engrossing history of recorded classical music which is essentially the beginning of the music industry as we know it. From its slow rise as the hobby of the elite to its extended popularity via celebrity conductors (Herbert von Karajan alone made 950 recordings during his career); from format changes (the CD was designed to be long enough to hold Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) and declining sales due to having no new "names" to take over for the dying masters, to blatant crossover tactics and the adulteration of the genre through "best of" collections and "classics-lite" like Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban, Lebrecht covers it all with wit and palpable disappointment. This half of the book alone makes it must reading for the classical music fan, as it was obviously written by one.

The list of 100 recordings that follows, labeled the "best" by publishers, is no such thing. Lebrecht himself explains in the introduction, "I make no claim that the final list contains the 'best' classical recordings. . . . Rather, I have been guided by the influence these recordings exerted on the public imagination and on the development of recording itself." He further stipulates that "the box of LPs that established the stereo as a domestic necessity is a milestone in recording," which certainly justifies his choice of the first recordings of Enrico Caruso as his number one. This box of recordings, made on the cheap by Fred Gaisberg in a Milan hotel, was to the gramophone what Milton Berle was later to the television: the one piece of entertainment that made its respective gadget a must-have in every household.

From Caruso's best-selling arias, to the recordings that made the "hitherto uncommercial Joseph Haydn" into a half-million seller, to a CD that suggested possible new beginnings for an art on the verge of collapse, the list of 100 is a highly educational read. Some of the more famous works are included -- Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations for his new approach; The Three Tenors in Concert and Georg Solti's landmark Ring cycle for putting classical on the popular-music bestseller charts (they are still #2 and #1, respectively) -- but none but the most devoted aficionado will recognize the import of the majority of the selections. It is another history lesson of its own.

Sadly, he couches the 100 in history and importance, but little fire. This passion he saves for the final "20 recordings that should never have been made"; they are given all his disdain. Here the reader can easily imagine Lebrecht holding these LPs/CDs at arm's length between thumb and forefinger, with dramatically wrinkled nose as if the steaming stench were actually rising off them. For example, this about Eric Satie's Vexations, a piece that is composed entirely of "eighteen notes played tres lent [very slow] 840 times without hesitation or variation, for a day and a night":

In concert, Vexations has a certain intellectual validity, making a point about hypnotic effect and what people will tolerate in a public place. On record, it has no point at all, except the capacity to irritate. Adequately played, this is the stupidest classical recording ever made, and surely the least musical.

And that's only number 18 -- there are 17 even more abhorrent recordings yet to come, and all written with this wonderful level of vitriol and horror at the appalling waste of time and effort involved. Though Lebrecht's choices will undoubtedly send me in search of a few of the "hits," he actually makes me curious to hear a higher percentage of the "misses," simply based on the more entertaining prose he blesses them with. Expect plenty of heated online discussions to be started by The Life and Death of Classical Music, ironically on the same stage that hopes to revive the genre with legal downloads in the face of the tragic death of its vinyl/plastic counterpart. For, even as the numbers of its dead masters continue to increase, in a community that most certainly reveres the dead over the living, classical music will survive, whatever the format.

[Craig Clarke]