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Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry - Norman Lebrecht

Maestros Masterpieces and Madness - The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry by Norman Lebrecht

Review by Gerald Levy

WHAT Norman Lebrecht excels at is anecdote. And it is through anecdote that he tells the story of the classical record industry and what he contentiously describes as its shameful death.

The first part of the book is narrative, the second an account of his hundred best recordings, followed by his 20 worst. In most cases the recording serves as a vehicle for stories about the composer, or the conductor, or the other artistes involved, or the label under which it will appear.

This anecdotal history tells us of the industry’s modest beginnings which were to be succeeded by unjustifiable profligacy: in 1902 Fred Gaisberg of HMV heard Enrico Caruso sing at La Scala Milan. He cabled back to London that Caruso was prepared to record 10 songs for a total of £100. London replied: “Fee exorbitant, absolutely forbid you to record.”

And he tells us about distinguished musicians: Otto Klemperer adopted a very slow tempo in a rehearsal of the St. Matthew Passion. The soloists could hardly sustain their breath. At the coffee-break, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was put up by the soloists to remonstrate.

‘Dr Klemperer, I had a dream last night, and in my dream Johann Sebastian Bach thanked me for singing the Passion, but he said, “Why so slow?”’

Klemperer scowled, and resumed conducting at an even slower tempo. And then he put down his baton.

‘Fischer?’

‘Yes, Dr Klemperer’

‘I, too, had a dream last night. And in my dream Johann Sebastian Bach thanked me for conducting his Passion, but he said, “Tell me Dr Klemperer – who is this Fischer?”’

Lebrecht is no respecter of persons. Walter Legge was one of the finest of all record producers, giving us a superlative recordings of Rosenkavalier, of Cosi fan tutte, and of much else.

True Lebrecht reports that rival producers conceded that “again and again he made records that were the envy of all of us”, but he also records Sir Thomas Beecham describing Legge as “a mass of egregious fatuity”, and Lebrecht himself describes Legge, who married Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, as “an egotistical intriguer with a sadistic streak. Rumpled and smoke-wreathed he was a menace to lone women in dark corridors.”

The tone is largely that of a reunion of record industry executives, now retired, many having been made redundant, reminiscing about past colleagues, past deals and past musicians.

They do not concern themselves much with statistics or economic analysis, more with the ups and downs of the companies they worked for, especially Decca, EMI and Sony, the senior executives they all remember, and the terrible day when even Vladimir Ashkenazy and Bernard Haitink got their P45s.

Mr Lebrecht blames technological change as the prime cause of the downfall of the record industry, but also notes a number of other reasons.

Most of the new products from classical composers in the last hundred years have failed to attract an audience. Further, by say 1960, the old products had been recorded as well as they were ever likely to be.

And finally, each of the best products is often available in any of dozens or even hundreds of versions. The new conductor has to compete with recordings by Karajan. How could one rival Carlos Kleiber’s Fledermaus? And the new Violetta is competing with Maria Callas.

It was the classical record industry which gave us such magnificent recordings, and now it is paying the price.

The anecdotal approach has its strength – everyone interested in classical music will appreciate some of the stories. But it has two principal limitations: many of the stories are about recording companies and their long-gone executives, who will be of limited interest to most lovers of classical music; and it does not serve to provide a structured analysis of either the life or the alleged, and allegedly shameful, death of the classical music industry, either in England or abroad.