Wednesday, April 04, 2007

MUSIC: Norman conquest? Not this time

Norman Lebrecht's new book is making waves. Paul Stump thinks it's time the tide went out

There's money in mortality. From the drivers of the plague carts in 17th century London to modern-day undertakers, the Grim Reaper isn't all bad to some folks.

Take Norman Lebrecht. His Cassandra-like pronouncements of the death of classical music have been making him stacks of dough since his (very, very good) 1991 book on the cult of the conductor, The Maestro Myth. A few years later came When The Music Stops, and now Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Music Industry. That's one hell of an extended death scene, and a very profitable one. Long title, too.

In an article in today's Guardian, fatuous even by that paper's recent arts standards, Martin Kettle provides 1,700 or so words of puff for Lebrecht's thesis which lends more credence to an unspoken mutual admiration as anything written about in the book.

Nobody can gainsay Lebrecht's classical music credentials. He is also a powerful, stylish writer, with an aptitude for the pithy, a brilliant researcher, an anecdotal truffleur without peer in his field, curator of one of the genre's finest photographic archives. The Maestro Myth should be a Desert Island Book for any music lover. He is Classic FM's Antichrist, a status any thinking person should aspire to. Reading his antipathy to the tits-first-voice-second likes of Katherine Jenkins, Charlotte Church et al is as refreshing as champagne. He doesn't skewer Karl Jenkins with the relish one would like, but whatever. Nonetheless, for all this, his Doomsday scenario for music is like that of Chomsky's for capitalism - a trawl-net so full of evidence it seems undeniable, but trawl nets have holes too. Lots of them. As do polemical rants like Norm's and Noam's.

Ask any trawlerman; holes fray and distend the more they're worn.

Here's Lebrecht's schtick. Classical music has eaten itself by its endless repetitions of tired old repertoire (Satie's 890-minute long Véxations is not one) and overpaying star performers, and by the ear-shredding aridity of dodecaphonic modernism. This was the postludial, and perfectly credible, subtext to the virtuosic Maestro Myth. His megaphonic insistence, though, that the entire art form is on the verge of collapse, an alarming tocsin in When The Music Stops, now makes him less John Ogdon than Johnny One-Note. Furthermore, he has a vested interest in pushing thie envelope of musical morbidity. The longer music takes to die, the more shekels he makes. The louder he shouts, the more likely people are to listen, even if actual serious musicians, like cellist Raphael Wallfisch, despair of him; 'what worries me about Norman Lebrecht's negativity is that people will stop fighting'.

Doesn't bother Kettle. Mart is such a fan of Lebrecht that he writes that had it not been for his chum's 'attentiveness... classical music might have gone the way of coal fires and milk bottles.' Phew! So for that CD of Bax choral-orchestral works I got and nearly wet myself over in 2004 - blimey, it ain't Chandos Records or the performers I should thank, but Norm. How wrong can you be?

Meanwhile David Hurwitz, the editor of the independent US-based website (and the most exacting bugger of an editor your correspondent has ever attempted to write for) is one who has Lebrecht's number. Hurwitz is, if anything, an even wittier adept of disparagement than Lebrecht (and doesn't drag Mahler and anti-Semitism into no matter how improbable a subject). On his London colleague Hurwitz scoffs; ‘most of what Lebrecht has to say is so old and tired by now (when it isn’t just plain silly) that it certainly doesn’t bear quoting, much less refuting’.

That classical music's public profile, and therefore its commercial potential for the recording industry, has changed, is a no-brainer. But how much does this really matter? Does a deep slump in classical recordings denote, as Lebrecht argues, a rupture in the 'chain of interpretation', that which, for example, developed pianism from Beethoven through Liszt and Rubinstein and devolved it throughout European conservatoires via Pachmann, Leschititzsky, Long. That which Lebrecht himself catalogued, the podium heritage passed down from Beethoven via Wagner and Bülow and Mottl and Richter to the first great recorded conductor (and probably the greatest stick-wielder ever) Nikisch.

Were these historical miracles governed by the existence of a recording industry? Oh, sod off. Aficionados still argue as to whether this or that conductor is influenced by the approaches of Furtwängler or Toscanini. Both children of the turntable, agreed - but also inheritors of a tradition that predated it. Ply a few Buds to a couple of conservatoire pianists and mention three names from three eras; say, Hofmann, Cliburn, Lazaridis. Watch them rabbit themselves senseless. They'll spend an hour on rubato alone. That's not death I smell, just sweaty youthful enthusiasm.

Even composing's continuum muddles through. I don't care much for Austrian Olga Neuwirth's (b.1968) music, but when I spoke to her in Brussels a couple of years back, she was volubly enthusiastic about the exotic and fantastical orchestral soundscaping of Franz Schreker (1878-1934) of whom her father Gosta was an early biographer, a composer whose friends were Schoenberg and Berg. Neuwirth won't sell many CDs - but to say that the art of someone so excitable is moribund - it's laughable.

Lebrecht, in his first two books, argues persuasively that the recording industry helped to homogenise orchestral sound, epitomised by the sheen of 'beautiful sound' created by Herbert von Karajan and his recording stooge-minions at Deutsche Grammophon in the 1970s. Ten years ago, Lebrecht bemoaned the uniformity of classical practise and performance; now, apparently, even rubbish Japanese recordings of Dvorak 9 are invaluable to the survival of western culture.

That classical CDs are staring extinction in the face is - and I am sorry to offend those of refined sensibility - bullshit. As Andrew Clements, the Guardian's official classical critic, who might have been expected to have the last word on Lebrecht's pronouncements, puts it in an attenuated rejoinder-sidebar, there are more CD releases than ever. My wants list has never been longer. Kettle's argument that downloading music offers a sonically inferior product to CDs is disingenuous. For a start, Kleiber's 1981 DG Dresden recording of Tristan with Kollo and Price is by today's standards, equally primitive in breadth and depth of sound in comparison to state-of-the-art SACD, yet still rings my bell like no other studio recording of the work. And by the way, crusty dissing of digital sounds rather odd coming from a senior writer on a newspaper so obsessively in love with new technology it won't employ anyone who doesn't have an involuntary jean-creamer at the mention of the word 'podcast'.

Multinational classical is, as Lebrecht says, is dead. No shit, Sherlock. Dance on its grave, say I. Cram populist artists more full of money than an Landes farmer's wife will force-feed a goose and you bleed money from less commercially-deserving causes. Record 40 versions of Vivaldi's Four Seasons (TM) and it's no surprise that the 41st promptly stiffs.

But musicians are surviving; they are recording a staggering array of repertoire. The real threat to them comes not from record industry travails but in the erosion of support for live music and musical education from which they draw a substantial part of their incomes (apart from the real stars, this has always been the case). What matters here is that the few young listeners left are exposed to new works, or novel works of the past that excite. This is not Vanessa-Maeism. How much could a budding pianist be animated and inspired by the five stupendously virtuosic concertos of the Bulgarian Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978)? German label CPO look set to record them; who will take them onto the stage? Or how could a young composer be inspired by the work of the Belgian Philippe Boesmans (b.1935) or the Finn Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928)?

Lebrecht cares about music, there's no doubt. He cares about its spiritual value, about the cultural worth of artistic talent. He also cares about his current account. But beyond the loot, things are better than he admits (Naxos, Chandos, CPO, NMC, the miraculous survival of Hyperion, I could go on) and also worse than he admits ) sclerosis on the platform and the podium). Get your priorities right, Norm. Right now, I'm more worried about the demise through overexposure and overpayment of the talent of one cultural critic than of an art form.

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