In zoology, scavengers commit necrophagy, feeding on corpses or carrion. Music journalism too has its decomposers, and the British author Norman Lebrecht has long profited by declaring classical music dead. Currently Arts Editor and columnist at the London Evening Standard, Mr. Lebrecht has now published "The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made" (Anchor, 307 pages, $14.95).
Death and dying are integral parts of Mr. Lebrecht's personal killing fields of classical music. In 2003, he already prophesied — falsely, as it turned out — that 2004 would mark the demise of the classical record industry. Undeterred, Mr. Lebrecht uses obituaries as occasions for contumely, as when he headlined an article about the death of a beloved podium giant: "Carlos Kleiber: Not a Great Conductor." Never mind Kleiber's recordings of Beethoven, Strauss, and Verdi that have inspired listeners and musicians worldwide. Kleiber simply did not conduct often enough to meet Lebrecht's personal standard for greatness.
In 2006, reiterative attacks by Mr. Lebrecht titled "Why I'm Sick of Mozart" and "Too Much Mozart Makes You Sick" inspired the Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff to publish a reply in the Guardian, stating: "Norman Lebrecht has attacked Wolfgang Amadeus in a most unfair manner. I refuse to quote from his writings because they represent — to me — musical journalism at its most disagreeable." To call "The Life and Death of Classical Music" merely "disagreeable" is exquisite English understatement.
The book combines a brief, elliptical, and discursive history of the classical record industry with a longer section describing 100 influential recordings, 85 of which were made between 1950 and the present. The choices were culled from e-mailed suggestions from readers, but Mr. Lebrecht confesses that he finds recordings before the 1930s unlistenable, and only five of these make his top 100 list. If the classical CD is dead, why provide a buyer's guide? In a book that aims at historical subject matter, why decry the continued — and deserved — best-selling status of Maria Callas and Glenn Gould as an "alarming trend, the mark of a doomed civilization that worships its dead"? A final section, "Madness: 20 recordings That Should Never Have Been Made," adds extra decomposing and scavenging, certainly not worship.
Mr. Lebrecht stresses he chose "influential" recordings for his top 100, thereby avoiding questions of quality and musical taste. On page 159, we are informed that no recording by conductor Karl Böhm will be included, yet on page 184 a recording of Strauss's music conducted by Böhm makes the list. On page 301, the contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink is scorned for having "warbled long past" her prime, but two pages later, the same singer is lauded for her so-called "microtimed rubato" in a late recording.
Mr. Lebrecht's purported examination of how classical recordings were killed by corporate takeovers is hijacked by a number of flaws, some of them literary. He refers to the singer Kathleen Ferrier's "organic contralto," whatever that may imply. Readers who think the author might mean "organ-like" will be disappointed to see the word "organic" reused a few pages later to describe early music virtuosos, equally bafflingly. English syntax suffers in this book from sentences such as "Decca landed months later in Chicago Georg Solti," and "Gelb in hubris was a sight to behold," making parts of "The Life and Death of Classical Music" read like a slapdash translation from an unspecified foreign language.
Even musicians admired by the author are described sneeringly. The tenor Enrico Caruso was "short, fat, and ugly," and British contralto Kathleen Ferrier was "devoid of beauty, brilliance, or sexual appeal." Perhaps in reaction to American political correctness, Mr. Lebrecht refers to Sony's directors as "hard-hat techno-Japs" and bizarrely tells us about the recording producer John Culshaw and conductor Georg Solti: "There was no male rivalry between them, since Culshaw was gay and Solti aggressively heterosexual."
The section "Madness: 20 recordings That Should Never Have Been Made," poses even more problems. Mr. Lebrecht claims that he aspires to point out "things that can go wrong when we aspire to the highest." Yet his list of 20 low points includes a recording of Schubert's "Winterreise" from 1963 by the musically insightful tenor Peter Pears, and the composer Benjamin Britten. Mr. Lebrecht states the obvious, that Pears's voice sometimes seemed to emerge from his sinuses, but he falsely adds that Pears's command of the German language was "imprecise." Mr. Lebrecht has been labeled a contrarian, or someone whose views challenge conventional wisdom. Yet his writings on music — semiliterate tabloid-style polemics, as if about warlords, crooked politicos, and other criminals — fit another dictionary definition, since they "despise or undervalue art, beauty, and spiritual value." The word is philistine.
Mr. Ivry last wrote for these pages on Kurt Vonnegut.