Thursday, August 16, 2007

Life and Death

I am interested in this book by Norman Lebrecht called The Life and Death of Classical Music. It's misnamed. He's writing about the classical recording industry, which I have read is the fastest growing segment of the recording industry overall, and not about classical music per se. The people who say it's growing are talking about Bocelli, Brightman, Church, Jenkins, those types, as well as crossover records by Pavarotti, Te Kanawa, Domingo, etc. The people who say it's dead limit their numbers to legitimate classical music.

He attributes this death to capitalism. Corporations require activities to generate profits, and not very many classical recordings manage that.

There is a list of the 25 all time best selling records.
#1 is Solti's Ring cycle.
#2, #4, and #20 are the three tenors with a total of 23 million records.
#9 is a Christmas record with Pavarotti, and #15 is Neapolitan songs by Pavarotti.
#16 is Kiri's Christmas record.
#13 is Carmina Burana.
#8 is Callas in Tosca.
#25 is Caruso arias.

Only 10 out of the 25 contain no singing, and these include three different recordings of the Vivaldi Four Seasons--#3, #11 and #21.
#14 is Dennis Brain's recording of the Mozart Horn Concertos, the only Mozart in the list.
#17 is Glenn Gould's early version of the Goldberg Variations, the only Bach in the list.

Only two items are in the classical to romantic symphony tradition: Beethoven 9 and Beethoven 5. There are no Mozart, Brahms or even Tchaikovsky symphonies.

The most interesting item in the list is #22, the Dawn Upshaw recording of Gorecki's Third Symphony. This is wonderful. I enjoy this recording very much and am encouraged to see it in this list. He thinks it doesn't play in concert halls, but I saw it with the San Francisco Symphony and a Polish singer, and I thought it made an excellent impression. It seems simple, perhaps too simple for the average symphony crowd.

He says something interesting. The lists of records reviewed in Gramophone magazine every month include large numbers of vanity pressings.

Cecilia Bartoli is the second ranked diva after Maria Callas, though he gives her only 4 million. She herself says 5 million, and I've heard it go as high as 7 million. [Feb 2010 I read 8 million.] The other high selling singers are Pavarotti, Callas, Domingo and Carreras.

The list is filled out by conductors who have an unfair advantage. Virtually everything includes a conductor. I was surprised to see Toscanini only as high as #11. Karajan is #1. These are the people he is interested in, the people discussed in the main text.

He talks about his list of 100 great recordings, plus an additional list of great performers completely botching things. The latter includes the Swingle Singers, a group I rather liked.

He succeeds in rousing my curiosity to hear these. He has stories. Cecilia's early Rossini album is her only item in his list, and he may be right. Her extreme youth makes her unaware of the difficulty of what she is undertaking, and the result is an awesome casualness of phrasing.

He likes Lisa Della Casa rather more than I do, and recommends several of her recordings. Willard White's Porgy is there.

I could repeat all his stories, but perhaps you should read them yourself. Lebrecht has a weekly column here.