Gilbert Kaplan Welcome back to “Mad About Music” as we open our new season with a guest who is surely the most controversial and arguably the most influential journalist covering classical music, Norman Lebrecht.
From his perch in London he has covered and uncovered the classical music world in his full-page weekly column in the Evening Standard which through the internet is must-reading around the world.
Unlike most music journalists, he almost never reviews concerts, concentrating on reporting on the organizations and the people managing – or as he often sees it, mismanaging – the classical music world as well as the stars who dominate this culture. All this with a sensibility normally associated with a political reporter, even a police reporter. Over the years he has broken one story after another, always with stylish writing and an unflinching narrative. But in spite of his track record, he is sometimes accused of going too far, seeing complicated matters only in black and white, and sometimes just being plain wrong. But no one denies the impact he has on the industry. He was the first to predict the demise of the major classical record companies – now documented in his recently released book The Life and Death of Classical Music, an earlier book, The Maestro Myth, was the first to probe the skills, the money, the power – even the sexual preferences of our leading conductors. Norman Lebrecht, welcome to “Mad About Music”.
Norman Lebrecht It’s terrific to be here.
Kaplan So, after your newspaper articles, your earlier books predicting the demise of the classical record business, comes the nail in the coffin: your latest book published, The Life and Death of Classical Music, by which you really mean, the classical record business. So, to begin with, let’s have some facts. Document for me in the most succinct way you can, the picture of the demise of this industry.
Lebrecht That’s really quite easy. Twelve years ago, there were six major international groups, putting out seven hundred new classical releases a year. Today, only two of those groups are still active: Deutsche Grammophon-Decca, which is Universal, and EMI, and they, between them, are producing fewer than one hundred new recordings a year, of which more than half are crossover. In other words, not classical at all; they are either movie soundtracks, or they are quasi-classical or they’re good-looking young girls without any musical training, or they’re blind tenors who come from the pop world. They’re anything but classical. So, what is left is really a very, very thin trickle where there was once a healthy stream. And it’s not a minor problem. It is really critical for the future of classical music, that we have lost the record industry because this was our major surviving medium. Classical music doesn’t appear on television anymore. In the United States, increasingly, it’s being driven from radio as well. The newspaper space has shrunk; education – it hasn’t existed in public education for two generations. So, the only way that people can get to know about classical music and know about the artists of classical music was through this medium of the record industry.
Kaplan Well, it’s not quite as black and white, in my view, as you paint it and I mean even accepting the general premise that in the classical record companies they are in serious decline. In your book, you blame the record companies for this. Isn’t the problem really beyond management? I mean, if blame is to be placed, I would say it must be more on the composers who have written so much new music that so few people want to listen to and when you combine that with the fact that the music people do want to listen to is in such oversupply, you know you can find as many as 100 or more different CDs available for each of the major works. It’s a real problem, in the market though, but you blame the management.
Lebrecht Well, I think the management was instrumental in it. Yes, you’re right, the objective trends were away from classical music. It’s no secret that the main stream of classical music turned against the audience in the period after the Second World War. Part of the reaction, the response to the horrors of the Second World War, was that all the cultural past has to be put to one side and we will reinvent it from scratch. It was the zero hour mentality, and a lot of composers wrote stuff that they believed in very fervently, but that wasn’t easy on the ear, and the audiences just fled in horror. Obviously, there is no market for that on record. But there were periods in the evolution of the industry where it seemed to be on the point of re-inventing itself; it seemed to be prepared to engage with different types of music. And what happened was that as the industry became more and more corporately owned, it became more and more subject to corporate disciplines. And so the ultimate decisions were being made by people in Hollywood and in New York who had no interest whatsoever in classical music and who saw that it was amounting to only one or two percent of their turnover, and at a certain point, they said, why bother, let’s just switch it off. That really caused the collapse.
Kaplan But I think anyone who is responsible for a major corporation would conclude these were correct decisions. I mean - who in their right mind running a major company would want to be in a business where the new things you produce don’t sell and the old music is already in oversupply. Boutique companies – yes. Orchestras making their own recordings – sure. We’ll no doubt return to this topic again in this show, but now I think it’s time we take a look at your fascinating and rich list of musical selections. And the first one, I gather, is an example of what you must regard as a great recording, at a time when the business was still golden.
Lebrecht Was still very young! This is the 1930s. The serious business of recording really only began in the 1920s, with the coming of electric recording. What was there beforehand was almost a gimmick, a little novelty that you used in the household. Listening to music without pain on a record began with electric recording. And, the last of the great artists to succumb to the lure of recording, the lure which came with a pretty substantial check, was the Austrian pianist, Artur Schnabel, who was more than just a pianist. He was a composer, he was a philosopher, he had re-edited the whole of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, and he didn’t want any truck with the business of recording. And every time they came to him, he said, “No, no, no, I need to have an audience in front of me; I need to communicate with people.” And when he finally succumbed, after the Wall Street crash, which had wiped him out, he said, “Look, I’m going to do this on two conditions. Firstly, I don’t want these records to be sold in Europe, where I have my mainstream audience, because I don’t want them to confuse my records with myself. I’d like them to introduce me to America, but in a very particular way. They’re going to be sold on a subscription edition, so that I have the name and address of everybody who owns my recordings, and when I sit down and play the piano, I have an image of them in front of my eyes. I know who I’m playing for, and I know what I’m playing.” And the way that he played was a kind of counter-philosophy of recording, not the perfectionism at all, but inspired and improvisatory, and full of wrong notes. And yet, when one listens to these recordings today, to the thirty-two piano sonatas, when one listens as we are now, to the “Hammerklavier”, one actually exults at the wrong notes, at the sheer humanity and the freedom with which he plays these recordings, so different from so many of the mechanical, almost robotic artists that we’ve seen in recent times.
Kaplan An excerpt from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29, the “Hammerklavier” performed by Artur Schnabel, the first selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, music journalist and author of the just released book, The Life and Death of Classical Music, Norman Lebrecht. So let’s continue to examine the consequences of the decline of the major classical record companies. For me, the most important question is: Who cares? Does this really affect the vast majority of music lovers: the consumers? Boutique labels are growing, a budget company like Naxos manages to release hundreds of new records each year. Orchestras are starting their own labels and, of course, all the music people want is available with hundreds of different versions on CD already, not to mention the download market is exploding. So I return to my question, who is really hurt by the decline of the major classical record companies?
Lebrecht The art is hurt by it, and it’s hurt in the worst possible place, in the seat of quality. What the classical record industry provided at the time when it flourished, was a quality benchmark. And art is quality. Everything else around us in the world is quantity. There is so much that we can choose from. We need guidance; it provided guidance. To lose that means that we enter an era of almost a blogesphere of classical music, where anybody can put out their own recordings. But there is no filter. There is no editorial guide to tell you what’s good and what’s ordinary.
Kaplan Well, on the quality issue, you are of course aware that orchestras are releasing records on their own label, this is the kind of blogeshere I think you referred to. But if you look at orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra and the Concertgebouw, they are winning awards for their records each year and I suspect it will not be long before most orchestras start to release their own records. As far as guidance goes, there are endless critics reviewing records, critics such as yourself and this brings me back to your book, because it is not just an analysis of the industry. You take a look back and offer your view on what were the hundred best and the twenty worst recordings ever made. Lists are always fun, popular, so let’s take a look at yours, and let’s start with the worst record. This is Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, the “Double Concerto” with Jascha Heifetz performing, surely one of the greatest fiddlers ever. But here he records the first violin part, and then he overdubs in the second violin part, so he’s playing both parts. Might have been an interesting idea, but it winds up on your list as the single worst recording in history. So, let’s talk about that.
Lebrecht As one of the twenty worst, it’s very easy…
Kaplan Oh, I thought they were ranked.
Lebrecht No, no, they’re ranked chronologically. This was the oldest of the worst! It’s very easy to make a bad record. Anyone can. It’s very easy to make a dull record. What I was trying to list here, among the twenty worst recordings, are very, very bad recordings that were made with the best of intentions. And you can see so easily how this came about. Here are the guys at RCA, and they’re sitting around a table, and they’re saying, “We have on our books under contract, the greatest violinist that ever lived, his name is Jascha Heifetz and he is at least ten percent greater than any other violinist we’ve heard. Why don’t we get him to record the Bach Concerto for Two Violins, not just the lead part, but the second part as well, playing against himself?” And that is what they did. He recorded it and then he played a second tape against what he had previously recorded. It sounds incredibly stiff and really rather uninteresting, but more than that, it defeats the purpose of the piece, because the purpose of the piece is communication between two live individuals. It is, if you like, a little bit like romance. When you have romance between two people, as is intended in the Bach “Double Concerto”, then you have something really rather wonderful, and very, very close to the purpose of life. When you have it between one person alone in a room, it’s rather sad.
Kaplan Well, I see that you have the same work, though, on your list to play today, obviously with two people you think are communicating, so tell us about your next selection.
Lebrecht It’s the Adagio of the Bach “Double Concerto”, played by the great Russian Jewish violinist, David Oistrakh, and his son, Igor. And this is, if you ever want an example of human communication across the generations, this is it. This is father and son, playing together, playing with and against each other, neither actually deferring to the other, but making music as conversation and argumentation, and you know how difficult it is to communicate across generations, to talk to your own children and to have your children talk to you in a way that you achieve perfect understanding, and something very, very close to that happens in this performance of the Bach “Double”, by the Oistrakhs, father and son.
Kaplan An excerpt from the second movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, performed by father and son, David and Igor Oistrakh, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by Eugene Goossens, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music”, journalist and author of The Life and Death of Classical Music, Norman Lebrecht. Now I’d like to return to what I at least regard as the single biggest factor in the collapse of the major record companies classical business, new music’s failure to find a large enough audience. You once described this in a rather charming way, I thought, in one of your newspaper articles, as a problem because the creators of music, the composers, had broken the compact with the consumer, the listeners. So who among today’s composers have not broken that compact and will endure? Do we have a Mozart in our own time?
Lebrecht All the way along there have been good composers, and some of those who are writing today are writing music that is as good as any new stuff that I’ve heard in twenty or thirty years. The new John Adams opera, A Flowering Tree, actually had me jumping out of my seat when I saw it in Vienna in November. Mark-Anthony Turnage is writing wonderful music. There are several composers on the European continent who are writing really exciting stuff. Interestingly, a lot of the good new music is being made here in the United States, and it’s hardly being heard, even within the United States. And pieces that I hark back to are the works of George Crumb, who wrote what was probably the first anti-Vietnam protest piece in classical music, in a string quartet, an electronic string quartet, that he called Black Angels. Somebody like William Russo is a name that doesn’t ring much of a bell. He was a Chicago musician who played both classical music and jazz, he wrote two symphonies. When the very young Seiji Ozawa got his first job in America as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, he sought out Bill Russo, and said, “Have you got anything for us to play?” And Russo turned out this piece called Street Music, which is a concerto for harmonica and orchestra, and is just blues for orchestra. It’s the most wonderful music!
Kaplan An excerpt from William Russo’s Street Music, “A Blues Concerto”, performed by the San Francisco Symphony with Seiji Ozawa on the podium and with Corky Siegel on the harmonica and piano. A selection of my guest on “Mad About Music”, journalist and author, who covers the field of classical music, Norman Lebrecht. When we return we’ll hear the “wildcard” selection of Norman Lebrecht, a section of our show regular listeners know provides an opportunity for a guest to select music from outside the classical music genre.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” today, musical journalist and author Norman Lebrecht, who no one has ever accused of hedging his opinions. And he certainly doesn’t in his latest book, just released, The Life and Death of Classical Music. You know, I wonder what your own view is of the quality of writing concerning the classical music field today.
Lebrecht I am quite concerned. It’s very tame, on the whole. There are one or two exceptions, there’s Peter Davis here in New York, and there’s Tim Page in Washington, but on the whole, the writing that I see is really safe and it’s apologetic, and it’s protective. People who write about classical music fear that the genre’s under threat, they fear the thing is slipping through their fingers. And they write criticism of performance, and that will be very, very robust; but they won’t investigate and write criticism of the management of the genre as a whole, and myself apart, there aren’t that many people who are doing that.
Kaplan Well, it’s an interesting way to put it. You know we talked before about so many composers and performers. Let’s talk about you in music. What is your own background in music? Did you ever study an instrument?
Lebrecht I studied piano and violin as a child, as a boy. I was very, very bad at it. I had very poor brain-hand coordination, and very poor left-right coordination, partly because I have difficulty telling left from right! But as a very, very small boy, I could harmonize practically anything by ear; I probably have perfect pitch. And I’ve always sort of felt music in my bones, it has always mattered to me more than any other art form, so I’ve listened to everything and I continue to listen to everything. I was on some BBC panel a few weeks ago, with a hip-hop artist and a member of a pop group, and they were calling me “elitist” and all sorts of other names, and I said “Hey! I probably listen to a wider range of music than anybody in this room!”
Kaplan You know, you were talking before about your eclectic tastes in music, and that’s a very nice introduction into that part of our show we call the “wildcard,” where you have a chance to pick something from outside the classical music or opera genre, and I think I’ve shared with you some of the various picks we’ve had on this show, and I’m counting on you to deliver something very original today. What did you bring us?
Lebrecht Oh, I had such trouble with this! At least three sleepless nights! You know, one goes through such a range of music that you’d like to perform, and the French satirist George Brassens who would write songs about the belly-button of the mayor’s wife, little gem-like contemplations, I would have loved to drop that in. I would have loved to drop in certain pieces of jazz, a certain – “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” or bits of Noel Coward, so many things that one listens to with immense pleasure at certain times in one’s life. But the thing that I finally nosed in on was Nina Simone, who had a tremendous quality of emotion and improvisation, and it’s the kind of music that you listen to at almost anytime in your life: a time of joy, a time of sorrow, at moments – at romantic highpoints, simply to be jolted out of your dullness. I love the way she bends the line, I love the way she can take another language which she can’t speak, as she does in this song, and make it her own language, inimitably, because nobody else can speak it or sing it in that way. And she’s singing here the Edith Piaf song, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” nobody will ever do it that way again!
Kaplan Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” sung by Nina Simone, the “wildcard” selection of my guest on “Mad About Music”, classical music reporter and author Norman Lebrecht. A wonderful “wildcard” selection, but it seems to me that in the music you’ve chosen to play today you have almost a second “wildcard” in Uri Caine’s arrangement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, “The Song of the Earth”. What is it about this arrangement that so attracts you?
Lebrecht Mahler is the center of my musical world, both as a composer and as a social commentator. He is the first composer who was able to use irony in music, and to use music as a social weapon; he provided the means for music to contend with the horrors of the twentieth century. And it’s the commentary aspect of Mahler that I find particularly fascinating. And here’s a musician – a jazz musician from Philadelphia, called Uri Caine – who actually writes a commentary upon the commentary, who superimposes a layer of himself and of his own ideas upon what Mahler has done in Das Lied von der Erde. And he, in the “Abschied”, in the final farewell movement of Das Lied von der Erde where you can practically hear a soul splitting in two and then being healed, Uri Caine finds an essence of Jewishness in Mahler, and he overlays the “Abschied” with a Jewish cantor singing the prayer for the dead, “El Malera Hamim.” And it makes a perfect fit. But in addition to that, he is also using a DJ playing keyboards and a couple of jazzmen in the background. And that whole construction is like a volume of exegesis of Mahler. It’s like somebody who has taken Mahler and applied a lifetime study to it, and produced a work out of Mahler.
Kaplan An excerpt from “Der Abschied”, “The Farewell”, from Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, “The Song of the Earth” in an arrangement for jazz ensemble and cantor by Uri Caine and sung by Aaron Bensoussan. A selection of my guest on “Mad About Music”, journalist and author about classical music, Norman Lebrecht. Now I see we come to yet another American composer on your list, Peter Lieberson, whose father, Goddard Lieberson, you write about extensively in your book as the one-time head of Columbia Records.
Lebrecht Goddard Lieberson was a unique figure. It’s hard to imagine him surviving in today’s corporate world. He was the last classical musician to head a major record company, which was then called CBS, and is now called SONY. When Goddard Lieberson – who took to signing his letters “God” - had his first big hit with South Pacific, which sold six million records, instead of saying, well let’s offer this as a dividend to our shareholders, he said, “We have a responsibility to music, we have to reinvest this in music”, and he went to his friend Igor Stravinsky and he said, “Igor, I want to sign a contract with you that we are going to record, under your supervision, every work you’ve ever written, and everything you continue to write until you die, so that we have for the first time in history, the work of a composer, performed under his guidance, complete.” Peter Lieberson, his son, is a composer, I don’t know him personally; he’s been through various vicissitudes, he started out at the atonal edge, and he’s worked his way inwards, back into tonality and he met and married a wonderful American mezzo-soprano called Lorraine Hunt, a uniquely distinctive voice, probably the most distinctive mezzo voice since our own lamented Kathleen Ferrier, who was, like Lorraine Hunt, also short lived. Lorraine Hunt died last year of cancer, and this was the last work that Peter Lieberson wrote for her. It was five settings by Neruda for orchestra; it was recorded by James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When we were talking before about contemporary music being audience-unfriendly, or alien to the public, you only have to listen to one of these songs to know that it strikes right at the very heart of human emotions, and it is sung in a way that is not just memorable, but completely unerasable. It is going to be there in the human experience for as long as there are humans on this earth.
Kaplan An excerpt from “My love, if I die and you don’t” from Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine and
sung by the composer’s wife, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson for whom these songs were composed. With a title that takes on such special meaning as she died tragically last year not long after singing the first performance. The Neruda Songs, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music”, the journalist and author about classical music, Norman Lebrecht. When we return we’ll hear Norman Lebrecht’s final selection, a recording he says that captures human history.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music”, Norman Lebrecht, the journalist and author of his just released book The Life and Death of Classical Music. Let’s now move away from composers to conductors, another favorite topic of yours, and that you’ve covered extensively in your very controversial book, The Maestro Myth. Do you agree with the assessment which seems to be prevailing today that there are fewer conductors around of really outstanding ability than there used to be?
Lebrecht If you had asked me that question ten years ago, Gil, I would have agreed with you. I don’t agree now. I’m seeing the most talented generation of conductors coming through that I’ve ever seen. When I say young conductors, I mean under thirty-five. They are bristling with talent. We’ve just seen the appointment of Gustavo Dudamel, aged twenty-six, the new principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. We have a young man of thirty-one, who is chief of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and of Glyndebourne, Vladimir Jurowski, who has started to make a name for himself in the United States. There is a young man of twenty-three, called Robin Ticciati, who is starting to make waves at Glyndebourne in England. These are a really wonderful generation coming through. And, there’s young Daniel Harding, there are several of various nationalities who are really, really exciting. They may not be, at this moment, delivering the performances that are going to last us a lifetime. But, orchestras need to be shaken up from time to time, and sometimes it is youth that shakes them up.
Kaplan Well, while you’re offering advice, how about something for Lincoln Center City Opera? They’ve just engaged one of the most controversial opera house directors, Gerard Mortier. As you know, he turned the Salzburg Festival right on its head. He’s in Paris doing controversial things. How do you think he’s going to do in the Big Apple?
Lebrecht I am so excited about this! Coming from a pluralist, multi-cultural place like London, where we have five orchestras and two opera houses, and a multitude of other things, when you come to New York and you find everything narrowed down to the one orchestra, the one opera house, the one museum for old art, the one museum for new art. It feels very, very straitjacketed and very constrained. And now, for the first time, since Hammerstein, in the first years of the 20th century, there is going to be a fight at the opera. There are going to be two managers who are culturally and intellectually antipodes. They are as different from one another as it is possible to be. Peter Gelb, who is a technical administrator, a man who’s very focused on bottom line, and how to keep things running; and Gerard Mortier, who is a cultural polymath, an intellectual, a visionary, a dreamer, a controversialist, going head to head here in New York. I can’t wait to see it happen. I’m going to be back.
Kaplan All right, while we await your return, let’s come back to your musical selections and I see your final choice involves a legendary conductor and a recording you’ve listed as the first entry in your chronological list of the best symphony recordings in history: Bruno Walter, and we’re back to Mahler again.
Lebrecht We’re back to Mahler, and we’re back to Bruno Walter, and it’s January, 1938, and it’s Vienna. And the reason I have chosen this is to show the way that a musical performance can capture the spirit of the time, of how, when it is captured on record, it can freeze that moment in time for all time to come. It’s 1938; the Nazi menace is creeping over Europe, and it is now menacing the Austrian Republic. Evil is at the gates; and Bruno Walter, who was Mahler’s protégé, has returned to Vienna to conduct his last symphony, a work that he had himself given the premiere of, after Mahler’s death, twenty-five seasons before. For that performance in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna, the whole of the Austrian cabinet, led by Chancellor Dollfuss, turned out. The composer’s widow, Alma, was in the audience. So was his daughter, Anna. The whole of the Austrian intelligentsia were there. It was one of those occasions where everybody claims to have been there. And when you listen to this performance, you hear fate and history knocking at the door. The people who are sitting there know that this may be the last performance of Mahler that they are ever going to hear, because it it’s already been banned in Germany, and if Nazism arrives in Austria, it’s going to be banned and apparently forever. This was, remember, the Thousand-Year Reich. No more Mahler for the next millennium! And Walter, with the Vienna Philharmonic, with Mahler’s brother-in-law, Arnold Rosé, still sitting in the concertmaster’s chair, he’s in his sixtieth year in that chair, conducts a performance of phenomenal intensity, much faster than people here in America will remember him doing it, and much wilder in the “Rondo-Burlesque”. Here, one hears the Devil, as Mahler encountered him, one hears the Devil, about to take hold of our lives, to take hold of civilization, to take hold of the whole world. This is admonitory music, it’s music that issues a great warning to history, “don’t let this happen!” And it’s music that captures a moment in time, and that exists on record. This is what recording has done for us. It has captured human history.
Kaplan An excerpt from the “Rondo Burlesque” movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a live 1938 performance by the Vienna Philharmonic led by Bruno Walter, the final selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, Norman Lebrecht, whose description of this recording was a riveting performance unto itself. As we now come to the end of the show, it is fantasy time. Earlier you said that you had tried the violin, you tried the piano, neither of them worked very well for you. So the fantasy question for you today is: if you could be a star in the classical music world, what would you be? Would you be a conductor? A performer? Or would you be a composer?
Lebrecht I think I’d probably be a songwriter. I love words; words are my whole life. I love the melding of words with music, I love the idea of improvisation, I love walking along a long beach, singing at the top of my voice, improvising, turning, bringing songs together - one hopes that the beach is deserted and nobody has recorded me doing it. I think I would write cycles of songs, not individual songs, but songs that –
Kaplan Pop songs?
Lebrecht No, no, songs! Why do we have to attach labels to them? A song is a song, a song is something that comes from the heart, and it comes with words, and it comes with melody, and the melody and words is important to me. Everything that I do has to have, everything that I write, has to have a certain lyricism in my ear, even if it’s just journalism. Everything flows from the tempo and the structure of the opening sentence. So, it has to be something to do with words and music. If I could find the music for some of those words, I’d be very happy.
Kaplan Wonderful, very original. Never had someone else yet on the show with that sort of fantasy aspiration. Norman Lebrecht, you’ve been a wonderful guest. We should package you in a way and send you around the world talking to younger people who so far seem alienated from classical music. If you can’t convince them, nobody can. This is Gilbert Kaplan, for “Mad About Music.”
Even the great composers had to start somewhere. Sep 5, 2018