Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Not to Read This Summer

In a field already over-crowded with books about Gustav Mahler, and with Oxford University Press’ updating of Henry Louis de la Grange’s monumental four-volume biography of Mahler, one wonders why it is necessary to have another general biography of the composer.

The first question that comes to mind when I look at music critic Norman Lebrecht’s new book, Why Mahler? is indeed: Why this book? The book contributes nothing new to the study or knowledge of Mahler, the man or his music. The biographical portion of the book is nothing more than a synopsis – perhaps rehashing is a better word - of more detailed biographies of Mahler. Discussion of the nine symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde, and the songs sheds no new insight into the music.

Worst of all is the chapter, A Question of Interpretation, one that ostensibly introduces worthwhile interpretation of Mahler recordings. Once again, this is nothing more than Mr. Lebrecht irresponsibly airing out his personal biases. A few examples of Mr. Lebrecht’s choice phrases include, “David Oistrakh leads an exemplary Moscow concert in 1967, only to run into a Galina Vishnevskaya squall”, or saying, “Pierre Boulez perversely ignores subjective meaning, giving an analytical presentation of great clarity and no penetration, a dehumanized Mahler…” Even more sweeping are statements from, “Georg Solti does sonic spectaculars of immediate impact and little lasting interest,” to “There are many no-nos in Mahler: These are just a few of the worst.”

Occasionally he drops the name of a famous musician that he knows, such as Leonard Bernstein, that great Mahlerian, as if that fact gives him the legitimacy to be a Mahler expert. According to Lebrecht, some conductors can do no wrong. Apparently conductor Klaus Tennstedt “was an inspiration in all he said and did.” Others are summarily dismissed with off-handed and irresponsible comments like, “Giuseppe Sinopoli, with the Philharmonia, refused to let the Resurrection rise.” A video of a performance by Zubin Mehta’s on top of Mount Masada is considered by Mr. Lebrecht to be, “a sorry piece of political showboating.” Even his good friend Maestro Bernstein did not escape Mr. Lebrecht’s poisoned pen, with the statement, “Bernstein flubbed it, three times”, when discussing recordings of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Reading this book reminds me of Jean Sibelius’ statement admonishing us not to pay attention to the words of music critics, “A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.” It appears that Mr. Lebrecht sees himself as somewhat of an iconoclast. In his other books, The Maestro Myth, Who Killed Classical Music?, and When the Music Stops, the critic sets out to destroy the reputation of some of our generation’s greatest musicians. But while he is effective at destroying, his efforts at contributing to our musical knowledge are often far from satisfactory. When he pretends to be a musical scholar, such as he does here, the result is a book such as Why Mahler? It is interesting that all the inevitable quotes from favourable reviews for the volume are quotes from his fellow critics, taking care of one of their own.

Paper should have been saved for books far more enlightening or inspiring and, if not, at least entertaining. Danielle Steel would have been a better read…

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