Music critic Lebrecht (The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring the 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made, 2007, etc.) pens an extended love letter to the composer whose majestic symphonies and brooding vocal works have become almost sacrosanct in the contemporary concert hall.
This book will appeal to Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) enthusiasts who share the author’s tendency toward unabashed hyperbole—read no further than the subtitle. Lebrecht’s penchant for exaggerating the role played by the classical music tradition in Western culture permeates this latest work, as it has throughout much of his previous writing. Yet the author’s premise is worthy of consideration: How do we account for the rise in Mahler’s popularity since Leonard Bernstein almost singlehandedly initiated a Mahler Renaissance in the 1960s? Though Lebrecht doesn’t provide a definitive answer, he does offer an ample introduction to the composer. As part biography, part gonzo journalism and part confessional, the book seems unnecessarily confusing. The most compelling sections, which chronologically trace Mahler’s biography, are tainted by Lebrecht’s decision to write in the present tense. Likewise, many of the sections within the biographical portion of the book jump to tenuously related anecdotes from the present just as the narrative settles into a more comfortable rhythm. Lebrecht writes with appealing detail, however, filling in the crevices of his subject's life with adages and impressions about Mahler conveyed through the letters and reminiscences of those who knew him. Consequently, the author richly animates Mahler as the moody, self-obsessive and tragic figure he seems to have been. The book also includes interviews with surviving family members and accounts of the author’s pilgrimages to important Mahler sites.
Lebrecht takes on a fascinating topic, but his attempt results in a disorienting formal hodgepodge.