Norman Lebrecht’s writings repeatedly reveal a man-eating tiger and a fluffy pussycat. On the one hand is the fearless seeker after truth, armed cap-à-pe with finely honed but often harsh and wounding judgements. And then there’s the soft, loving, almost sentimental Norman whose prose, wreathed in literary smiles, will melt the hardest of hearts. His novel The Song of Names (2002) was a touching story about an incomparably gifted violinist whose capacity to make time itself stand still seemed to take sustenance from the roots of traditional Jewish mysticism. Saved from sentimentality by a vivid prose style, and the ingenious linking of past and present, the novel won its author a Whitbread prize. But Lebrecht has a tendency to ruffle fur and feathers as often as he soothes them. The cheeriest of doomsayers, this Father Time of the classical music business has swung his journalistic scythe at many of today’s top musical managers and maestri; his book on the decline and fall of the record industry concluded with typically bravura summaries of what he regarded as twenty of the worst recordings ever made. The confidence Lebrecht shows in his own judgements can be breathtaking, sometimes revealing as much about his own preoccupations as about the topics on which they are bestowed.
Prominent among his lifelong obsessions is the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler. Lebrecht’s earlier Mahler book, an anthology of first-hand memories of Mahler published in 1987, had an introduction headed ‘Seeking Gustav Mahler’; in the new book, the quest is ratcheted up to become ‘Desperately Seeking Mahler’. Essentially a biography