THE MAESTRO MYTH Great Conductors And the Pursuit of Power By Norman Lebrecht Birch Lane. 380 pp. $22.50

NORMAN LEBRECHT's expose of the business aspects of orchestral conducting is likely to be the most widely read "classical music" book of the year. This is partly for the reason that it focuses more on the personalities, ambitions, vanities, rivalries and greed of the highest-profile maestros of the moment than on their actual music-making. The other parts are that Lebrecht's readings of character are shrewd, his assessments of talents and skills are on the whole not far from the mark, and his presentation is lively, whether the subject is a maestro (Stokowski "put the con into conducting"), a concert agent (his power was in "growing the best grapevine"), or an orchestral musician (" 'I don't know what he's conducting. We're playing the Pastoral' ").

The professional conductor, or conductor only, is a creation of the late-Wagner period. His school was the Central European opera house, where, as a repetiteur and orchestral assistant, he learned the performance traditions and routines of 70 or so operas at an early age and at first hand. The decline of the art can be attributed to the neglect of this system -- the perforced neglect in less musically developed lands -- in favor of the more general but less practical education of college or conservatory. Lebrecht's account of this shift covers such concomitant factors as the vitiating effects on orchestras of guest conductors and absentee music directors, and the dangers to musical culture of monopolizing artist managements and their mass-marketing, consumerist goals. But most readers will wish to proceed immediately to cases.

The career of the late Herbert von Karajan, "the music director of the world" and "the richest musician who ever lived" -- his estate has been estimated at half a billion dollars -- is the referential center of the book. Lebrecht quite plausibly regards him as a continuation of Hitler. "In his own mind he was Hitler," a recording industry chief asserts, and, according to one of his record producers, "he filled that void left by the death of Hitler in that part of the German psyche which craves for a leader." What can be said for certain is that Karajan applied to join the Nazi Party in Austria on the first day that this became possible (April 8, 1933), joined again in Germany three weeks later, and was rapidly advanced in the Third Reich, at one time with the help of Hermann Goering, as a new "Wunder." During the war he conducted in the Occupied Countries (a concert in Paris included the Horst Wessel song), and in Berlin until late February 1945. What puzzles the reader is that Karajan's past as a fervent Nazi was never an obstacle to his 40-year, post-war reign, including his 1955 American tour.

Karajan's vindictiveness is shown in his boast that the Berlin Senate "would never dare" to exercise its right to invite Leonard Bernstein to cross "Checkpoint Herbie," and in his having "blocked the path to Berlin" of the "Kosher Nostra" -- Daniel Barenboim ("the brains of a brilliant group" that "came snapping at both of Karajan's Achilles heels"), Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta. During a 1980s rehearsal in which everything went wrong, Karajan told his Berlin orchestra: "Gentlemen, do you know what I'd like? To tie a rope around all of you, pour gasoline on you and set you on fire." He later repeated this horrifying "jest" in a documentary film, not, of course, as an example of his monstrous imagination and the orchestra's abject servility, but of his "intimate" relations with the players.

Lebrecht quotes certain unidentified "collaborators" of the Generalmusikdirektor to the effect that "the homosexual part was very strong in Karajan, and almost certainly active," and he attributes "homoerotic inclinations," and more than inclinations, to other conductors. But while deploring "homophobia" in the music world of the past -- Dmitri Mitropoulos "was crucified for his sexuality rather than his musicality" -- he does not scruple to repeat Thomas Beechman's notorious quips about Benjamin Britten as "homo, sweet homo," and about post-war Covent Garden -- in which "unnatural vice" was rampant and the conductor John Pritchard was "a gay favourite" of the managing director -- as having become "The Twilight of the Sods."

Lebrecht's version of the dismissal of Barenboim as artistic director-elect of President Mitterand's $600 million white elephant, the Opera Bastille, blames the scandal on the personal animus of Pierre Berge, a "brilliant entrepreneur," friend of minister of culture Jack Lang, and "the legendary lover of Yves Saint-Laurent . . . He and Yves owned a house in the high-class homosexual resort of Marrakech." Berge disliked Barenboim's "plans and personality," but sympathy was on the side of the conductor until the size of his salary was leaked to the press, and until he accepted the directorship of the Chicago Symphony, making clear that his ambition was "to hold two overpaid dictatorships at one and the same time." By "grabbing greenbacks" in Chicago, Barenboim "confirmed in French minds everything Berge insinuated."

Not sex but money is music's "last taboo," Lebrecht goes on, reminding us that only recently Joan Peyser's "prurient biographies of Boulez and Bernstein" revealed "everything she could discover of their sexual proclivities and, in Bernstein's case, activities," but "did not discuss what they earned and what they owned." The Maestro Myth, citing the Freedom of Information Act, discusses both, telling us that the salary of New York's Kurt Masur is "over $700,000," that Mstislav Rostropovich, who "flails about tubbily when working the Washington rostrum," earns $687,000, or did in 1986, when he paid no taxes and "ran the orchestra into a four million dollar deficit," that Lorin Maazel's $1 million Pittsburgh salary is a mere perk compared to the $4.5 million he reportedly receives from the Bavarian State Orchestra (the second of his three music directorships), and that even the "lackluster" and "early burnout" Andre Previn can "expect to make two million dollars in an average year." "The post-Karajan conductor," Lebrecht writes, "has three homes, drives a red Rolls-Royce or Lamborghini, collects Henry Moores . . . is clued into every conceivable tax dodge" and "has common interests with oilmen, stockbrokers and corporate lawyers."

Lebrecht's jolliest chapter is devoted to the "Semi-Conductors," meaning Christopher Hogwood, "bachelor" and "Cambridge antiquarian," Roger Norrington, an "unprepossessing provincialist," and other British exponents of the "fringe culture" of "authenticity." The early music bandwagon began to roll in "post-industrial societies that were discovering wholewheat bread . . . and open-toed sandals. Bespectacled, pallid figures . . . plucked from the college library or organ loft" set out "to perform exactly what the composer wrote . . . on the instruments and in the style of his time." The results were "distinctly painful to sensitive ears," but the movement came to grief for the different reason that its missionaries began to encroach on "maestro territory" (mid-19th-century repertory) without maestro qualifications.

Lebrecht admires the "mavericks" Carlos Kleiber ("the most explicit and visible beat of any living conductor") and Klaus Tennstedt (" 'neither you nor he knows for sure that he will reach the podium without tripping, or that he will manage to conduct a whole movement. Then he does it, brilliantly.' "), as well as four young conductors (born after 1950) who have already become music directors: Riccardo Chailly (Amsterdam), Esa-Pekka Salonen (Los Angeles), Simon Rattle (Birmingham), and Franz Welser-Most (the London Symphony Orchestra). BUT THE treatment of many others is hard-hitting. Colin Davis's term at Covent Garden was "the longest and least edifying in the house's history." Claudio Abbado, Karajan's successor in Berlin, is "a great musician, but a feeble human being" -- or so Lebrecht allows an orchestra player to say without qualifying the remark. Zubin Mehta is charged with presiding over "the decline of two great orchestras" (New York and Israel), and Seiji Ozawa with Boston's drop "out of the creative frontline . . . Boston, in the 1990s, barely holds its place among the Big Five U.S. orchestras." Ozawa's huge salary is "paid into a company . . . in a legal dodge aimed at paying less in taxes to Uncle Sam. After thirty years at the head of North American orchestras, his English is . . . barely functional."

Lebrecht's tongue-twisting, non-existent forms of familiar words ("virtuosically," "catalizator") are minor deterrents. His razzle-dazzle, relentlessly alliterative style and over-the-top exaggerations are adjuncts to his message about corruption, which is that even in the pursuit of high art "principled men perished and the morally flexible waxed exceedingly rich."

Robert Craft's many books on musical matters include the recent collection of essays, "Small Craft Advisories."