What’s Wrong With Classical Record Reviews?February 15, 2019
“I attend at least a couple of dozen classical-music performances each year. I also read reviews of recordings and live performances, and have even dabbled in writing them. Why, then, do I find classical music reviews so frequently annoying?
It’s the vocabulary. In these reviews I often see words that I rarely see used elsewhere: scintillating, irresistible, delightful. One venerable reviewer for Gramophone magazine has used the word “beguiling” 100 times in some 900 reviews. When I read such words, I envision the poor music critic writhing in his (occasionally her) listening chair, approaching an involuntary state of aesthetic ecstasy. It isn’t a pretty image.
The vocabulary of classical music reviews is oddly codified. A conductor’s or performer’s mainstream artistic choices are “exemplary.” A laudable but undistinguished recording “has much to commend it” (especially when said reviewer is British). Performances are “revelatory,” although it’s rarely clear precisely what’s being revealed. The meaning of life? Or perhaps this is the first recording of the work that’s actually loud enough to hear?
Such reviews provoke an intense cognitive dissonance: Why use such effete words to describe music that’s so elemental?
I think reviewers use such words because—let’s face it—there’s not much left to say. A big chunk of the music they’re reviewing has been recorded dozens or hundreds of times before, and reviewed hundreds of times, often by the same small cadre of reviewers. With rare exceptions, any new performance is likely to be much like many that have come before. Murray Perahia’s most recent album features two of Beethoven’s greatest piano-sonata hits: No.29 in B-flat, Op.106, “Hammerklavier”; and No.14 in c#, Op.27 No.2, “Moonlight” (Deutsche Grammophon 479 8353). ArkivMusic.com lists as currently available at least 260 versions of the “Moonlight” and 159 of the “Hammerklavier,” by 90 different performers. Mistakes, repeats, and occasional abridgments aside, all of those recordings contain more or less the same notes.
Differences in tempo, dynamic shadings, and how (and how well) the music is recorded can of course be important, especially when those characteristics cohere into a unique personal statement, but that happens rarely. I seldom hear a new version that fundamentally changes my perspective on music I know well; qualitatively, I’ve usually heard it before. What’s left for a poor reviewer to say?
Hyperbole in reviews, then—and that codified vocabulary—reflect a deeper problem with classical music, a flaw in the culture. Too many seem to view classical as pretty background music, just the thing when having the ladies over for afternoon tea. Whatever the reason, musicians keep playing, and fans keep buying, the same familiar (mostly pretty) music, over and over, usually recorded by the same celebrity musicians. Even those who take the music more seriously too often resist anything new, including most of the music composed during the past 100 years, let alone the last decade.
Like much good art, classical music—the good stuff—is about how we occupy our time as we sit precariously on the edge of the vast, fiery pit or the dark, empty void—choose your religion. Sometimes the heaviness is explicit, as in Shostakovich’s Piano Trio 2 in e, which is about the Holocaust; sometimes less so, as in Schumann’s Davidsbundlertänze, which puts us inside the brittle mind of a brilliant young man (the composer) as he tries and fails to hold himself together. Can anyone listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet 15 in a, Op.132—or, for that matter, any of the late quartets—and think about teacups and cucumber sandwiches? But this music is not all grim. Sometimes, the thing to do at the edge of a forbidding pit is dance.
To fix the culture, classical music needs to get both more and less serious—respect the music’s seriousness, but also have more fun. Above all, it needs to get away from the idea of selling the same music over and over to hostesses of upscale brunches and the same dwindling group of aging connoisseurs.
Great new music is out there, and people are recording it. ECM New Series, which explores territory between classical and jazz, and packages older music in interesting ways, often pairing it with far newer music, is doing important and interesting work, as are a handful of other labels. Young classical composers are ignoring labels and transcending previous generations’ soul-crushing examples of academic modernist composition to make classical music that’s meaningful and fun—check out Nico Muhly’s Mothertongue (CD, Brassland HWY-018). Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet profiled by Robert Baird in the January 2018 Stereophile, pours hurricanes of fresh air into musty music parlors. On their Spontaneous Symbols, Rider presents work by Tyondai Braxton, of the experimental rock group Battles (footnote 1). It’s good! The quartet has also collaborated with Béla Fleck, Rhiannon Giddens, Joshua Redman, and Irish fiddler Martin Hayes—interesting musicians all. In July, at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, Rider was scheduled to perform with Rufus Wainwright and, the next night, with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in works by Glass, Björk, Elvis Costello, and Kate Bush.
The problem: When I checked, Spontaneous Circles was ranked 1116th in sales in the chamber-music category on Amazon. Nobody’s buying it. That’s partly our fault.
The classical reviewer’s codified vocabulary is, I think, a symptom of a deeper problem with the classical music culture. Young musicians—some of them—are doing the hard part already—they’re making music that’s serious and fresh and interesting—but most of that music is being ignored. All we critics have to do is shift our focus a little, away from classical’s staid, arthritic traditional culture toward this newer, livelier scene, and we’ll surely find that our classical reviews have much more to commend them.”