What's Wrong With Classical Record Reviews

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.—Jim Austin



Footnote 1: Spontaneous Symbols is issued by In a Circle Records, which has released music by the Silk Road Ensemble and The Knights, an "orchestral collective" that is similarly innovative.

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

Are the reviews corporeal or ethereal or hyperreal? :-) .............

dalethorn's picture

Now, now - those 3 DSP's are patented...

volvic's picture

Yes, do we really need another recording of Brahms' Requiem? I mean enough already. Yet! I was keen to hear Perahia's latest recording as I have almost all of his recordings and his approach to Beethoven's sonatas has changed and for the better, so yes enough, but every so often a great recording is released of the old masters that needs a re-visit. Likewise, I approached Bernstein's 80's Tchaikovsky recordings with a degree of skepticism, "who needs another 4,5,6" I said, "I have Mravinsky", but Bernstein's 6th was worth the effort. But new music is out there and some of it is quite beautiful. I have become hooked on Brian Eno's music and love John Tavener's and should have listened to George Walker's music earlier and will make it a priority now that he has passed. In short, bypass the latest SACD or high-res recording of Beethoven's Overtures or symphonies, take a break, (UNLESS ! It's something really TRANSFORMATIVE!), and go straight for Penderecki, Messiaen and Lutoslawski.

NeilS's picture

"...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?..."

"Differences in tempo, dynamic shadings..." for "more or less the same notes", seems to me to describe the impact of the interpretations of different soloists and conductors. These differences are not at all "rare exceptions"" and can produce striking differences in the listener's experience. A couple of examples: Sviatoslav Richter performing Schubert's B-Flat piano sonata, D. 960 versus Vladimir Horowitz, or Wilhelm Furtwangler v. Arturo Toscanini performing Schubert's unfinished symphony D. 759.

Strikes me that if a reviewer can't find anything to say in the interpretation of a classical music piece, perhaps the reviewer is in the wrong genre. I certainly wouldn't suggest Shakespeare, where they've been performing "more or less" the same words for over 400 years

Bogolu Haranath's picture

JVS already made a recommendation of one of the Penderecki recordings .......... May be JVS could do more recommendations of the recordings of the other composers volvic mentioned? .........

dalethorn's picture

I'm OK with the changes in vocabulary, but this worries me:

"To fix the culture, classical music needs to get both more and less serious..."

I don't think classical music needs to get any such thing. Much classical music, no matter how often played, is sacred stuff. And it doesn't need to be mixed with "modern stuff", although there's no problem with artists and record companies doing just that as long as it's clearly labeled. New Coke under the old label is not the original Coke, or as Capt. Kirk stated in one memorable scene "A rose by any other name doesn't smell as sweet" (referring to product or packaging).

ok's picture

along with kitsch album aesthetics, unnecessarily elitist technicalities, deadly seriousness and indiscriminate respect; just like in an antiquities museum where naturalistic marble statues and cracked urine pots are both being exhibited as indispensable works of fine art.

mauidj's picture

But more with the music being reviewed in general.
Boy do you guys ever listen to anything but the most obscure stuff?
I can see how a reviewer might have personal tastes that affect the process but some of the music choices are so far out there it can only be relevant to the reviewer.

rt66indierock's picture

I’m a little behind commenting on Stereophile articles but I had to stop and comment on this. It looks like classical reviewers are just plugging an album into a formula and out comes a review. This is the beginning of the slippery slope eventually not needing new reviews at all. Just change a few words and references in existing ones. You wouldn’t even need to listen to the album to generate a review.

Back to our regularly scheduled conflict unless you have given up.

JimAustin's picture

*Back to our regularly scheduled conflict unless you have given up.

Oh I'm definitely over it. You're wrong though. :-)

Serious classical afficionados will take serious offense: But--setting aside the extraordinary talent of anyone who can play this stuff this well--you can almost say the same thing about the recordings themselves. Which I think is the root of the problem. Imagine if there were 263 different versions of "Gimme Shelter." How many would you own? (OK, some people own almost that many, and they are even more similar. Never mind.)

The classical folks love those small distinctions--just like us audiophiles. That's OK, but in music, there's a wider world, of people doing interesting stuff. It may not pass the elitist test, but it's way more lively. So it's a choice: Continue to cater to the classical in-crowd, which sweats over the latest Beethoven 9 or Hammerklavier, hoping for something new and transformative ("beguiling!") in the old music, or it can get a life.

As I write this, I am aware that similar arguments could apply to audiophilia.

jca

rt66indierock's picture

I’ll bet my friend Andrew Quint could indefinitely tweak his classical reviews and nobody would know the difference. As for Gimmie Shelter I own four versions: Let it Bleed, Keith Richard lead vocals bootleg, Grand Funk Railroad and Stone Sour.

I would be the first to admit I don’t listen to recorded classical music very often. Modern classical music is called “new music.” New music is great fun live. Perhaps classical reviewers haven’t thought to check it out because of the name?

dalethorn's picture

"....hoping for something new and transformative ("beguiling!") in the old music..."

The music didn't change, the listener did. Maybe change the room, and the music will seem more interesting. Just an idea...

JimAustin's picture

* New music is great fun live. Perhaps classical reviewers haven’t thought to check it out because of the name?

Right. Used to call it "third wave" or simply "downtown", since that's the place in the city (as opposed to Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center) where it was usually heard. Some now-very-famous musicians got their start there: La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley. And then there's Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, John Cale, Sonic Youth. ... Those earlier musicians are now part of the usual reviewer canon, more or less; they get reviewed in mainstream classical publications (the more accessible, traditional ones anyway; haven't seen a Laurie Anderson or John Zorn review in Gramophone lately). That scene still exists, concentrated (like everything else) mainly in Brooklyn. I'd like to see it get more attention.

Oh, and as for the "wrong" comment, I meant in our previous debate. :-)

ok's picture

a key figure of modern NY minimalism, the late Glenn Branca.

rt66indierock's picture

It would be hard for you know if I was wrong in our previous debate. There is a financial concept called information asymmetry which is the uneven distribution of information between two parties in a transaction. In the case of MQA I have more information than you.

JimAustin's picture

Ha! Right. Put up or shut up. Although I think you've already tried and failed.

Pretty crazy that CC is now portraying himself as some sort of MQA moderate. What a loon.

I will not be pursuing this here, in this inappropriate place.

rt66indierock's picture

Okay see my second to last post on the Vaporware thread.

Not crazy at all that Chris is taking a moderate view. The current moderate view is liquidate MQA Ltd.

And feel free to pursue any MQA discussion you want on MQA is Vaporware.

dalethorn's picture

"The current moderate view ....." is explained by the famous syllogism: "There are 3 kinds of people - those that make things happen (Stuart), those who watch things happen (us), and those who wonder what happened (CC)."

Robin Landseadel's picture

Which reminds me—how many sopranos does it take to change a lightbulb?

Three. One to make the attempt, the second to pull out the chair from underneath her and a third to say:

"I could have done better than that!"

Long-time listener's picture

I no longer read Gramophone, BBC music, or the American Record Guide. Even though they are useful in alerting me to new releases, their commentary on the music no longer seems useful. I remember once reading a review of Martinu's six symphonies by Bryden Thomson. The reviewer had never heard Martinu's symphonies before, and admitted as much; the review was useless to me. I had heard several versions and could only be amused the he was the reviewer and not me. How many reviewers are capable of judging whether some new recording does in fact show significant differences relative to earlier ones? The best thing to do is sort out, over time, which reviewers are actually commenting usefully on the music, and which ones have tastes similar to yours. For me right now, a few of the serious listeners on Amazon serve well enough.

Your contention that basically the same notes are being played over and over, with little difference, seems similar to those who claim that "amps is amps" or that only speakers show any significant differences in sound quality. How closely are they (or you?) listening? Remy Ballot's view of tempo in Bruckner, notwithstanding other conductors whose tempos have been quite slow, is in fact significantly new. His reading of the 3rd symphony does in fact approach the territory of "revelatory," but the use of that term has, as you note, been devalued. Even readings that fall short of being revelatory are significantly different, and even those slight differences can make the difference between an ordinary and a spiritual experience.

We need reviews of the reviewers, people who can help us sort out the hidebound rantings of idiots like Vroon in ARG.

I do agree it's sad that many classical listeners, amazingly, can't seem to understand Stravinsky or Bartok, much less anything further afield or more modern.

JimAustin's picture

Your contention that basically the same notes are being played over and over, with little difference, seems similar to those who claim that "amps is amps" or that only speakers show any significant differences in sound quality. How closely are they (or you?) listening?

Your analogy is sound; your conclusion (IMO) isn't. Audiophile orthodoxy is that small changes can make a big difference. That has, unfortunately, been tweaked to suggest that EVERYTHING makes a difference (implied: big). That's just not true. Look, reviewing is hard if you do it well. Nobody gets it right every time. But the point should always be--again, my opinion, my esteemed colleagues may disagree--to say what matters. It will always be a personal viewpoint: That's the nature of subjective reviewing. The goal, though, is not to draw attention to every tiny difference but to listen closely and decide which differences are musically important. Cheers.

Robin Landseadel's picture

The problem is obvious—most classical music fans aren't all that musically literate, most classical music critics can't or won't write about music in a mode that addresses musical issues. As a typical, unschooled, classical music fan, this all came crashing down on me at various recording sessions where I was the recordist, and the musicians were making requests I couldn't fulfill because I was, essentially, musically illiterate. Can I read bar 18 of this Telemann chamber work? No, and I'm not looking at the music either, fat lot of good that would do me.

At the time, I was married to a musically literate woman. The question would always be "Can't you read that?" Because, as an oboe virtuoso, reading music was burned into her thought processes. How many audiophiles luxuriating in Scheherazade or Pictures at an Exhibition have the music in front of them? How many have ever had that music in front of them? One might say music is a universal language. I say bullocks.

"Classical Music" as a "thing" in these United States is not due to some sort of natural musical development, like Be-Bop or Bluegrass. It was imposed via educators from the old countries, attempting to impress their idea of culture on this foreign and rough land. Germans, mostly, explaining the Germanic cast of the Central Repertoire. There's no reason to believe that this mode of music making will continue, the ground constantly shifts under our feet. When I started listening to Classical music as a daily diet, the Beethoven Bicentennial was in effect, flooding the market with cheap reissues of core performances. Mahler was still getting off the ground. Now Mahler is as standard as standard repertoire ever gets. The furthest reaches of "New Music" seems to involve a lot of the same "throw it at the wall and see if it sticks" aesthetic one finds in "Free Jazz", music that serves more an indicator of the sense of superiority auditors of said music hold than anything like musical progress.

And after Schnabel and Annie Fischer and Kempff and Arrau, do I really need another set of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas? To keep on my shelf for years, taking up space? Will I listen to that new set as many times as I've already heard Schnabel's good intentions and missed notes? Wouldn't I rather be listening to the new Beck or Lady Gaga? After all is said and done, don't I have better things to do with my time than obsess over the same stuff for what seems like forever?

volvic's picture

Great insights Robin Landseadel, yes, I used to when I was younger "read" along with the music when listening to Mozart or Beethoven sonatas, don't anymore, too much work. In regards to the Beethoven sonatas, I feel the same way, have Barenboim's two box sets, Schnabel's and Kempff's and used to think enough is enough, how many times are you going to hear them again. But I listen to those Gilels recordings that he made just before his untimely death and the performances are world's apart from the other masters and so beautiful that it made them difficult to ignore. I am convinced had he finished the complete set his would have been THE Beethoven box set to have. All that to say that every so often there are interpretations of the old standard repertoire that really makes us notice, but I agree those are very few and far apart and we should move forward and seek new composers and new music.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I've got a couple of the stand-alone LPs from that set, and yes, there's plenty going on there. Gilels' performances of Brahms' Piano Concerti are my current favorites. However, the real problem here is that there is a superabundance of such performances, that there is so much past that the present has to catch up with. Gilels' performance of Beethoven's op. 101, #28 in A major piano sonata is one of many great versions of this great music. Interestingly enough, Schnabel's performance of this sonata is usually cited as one of the pianist's failures. The Naxos transfers are good enough that one can hear that Artur Schnabel's recording might be rhythmically eccentric, but it does manage to hang on to the rails anyway.

volvic's picture

Such great performances from Gilels. Listen also to his Trout Quintet with the Amadeus, untouchable, why would you need another version. But so true about so many performances. Will have to re-listen to my Schnabel performances again. Again shows that there are different performances that are different enough to warrant purchase but as you and the author rightfully say there are so many that spending too much time might not be wisest use of limited resources. So much great music, such little time.

JimAustin's picture

Love Gilels. Will give those a close listen. Thumbs up.

volvic's picture

Just make sure the A/C is turned off so you can thoroughly enjoy the performances ;) As I type, I remember a Gramophone reviewer in 1985 writing a poignant yet slightly angry obituary of Gilels, how his premature death robbed us of that never finished Beethoven cycle. I think of that article often when I play his Beethoven sonatas. Enjoy!

johnnythunder's picture

It's very special and at it's best, it is sometimes great great and not only a different interpretation to collect. I can single out the opus 109 and 110 as profound experiences. Lately, I've come to love Gulda's Decca set. He is faster but no less powerful or profound. I don't know...I can't say that there should be a moratorium on a conductor/orchestra/label etc. wanting to commit an interpretation for posterity to a recording. I didn't exactly think we needed Chailly's later Beethoven cycle but when I heard it I bought it because of his insight and energy and because of the stunning orchestral execution and musicianship. So have at it classical labels. We'd be complaining if the recordings stop.

volvic's picture

Interesting about Gulda was just listening to a DG box set of his Mozart piano concerti with Abbado and was struck as to how good it was. It prompted me to mutter to myself, see you say you don’t need another Mozart set, but this one is well worth it. But of course I could live without it as I have so many other interpretations. At the same time I also purchased a Ligeti recording of his Chamber Concerto conducted by Boulez that I have on cd , that was a real eye opener as to how much better it was on vinyl. I am so enjoying Ligeti these days and should push myself more to that era of music. I also got a Hindemith conducting Hindemith and that too was far better than the cd transfer from the 80’s I have. My point is I should continue to strive for Ligeti, Tippett, Hindemith and others rather than spending money on more Mozart, as good as those recordings are. As for Gilels, a few years ago I found on cd his Beethoven piano concertos with Szell at a record store, grabbed them as they are quite rare. I will always make room for Gilels, especially if new recordings are released from the vaults they way the Seattle concert was a few years ago. But buy more Beethoven concerti from current performers when there is so much other music to be discovered? I think not, I have finite resources.

JimAustin's picture

Great comment Robin. Only one thing I feel inclined to respond to, to perhaps add a bit of nuance. Reading music is a first step toward musical literacy--but from a listener's perspective there are far more important things, like the things jazz musicians know, the ones who can't read music but can play it. The kinds of things that may be technical in nature but that map on to emotional response. Start with the basics of the classical style (first chapter or two or Rosen--I forget exactly what's where) and go from there: Classical sets the stage. Heck, just understanding the blues scale and 1-4-5 is a good start, if you can map it onto music you know. (Not that the blues scale is directly relevant to most classical; I mean that this sort of conceptual thinking is relevant. And 1-4-5 is certainly relevant.) From there you can go forward or backward in time with deeper insight into what's happening. Not that understanding the technical cause of an emotional response is ever easy. You can hear the resonance in one composer, evoking something from earlier composers, whether explicitly or stylistically, and riffing on it. And--back to the topic--you can see how a particular performance brings that out, or doesn't.

The basic problem may come back to this: It's damn hard to do it well, much easier to do it badly, and there's not a lot of money in it.

Cheers.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Paradoxically, after years of obsessing over recorded classical music—so much so that I was a free-lance engineer of the stuff for about a decade and had produced/DJ-ed radio broadcasts of classical/early music for KPFA—now I'm playing that aforementioned 1-4-5 stuff [or 1-5-4 like Satan Gave Me A Taco] with others who are in a similar situation, practitioners of old-timey country and folk. A lot of blues DNA in there. Yes, there are issues of timing and "feel", of knowing that the music supports the narrative of the song [though more often than not, I'm just hanging onto the downbeat for dear life], that one has to listen to others in order to play with others.

And yeah, the Duke Ellington test always applies. Some folks can swing, get into the groove. Others? Not so much. Talent is an asset.

JimAustin's picture

Couldn't agree more. It's all about what the music communicates. What's why knowing how to play an instrument, while helpful, isn't as important as some other things. Identifying what's moving and why, making musical connections, even going out on limbs ("Here, Gilels reminds me a little of Eric Dolphy ..." :-) --that's what matters, to me at least.

Is that a new radio show you're describing, or are you actually playing that music, like, in a band? If the former, can I hear it online?

Robin Landseadel's picture

"Here, Yardbird reminds me of Jascha Heifetz . . ."

I play Guitar with a group that initially formed around Kenny Hall, a local folk musician who died a few years ago. The band kept playing anyway. Here's an example of what Kenny was up to when he was still alive, we're all still playing the same tunes in more or less the same way:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LOqhGlpMBE

JimAustin's picture

Thanks for that--I enjoyed it. Definitely some Sex Pistols influence, I'm thinking. :-)

Robin Landseadel's picture

In this particular neck of the deep woods of Americana, the analogous musicians would be "The Holy Modal Rounders" and the answer would be "NO!", seeing as Kenny intensely disliked the HMR on a personal level. Kenny was very old-school leftist, very much a musical traditionalist, someone who knew the correct version, the other versions, the correct changes for over 1000 songs and knew when you weren't playing the right melody/changes. I felt that playing with him was like playing for Bruno Walter, working with someone who was playing this music back when it was being created and capable of transmitting that old-school "vibe" when playing that music.

The Holy Modal Rounders were the weirdest part of the folk music scare of the 60's. Perhaps best known for their rewrite of an old Ray Price tune into "Do You Want to be a Bird?" [used in "Easy Rider" and probably still providing Stampfel and Weber with royalty payments], the HMR was the very first [caucasian, if you're counting all those peyote ritual songs of the southwest] psychedelic band in the USA, what with their rendition of "Hesitation Blues" back in '64. "Hoodoo Bash", featuring various Rounders, Clamtones and others, is the ultimate Happy Humboldt Hippy song. Trust me on that one.

Now that you mention the Sex Pistols, I am struck at how Johnny Rotten is so very effective at sprechstimme. I still dream of his rendition of Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon.

A bit more background. I was first hooked into classical music when I turned 13. My math/reading teacher, Mrs. Way, turned me on [so to speak] to Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. My mother had already picked up some supermarket LPs of standard rep performed by no-name orchestras and conductors, but this performance was of a very rough orchestra led by a Mad Greek—Dimitri Mitropoulos leading the NYPO. Intoxicating stuff. This was followed soon thereafter by a flood of LPs, notably the Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic LP of Sibelius tone poems, particularly Tapiola. This led directly to LP collection that is still a bit out of control.

As a recording engineer, much of the recording was of "Wet Ink" music, stuff so new, the composer hadn't actually heard it before. One of the series I recorded for radio was from a group calling itself "Wet Ink". There was a program at the Woman's Philharmonic, giving young composers their first shot at a public performance. The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra had a similar program. I've heard tons of new music. Sturgeon's Law applies here more than in any other field of endeavor I am aware of. There's plenty of 20th century art music I adore. If a critic is of any use at all, they will be able to confidently point to that 5% of new music that's really good and shout it from the mountaintops.

dalethorn's picture

I can't say with 100 percent certainty where this fits, but I found it extremely interesting about the math issues with music. The part about Irving Berlin playing the same physical keys regardless of the key he was playing in (by physically shifting the keyboard via-a-vis the strings) is quite amazing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHSv94aTTnk

John Atkinson's picture
JimAustin wrote:
Classical sets the stage. Heck, just understanding the blues scale and 1-4-5 is a good start, if you can map it onto music you know. (Not that the blues scale is directly relevant to most classical...)

Listen to the first movement of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, Jim. It's all 1-4-5!

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile
(Who blesses his grade school teachers, who insisted he learn to read music - although the alto clef has always defeated him!)

JimAustin's picture

>>Listen to the first movement of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, Jim. It's all 1-4-5!<<

Right--that's classic classical style. Most of Haydn, too. But not the the 7ths, right? So it ain't the blues!

jca

Robin Landseadel's picture

There's a variation in Beethoven's 32nd piano sonata in ragtime.

I'm just sayin'.

JimAustin's picture

Oh, yeah, Op. 111. Can't miss it. Cheers.

ken mac's picture

" 'Free Jazz', music that serves more an indicator of the sense of superiority auditors of said music hold than anything like musical progress." Perhaps keep your nose on something of which you have knowledge, classical music. Free jazz of the late 50s ala Ornette Coleman has been so absorbed into the modern mainstream as to not be free at all. Today's free jazz is adding new modes to crusty, tradition bound US jazz purveyors, most of it coming from Europe (Lisbon's Clean Feed label is prolific at releasing excellent, new free jazz or creative improvisation as it is more commonly known). It is indeed a progression, and not merely the stable of some imaginary high-minded "auditors." This is the music of life, of rough and tumble, not concert halls but joints as gritty as the East River, where Albert Ayler took his own life. The music lives on in William Parker, Milford Graves, Susie Ibarra and countless others.

JimAustin's picture

Ken, the way these comments threads are structured, it's hard to tell what you're responding to, but I finally traced it back, I think.

I like your comment that free jazz "has been so absorbed into the modern mainstream as to not be free at all." I've always found that there's some such music that feels right to me, and some that doesn't. I can't explain it--don't have the jazz knowledge to know what it is, and might not even be able to identify it even if I did. I've loved Eric Dolphy from the first time I heard him play (on record of course) with Mingus, and I love some of his solo albums, but some of his live solo stuff leaves me cold. Maybe it's that one needs a bit of structure for ... intelligibility? Not sure that's the right word when we're talking about emotional expression. Some of Ornette's live stuff is wonderful (thinking of "at the golden circle Stockholm," vols 1 and 2. As for Ayler, I can't say I know what he's up to, but I often enjoy it anyway. Love Spiritual Unity and "Swing Low Sweet Spiritual."

Anyway, for reasons I don't understand, there's free jazz I like, and free jazz I find it hard to listen to. Like some modern classical music, it can sometimes seem self-involved, like the artists are no longer interested in communicating with the audience, although that could just be my misunderstanding.

Cheers

Robin Landseadel's picture

"Like some modern classical music, it can sometimes seem self-involved, like the artists are no longer interested in communicating with the audience."

Like most modern "Classical" [I don't hear no stinkin' 'development section' here] music, most of this music can Be self-involved, the artists may not even be capable of communicating with an audience anymore. And Sturgeon's law still [always] applies. To everything.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Yeah, yeah, yeah—I've heard it!

I am very familiar with this music, including the artists you cited. You failed to cite my favorite musical irritant factor, Anthony Braxton. And you failed to note how the most impenetrable modes of so-called "Free" music don't sound all that different from the post-serial hyperserialism of over-caffeinated composers working out of their tenure at small mid-western universities. One claims to be free, the other organized past all reason, neither making much sense.

Bottom line—sounds less like music, more like an axe to grind. Yes, I've heard plenty of Ornette Coleman, Late period Coltrane, Braxton, Albert Ayler, William Parker, Sun Ra, and so on. At a certain point, it's self-indulgence to me, impenetrable noises made for the sake of being impenetrable. As far as I can tell, modern art music in general has run itself into a ditch. Eric Dolphy, that's a different matter. And really old, by now. And there's plenty of times I've been amused by Sun Ra, in large part due to those aspects that make Sonny Blount and company more rooted in traditional music, much the same can be said of Ornette Coleman. But at some point, all these musicians start blowing noise, and my mind starts looking for exit signs.

JimAustin's picture

>>And you failed to note how the most impenetrable modes of so-called "Free" music don't sound all that different from the post-serial hyperserialism of over-caffeinated composers working out of their tenure at small mid-western universities.<<

That's the crowd I was thinking of when I wrote, "previous generations' soul-crushing examples of academic modernist composition".

Cheers.

ken mac's picture

But calling it an "axe to grind" is as dimwitted as those who criticize classical cause they don't like it, or know nothing of it or are simply afraid of it. You're the typical snob, only you know what's best or better. Free jazz is about letting go of control, of preconceived notions, of flowing with the stream, wherever/whatever/whomever the source. You'd be amazed where it can take you. And it's better live, time to get out of the house. Follow your road to happiness, the exit sign, and by all means, avoid the free road not taken.

Robin Landseadel's picture

My best friend comes every week with new purchases to play on my surround-sound system. 1/4 is "Free Jazz" and it's ilk. 5% strikes me as worth the time. Another 1/4 is new "Classical" music, with about the same batting average. It's not snobbery that's driving me. It's ear-ache. This is a situation where appearing to be on top of things is more important than actually doing anything. A lot of modern conceptual art suffers from the same disease.

dalethorn's picture

"Classical Music ....... was imposed via educators from the old countries"

I see it as a higher standard of sorts, unlike the more bourgeois popular music. While it's debatable how much time, effort and money you or others would want to invest in it, I'm pretty sure that diminishing its influence further would also diminish our culture at a time when we need to raise the culture to a higher standard. I'd call it a necessary expense, even if you don't personally enjoy it.

Robin Landseadel's picture

"I see it as a higher standard of sorts, unlike the more bourgeois popular music."

There's the rub. There's class [as in class war] and then there's classical music. And they're hopelessly intertwined. This can head south real fast.

This gets into the weeds:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/may/19/die-meistersinger-von-nurn...

dalethorn's picture

Kudos to McVicar if he rescues this piece, but the article didn't really satisfy me as to why. It's almost like "why did he climb that mountain? -- because it was there."

Robin Landseadel's picture

Probably dug the tunes—and who can blame him?

ken mac's picture

I was responding to Robin Landseadel's comment re free jazz's "auditors." Talk about snobbish nonsense. I bristle when I see uninformed comments from those who should stick to what they know best.

JimAustin's picture

In my house we have a running joke, based on something my wife's grandmother used to say. When you encounter an unfamiliar flavor, you should never say "that sucks" or "I hate it." You should say instead "it's an acquire taste."

Cheers

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"You are considered talented, if you can pick an apple from an orange tree and make the best lemonade ever tasted" ......... Anonymous :-) ..........

dalethorn's picture

You can make that lemonade, but you'll need a license to sell it. Then, if you dare to list the ingredients, you'll need an FDA-approved label. And God help you if it's not pasteurized.

rschryer's picture

It isn't supposed to be an easy listen, or the sort of music that speaks directly to the listener. It's about the listener joining the artists in their frantic explorations for transcendent melodies.

I began to enjoy free jazz when I was able to slow down its process in my mind to the point I could capture those melodies before they got lost in the shuffle. In those moments when free jazz connects, I can't think of a purer, more exhilarating form of musical expression.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Let's start at the top, shall we?

"Why, then, do I find classical music reviews so frequently annoying?
It's the vocabulary."

"Hello, this is Leonard Pinth-Garnell for Bad Conceptual Theater."

I've been reading classical music reviews since long before I started to shave. Anyone who reads the stuff knows that by and large, the twee is baked in, that linguistic fastidiousness bordering on camp is damn near ubiquitous. The writing styles of William F. Buckley Jr and George Will come to mind. The best of them are aiming for Proust and missing their target. The worst of 'em have an app for that, boilerplate in software with a drop-down list of metaphorical options. Over time the "classical music connoisseur" becomes sufficiently decadent as to find oneself looking forward to the stuff. In any case, that's my excuse for having had subscriptions to Stereophile, Gramophone and Fanfare at the same time, back in the day. Not to mention regularly picking up a couple two-three UK Audio magazines that offered a sideline of reviews of new classical releases, or BBC magazine, with concert recordings attached to the cover. Not so much of that now, have you noticed? Man cannot live on promos alone, particular seeing as the majors stopped that sort of nonsense ages ago.

"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."

Yesterday I go to Rasputin music. Their 50¢ CDs are now 25¢. Two bit CDs included a harpsichord recital featuring a work by Gorecki, Henry Threadgil & Make a Move "Where's Your Cup?", a Bill Laswell Remix collection "Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated" and Stephen Kovacevich's performances of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" and "Les Adieux" piano sonatas, with an order of the op 119 Bagatelles on the side. Revelatory? Not quite, but really worth it, reminding me of how fine "Stephen Bishop's" early performance of the Diabelli Variations is, displaying similar qualities of tone and classical restraint. I'd reserve ultimate encomiums for Sviatoslav Richter and Annie Fischer in the Hammerklavier, but that Op 81 a is about as good as it gets. I see that the Stephen Kovacevich complete set of the Beethoven piano sonatas is going for less than $18, shipped. I might have to eat my words.

"It isn't supposed to be an easy listen, or the sort of music that speaks directly to the listener. It's about the listener joining the artists in their frantic explorations for transcendent melodies."

No, really, I've got this, I don't need no "Jazz-splanin'". I "got the message" a long time ago and didn't want it. And in any case, my point is about cul-de-sacs that a lot of cultural endeavors are finding themselves in these days. Aleatory procedure in music can be and has turned into a species of magical thinking. I'd say that about John Cage just as much as Albert Ayler. This is a critical evaluation based on a lot of exposure to the stuff, both the "Classical" and the "Jazz" flavor. That doesn't mean I'm about to stop listening to it, my best friend won't let me. One of life's little koans, I suppose.

"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."

I blame Taylor Swift. Let's face it, "Trout Mask Replica" never broke through the top ten. And for all you Freejazzers and other Jazz Police out there, I simply adore the Captain's blowing on "Flash Gordon's Ape".

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Can "dithering" help free all that jazz? :-) .............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Life is a lot like jazz ......... It is best when you improvise" ......... George Gershwin :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise" .......... George Gershwin :-) ............

mmole's picture

That makes no sense particularly since the actual Gershwin quote is, "Life IS A LOT like jazz...it's best when you improvise."

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Thanks for the correction ........ I made the change :-) .........

dalethorn's picture

It's only free when you buy the drinks.

ok's picture

..is as pointless as reasoning about dreaming.

dalethorn's picture

The interesting thing about dreaming is it creates new memories of things that never happened, or never happened as presented in the dreams. Which in turn calls into question all sorts of things about perception in even the fully conscious state, whatever that is.

ok's picture

many a dream are backed up by original soundtracks elaborately composed on the fly and flawlessly performed once and for all..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rJm0ECVd4M

dalethorn's picture

I remember it well. We didn't have any weed then, being underage as we were, so we had to improvise that too.

Stevens's picture

I've subscribed to Gramophone for years and it used to be a resource for deciding what to spend my money on. That is no longer the case, as virtually all of it is on Qobuz. I still subscribe, but read it less, more the editorials and big articles. It is not just a review magazine.

One thing I bought recently was Gilel's lost recordings. Less lost, more not issued, as they were probably recorded during live broadcasts. I tend to prefer performers I've heard. I heard Gilels play the op. 106 Hammerklavier sonata and Scriabin in 1984. The Beethoven was utterly mesmerising.

Do we need more Beethoven cycles? Well, fairly recently I heard Igor Levit play a sonata cycle. I missed one concert, he has issued a few of the late sonatas, but those probably related to earlier performances I went to before he played the whole set. I certainly think he should record the Beethoven sonatas complete, although there are some interpretations that many people will dislike. At least he has a voice quite unique and interesting.

JBLMVBC's picture

This article like so many in the same vein manages to still keep alive a number of clichés about classical music and its audience. And their corollary, the need to make it more fun, more interesting, more pop, more jazz more everything. These calls are often coming from the music business that now sees recycling everything Beatles as a sign of amazing creativity, hence the potion is rich.
Besides, the associated name spewing had very little to do with classical music, but more with a cursory understanding of what’s happening at the edge of the field. Do not get me wrong, those musicians are fine artists and some of them have produced works that figure among my favorites. But that’s not the point. I just mention it because I’d risk to be taxed of elitist if I omitted it. The rest, as Alex wrote, is noise.
Yet there was a real article to write about the codified vocabulary of classical music reviews and why the genre is getting tedious and on the verge of oblivion. Beside impressions of concert performances only attended by a few, there is really not much for a scribbler to review in classical music thanks to YouTube & consorts and internet. However, for an insightful writer, there is and will always be something to write about art.
Finished the “best of their generation” dithyrambic intros… Buried the impact of a collection of laudatory newspaper clippings when one can simply listen and forge an opinion of the performer engaged by a presenter or a record label. It is so easy these days that any artist not offering a glimpse of their art could be suspected of wanting to swindle future audiences. There is no excuse to rely solely on the good word of a critic, especially when the newspaper is a season sponsor of the presenting bodies… That is why the average reviewer clings to all sorts of tricks to survive.
Furthermore, internet wide distribution of audio/video fosters comparisons on selective pieces but is it only for spotting what Austin describes prosaically as “differences in tempo, dynamic shading”? Of course not. It offers much more: an insight into the performer’s soul, their sensibility and intelligence of the music they perform.
Classical music is a portal through the looking glass, beyond the language, to discover “sonic visions” as Alfred Schnittke would sum it up. Schnittke, arguably the best symphonist who succeeded Shostakovich, polystylistic, composing on the profane and the sacred, mostly accessible and yet, 20 years after his passing, absent of our concert halls.
Classical music just like any sophisticated art has survived because it is a reflection of humanity and it has drawn skillfully on human complexity. Drinking songs too have survived centuries as a reflection of human character, yet they are hardly as sophisticated. Is that too much to accept that some artists are more at ease with searching for wider, more embracing responses to fundamental questions than others?
I never read anyone suggesting rock bands should become more inclusive…
Classical music is a highly coded language that requires time and efforts, just like any other language to master, for the performer or the audience alike. It is not merely entertainment despite what’s the showbiz tries to peddle. Believing some gimmicks will miraculously make that effort evaporate is simplistic at best. Classical music requires time and to make time, just as reading an elaborate novel does.
Education and acquiring taste early will smooth the ride and help attain true, lasting interest in the field. A more educated audience, not necessarily one dropping names, will also help clean up the classical music business –not to be confused with classical music- that sees the same war horses performed by the same athletes, day in and day out, selling their décolleté or their mannerism along some pro-tour events under the watchful eye of sharp communication strategists fitting bums in precious velvet seats.
Education in schools and intelligent media programming, radio, web-radios, television, will support those parents who are amateurs and those who do not have that culture to learn too, with their youths. The disastrous gutting of classical music from mainstream radio waves should be a warning to all. In Canada, the CBC Radio 2 descent to hell and political correctness*, with hosts talking to their audience as if they were incapable of reflective thoughts is a sad attempt at finding the lowest common denominator. At least, the French division of the public broadcaster, ICI-Musique, is resisting and is still respecting its audience, inviting them to listen as intelligent partners.
In the end a classical music effect is to make anyone, such as that retired bus driver who cried listening to Chopin in a small hall, connect with their inner self and then as a consequence with others. No doubt that will not make the cover of Gramophone or even a local review but it will make a true artist proud.

*Talking about hypocrisy, the CBC used to be summed up as the Dutoit Channel since not one day could pass without the broadcast of one of his recordings with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Following the abuse allegations against the star conductor, none of them proven in court yet, the ever so politically correct CBC was finding itself between a hard place and a hammer: they could not drop their Dutoit bulk of programming without leaving a gaping hole and having to find a replacement Canadian content to play and still had to respect quotas of Canadian music. Thus, pinching their nose, they kept playing force Montreal Symphony Dutoit recordings on their Radio 2 programs, but program hosts would only mention the MSO, carefully obliterating the name of the conductor from their comment.
Imagine, should allegations emerge one day about the orchestra tympanist, would we expect those censors to blank the interventions of the instrumentalist?

dalethorn's picture

".....classical music reviews and why the genre is getting tedious and on the verge of oblivion."

The Stereophile reviewers make it interesting, sometimes, here and there - enough for a less-dedicated listener like me to explore a few new things. I think the big magazine and newspaper reviewers could pick up some ideas here, if they understood what makes some of the reviews here interesting, and they were able to apply those ideas to their reviewing. Since those reviewers aren't tying their reviews to audiophile playback necessarily, they'd have to work around any of that to glean new ideas, but I think it's doable.

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