CD critics – how useful are they?

… is it all subjective? Do musicians make the best critics or, in that context, is the ‘art of listening’ (without an agenda) more important? Do you value critics as much for knowing you’ll disagree with them as for knowing you’ll agree with them? Do you have favourites who you trust implicitly (no need to names names, just whether you have? Please discuss … this could take us places!

46 thoughts on “CD critics – how useful are they?

  1. It depends on the critic. In the late 1980s Mortimer F. Frank wrote a terrific article, “The Art of the Record Review,” where he discusses English language record reviews in the context of the history of recordings and publications that reviewed them. It was published in Fanfare, and is well worth seeking out. For me as a record reviewer, I try not to treat my assignments as opinion pieces, but rather consumer reports, where I describe the product and, if relevant, evaluate how it stacks up among competitors.

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  2. David

    Useful? No, not for me. I tend to buy a CD because it interests me for any number of reasons. I tend to make up my own opinions on whether it was a good buy and that, for me, is something insanely personal; like a good gift, I guess. And most good critics also seem to acknowledge it as something personal.

    I am more interested in the critic’s thought process; how he or she reasons their choice. I am interested to know what they value in the performance and how they compare this to other performers. I like to see what connections they draw upon with other performances by the same artists, especially when it’s the same piece or pieces.

    I guess the comparisons with other artists are interesting too but I do feel it becomes a bit cruel to pit performances directly against one another when they are conceived in very different ways. Done in a positive light, it can be insightful.

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  3. I reckon that Building a Library on R3’s CD Review must be a favourite carrier of criticism for you David. Am I right? Plenty of time to weigh and asses, and the critics needs to get his/her facts absolutely right. Rigour is the thing.

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    1. David

      How on earth did you guess! One thing I enjoy about this programme is the way the listener can dip in and out of it but still feel like they’ve come away a heck of a lot wiser than before! It never leads me directly to buy Jansens’ symphony cycle, but it certainly makes me aware of the artistry it contains.

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  4. With you all the way there David. And though it’s hard work, I love doing them myself (and I hope they come off). Next up, in January, is Bartók’s Music for strings, percussion and Celesta, a piece I adore. I hope to do it live with Andrew, a superb broadcasting collaborator always.

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  5. John GIbbons

    Would love to hear a Record Review where all the issues were judged ‘blind’. I suspect we are all guilty of hearing music with our eyes pre-judging our expectations! If it is a Karajan recording it is likely we have preset out expectations before the play button is pressed! Hence my desire for the occasional piece to be played on morning Radio 3 without identifying the performers,

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  6. Many thanks for that John. Well actually some BAL critics do listen blind – I believe that Jeremy Summerly is one of them. As to presenting pieces without announcing what they are, I used to run an ‘innocent ear’ slot on my Sunday programme which proved a little controversial with those who found it rather ‘excluding’. Don’t see it myself, and I’d love to reinstate it.

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  7. Jeremy Pound

    Here we go, Rob. As promised…

    Critics I like and find most useful? Those whose views and judgement I’ve become familiar with and learnt to trust over a period of time. Importantly, I might not always agree with them, but its their consistency (and, of course, knowledge) that helps me to guage whether or not I’m going to like something myself.

    Critics I don’t like? The showboaters, who like to use the review format to try and show off their own erudition. A review should be about the performance, not the reviewer.

    Not a big fan of the comparative review, I’m afraid – it tends to perpetuate the daft concept of the ‘benchmark’ recording. All recordings should be appraised on their own merits.

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  8. Thanks Jez … agree with everything there except the ‘comparative’ bit, the reason being that with dozens (in some cases hundreds) of extant recordings of a particular piece, people need some sort of guidance as to who offers what – does it generate excitement, or treat the score as sacrosanct, or takes a more introverted route? Each performance might suit a different temperament. Years ago I wrote a piece for your Mag on Astrology and Music (the Evening Standard printed it around the same time too), the point being less to do with a belief in astrology (which, by and large, I confess not to have) than the idea of different performances suiting different types of people. You can only establish that by comparative listening.

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  9. Robert Roy

    I’ve been listening to recorded music and reading reviews since I was a teenager and realise that’s it’s much more difficult than it seems. (As so often the case with the creative arts!) The best of critics can describe a disc in such a way that NOT to hear it is an artistic crime!

    I think the best of critics see themselves as being essentially writers as well as musicians and being able to distill a feeling and response about a particular recording into a telling phrase is a talent all its own. And of course, one is often writing for an educated audience whose experience of the music may well have been both longer and more intense than the critic themselves.

    Many years ago, I set myself the Herculean task of trying to decide the ‘best’ recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I have at least 60 recordings of it by the biggest and smallest names in music and decided to try to listen blind. I recorded all the versions onto mini-disc to eliminate labels and couplings as being a clue then numbered each disc. I then left them in a box for six months before settling down over a fortnight to listen to each one. Trying to find sufficient vocabulary was a job in itself as well as trying to describe my responses – if a performance was boring then why was it boring? If it was exciting then why? Did I hear aspects of the score I’d not noticed before? Did I have to listen to each performance all the way through or just choose ‘bits’? Obviously, the very latest digital sound was very different to recordings from the 20’s and 30’s. Should that influence me? Was I going to hate the Pastoral symphony by the end?!

    Well, I didn’t end up hating it but instead gained a tremendous respect for the compositional genius that made me want to start again by the time I was finished. However, what WAS challenged was my knowledge of the English language and how to express myself. (For the record, My top two favourite versions were both Bernstein with the NYPO and Vienna Philharmonic. My least favourite recording was Furtwangler!! Sorry!)

    At least with a cd, one can hear exactly what the critic hears. Or does one? I remember, many years ago, that Gramophone had an ‘Audio Dr.’ Feature where the audio editor would help readers tweet their system to get the best possible response. On one occasion, a Gramophone critic’s system went under the microscope and I was shocked that a) their system wasn’t as good as mine and b) it wasn’t set up sufficiently well to get the best reproduction. I’ve often wondered if cd reviewers should state what they actually listen to the featured disc on. (I once took a very perverse pleasure in listening to a 99p charity shop cd of Solti conducting Beethoven’s Fourth symphony on my little Sony kitchen cd/radio, my Meridian and Quad combo before taking my 99p bargain disc to the Linn showroom in Glasgow to hear it on a £96,000 system! All 3 playings were pleasurable in different ways).

    In my own experience, I’ve often found that usually I agree with the reviewer. A couple of times I’ve gone against advice and have either re-sold the disc or given it away.

    Anyway, evening meal and whisky is calling. Many thanks to anyone who has got this far!

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    1. Very revealing Robert, interesting too. More of us listen ‘blind’ than many people realise. It’s always a good policy. And I too have encountered critics whose reproducing systems weren’t up to scratch. The thing is that once you get used to a system, unless it really is bad, your ears adjust and you can tell crucial differences between one recording – as sound – and another, just about. The further we travel along the recording pantheon, the more difficult it becomes to do justice to recordings in comparative terms. When I started buying records many years ago (early 60s) the Gramophone Catalogue was about the size of a Mills & Boons novel. Now it dwarfs even the biggest edition of Yellow Pages!

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    2. I had a similar experience when, in 2000 and 2001 when I prepared for writing an article about Beethoven’s Ninth and its way too many recordings for International Record Review. I listened to all of them blind, so to speak, taking notes. And not only did I not get sick of the work, I also became more fascinated with its complexities, mysteries, profundities, and, yes, its arguable weak points. After I completed the article, I read through a piano four hand arrangement with a friend, and was quite a cathartic moment! The strange thing is that I remember being able to guess the identity behind certain versions, but not others. I immediately nailed Toscanini’s 1952 studio NBC and Stokowski’s stereo studio versions, but Karajan eluded me. Of course there were versions that gave themselves away in regard to the text being sung in languages other than German.

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    3. Steven Swalbe.

      Surely you’ld recognise Klemperer’s (NPO) version. Agree with your Bernstein recording; bur I also love the Furti one. He explained to me that his reason for not repeating the exposition was, that when he goes a wandering, he ensures that he does not have to return to retrieve something he’s forgotten.

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  10. Robert Roy

    Ps. I was lucky enough to meet Andrew McGregor a couple of weeks ago and put it to him that he probably had the best job in the world! He did not disagree…

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  11. I tend to listen blind, and often I’ll load a new recording of a familiar work into itunes with 2 other recent versions as decoys. I’ll put these files into a playlist, then listen randomly, taking notes. After which I identify what is what, and listen to the performance under review again (now identified, of course). I don’t always compare in my reviews, although I might mention another recording contextually. Such as “Like Richter, pianist x observes the rarely recorded ossia,” or “pianist x follow’s Serkin by repeating the movement introduction,” etc. etc. If I’m reviewing, say, The Goldberg Variations, facts and figures are particularly important in regard to repeats, ornamentation, tempos…all of which greatly vary from recording to recording.

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    1. Do you always take notes Jed? Sometimes if I’m comparing a lots of versions I concentrate, zen-like, so that at the end of the session salient points jump out at me so that I can ‘cut the crap’ when I write. There’s always a danger of being of overwhelmed by detail, and passing those bustling crowds onto the reader.

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      1. Again, it depends. Detailed notes occur more in works with extremely short movements like variation sets, less so in longer movement works. But as I said earlier, I keep the reader in mind first and foremost, and I only try to pass on what I think is sufficient enough for a reader to decide about whether or not he or she should buy this particular disc. However, certain details are relevant – wrong or misread notes in a modern studio recording, for example. Sometimes they matter – such as the many textual misreadings in Stephen Kovacevich’s EMi Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales. And sometimes not – Toscanini’s studio NBC recording of the Brahms Haydn Variations: curiously, the A-natural in bar nine of Variation Six is misread as A-flat the first time around, but corrected on the repeat. A fleeting error, but knowing Toscanini’s far superior ear for detail than mine, still a curiosity.

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  12. Andrew Rose wrote: Interesting also to see the perspective of time. This week we’re releasing a remastered version of the famous Callas/Karajan 1955 Madama Butterfly. It was reviewed in The Gramophone in December 1955 and, to be honest, the critic at the time wasn’t exactly overwhelmed. 20 years later it was reissued and Alan Blyth reviewed it, again in Gramophone. He certainly made up for the lack of enthusiasm shown earlier.

    Was the original critic wrong? Do perspectives change? Does the changing status of an artist encourage re-evaluation of earlier work? Who’s right and who’s wrong here? Can there even be a right and wrong in this context?

    I’ve reproduced both reviews here: http://www.pristineclassical.com/paco113.html – they certainly got me thinking about this when I exhumed them both a couple of days ago…

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  13. Stephen Pettitt wrote: They aren’t so contrasting as Andrew suggests in my view. The first (Alan Harvey would it be?) is admirably thorough and shows no lack of enthusiasm even while picking up on certain things with admirable degree of perception. Alan Blyth writes more generally. Both home in on Gedda’s quality but have slightly differing views over how it suits the character of Pinkerton. Blyth clearly writes as a Karajan fan but his recommendation is also made on the grounds of price. They are complementary, not divergent, and give the potential punter a good idea of what’s on offer. Interesting styles of writing, though!

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    1. Laurie Wedd wrote: “Now that is SO interesting:
      ‘Mr Gedda would not hurt a flea, let alone a butterfly’.
      Is there too much authorial voice going on here – has independence been compromised of the sake of a good joke? And how interesting that AH thinks that Pinkerton SHOULD be capable of hurting, rather than a victim of circumstance just like Butterfly. The later review picks this up calling the performance ‘credibly un-caddish’.
      You pays yer money…”

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      1. Better off Laurie, certainly. And I’ve often thought how privileged say Beethoven or Bach would have felt knowing that laymen could get to know their works so well that they carry them around as part of their memory banks. How wonderful is that!

        Laurie Wedd recalls reading a piece by Donald Tovey (on Brahms perhaps? I can’t recall) writing in the ’30s, and him saying ‘I remember the last time I heard this piece, in 1902…’ – and thinking, ‘gosh, what a different world: one was utterly dependent upon what was being played live at a concert hall one could get to’. And you could go 30 years without hearing a major work.
        Nowadays we can listen to virtually anything whenever we want, and you wouldn’t dream of writing about a piece of music without listening to one or more recordings beforehand.
        So… are modern-day critics better than old-fashioned ones?

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  14. Clara Rodriguez wrote: Rob, I think that in this day and age where Classical music, whether in concerts or CDs, struggles to mantain a space in our societies; where, if you as an artist have no money to pay good PR (if that exists!) and where Naxos seems to dominate the shops, repertoire, price, and many lables have to pay them a cut from services they provide; where if you ‘re not well off or mad enough to spend thousands of £s that you will never recup to produce a proof of what’s close to your heart…it is a TRIUMPH to get some lines about your CD!

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  15. I was just saying – composers, performers, commentators, radio presenters and producers and of course the audience, whether concert goers or purchasers of recorded music … we are a community and it’s our duty to keep music alive, however much effort it takes.

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    1. Robert Roy

      I absolutely agree that we are a community who have a duty to try to promote our passion as often as possible. I often pick up duplicates in charity shops and give them away to friends and acquaintances. I work in a hospital and the unit where I work has transient staff. I often try to give away discs as leaving presents. Probably they end up in the glove compartment of their car but, occasionally, a seed may be sown.

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  16. Ariane Todes wrote wrote: “When I was at The Strad I thought about how I could get players to review their peers. I think that would be fascinating – to get into the nitty-gritty technical and musical detail that I’m afraid I don’t think most reviewers can do, for all they can give good overviews and make interesting comparisons. It would have to be constructive and I think there’s so much to be learnt both by general audiences and by other players about the musical process. That’s why I love going to masterclasses. Can you imagine Vengerov, say, critiquing Mutter? But of course no one wants to go on record about their colleagues in that way. Maybe you could get them to do it on old recordings, at least.” Ariane’s blog is on http://www.elbowmusic.org

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  17. Allan Evans wrote: “Years ago Harold Schoenberg’s The Great Pianists served as an early Baedeker through past masters. It led to strong opinions and lifelong arguments! It stirred us up many and whenever a critic stimulates, we’re all grateful.”

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  18. Steven Swalbe

    Critics are very subjective. One sometimes thinks that they are there to promote musicians. A comment from one: “This very fast interpretation makes the work almost unrecognisable in parts, but one never gets the impression that things are being rushed.” One guess for the rogue conductor!

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  19. Steven Swalbe.

    Rob! I was seething with anger after listening to Bruno Walter conducting Mozart’s KV 543. Why ? Because it was so wonderful! I looked up a critic’s review. “N takes intro so fast….unrecognisable. The result is REFRESHINGLY DIFFERENT; suitable for those who want CHARACTERFUL period performances rather than tasteful ones. I rest my case.

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    1. Steven Swalbe.

      Funnily enough, I heard BW’s “Linz”. Why he did the menuet in ‘eight’s’ is a mystery. I baked and ate a pizza during that movement. Even for me the preceding adagio was too (musically) slow. Sadly, not for the Desert Island. In the rehearsal, the strings were very ropy.

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      1. Thanks so much Steven for all your great posts. I so appreciate it. No time at the moment to reply in detail … But please do keep them coming in!

        Warm wishes,

        Rob

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  20. I suppose it’s a case of wanting to hear what a conductor is ‘getting at’ … the whole point of constructive criticism is to describe things in such a way that readers will know what they will or won’t like. Walter, Beecham, Klemperer, Maag, Szell … all are daily bread for me, but I have some people emailing be at the Beeb who think I’ve shouldered these folk from out of the Ark. Others (most in fact) adore them, so I think the best idea is to strike a balance so that one faction can see the virtues/faults of the other.

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    1. Steven Swalbe.

      Would never purchase or listen to anything advised by the critics. How many people know about Peter Maag? None other than Furti recommended him to take up conducting. All I can recollect is my recordings of Mozart’s S29 and 34, Mendelssohn, a few overtures and a Glyndebourne production. Talking about Furti: Heard my old recording of Furti’s 9th from the QUEEN’S HALL 1.5.1937 it sounded as if it were to celebrate the accession of VICTORIA with the hiss and scratches; nevertheless my eyes were watering throughout. I won’t get going about the many blasphemous conductors of this work. It would be unwise to ask “Traditional or modern”. Haha!

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    2. Steven Swalbe.

      Another critical enigma. re. Melvyn Tan: “Slow movements in LvB’s PCs are TOO FAST….PERSUASIVE (haha!) avoiding BREATHLESSNESS.”You know who the schmok accompaning him is. Are Serkin, Arrau, Barenboim etc. wrong and out?

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      1. Steven Swalbe.

        Am trying to declutter recordings that I don’t want to hear again.To my shock, the only one from over 200 is Arrau!! with Schumann’s op.54.Today I played Gould’s 1961Toronto recording of KV 491. A Joy! 6/8 could be un poco piu. Looked for cd critic. Nowt! There was one for that charlatan Tan. He says: “Not for fortepiano and Tan, WITH HIS POISE AND GRACE does not help with his brisk tempo in slow movt.”.Really?

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    3. Steven Swalbe.

      Going thru my old recordings, I listened to CMG with LAPO and Schumann’s 3rd. I heard new sounds. Horns were very powerful. Looked up critic. He was positive about the everything. He also said that Karajan’s 1-4 STOOD ABOVE EVERYTHING ELSE. As for Kubelik’s efforts? MORE BODY AND WARMTH than Karajan’s!!! On the other hand: some metronome FREAK takes the 1st movt of 3 too slow and the slow movement faster than the mm beat. Is it a wonder I loathe him? He’s a real conman that fools most of the naive people most of the time. That critic is what someone sad the the law is.

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      1. Steven Swalbe.

        What a coincidence: EO recorded Rach3 with SR (1939); Have it. VH (1978) and VA. Pls. Interpret ‘my’ critic’s review. “Rach 3 has proved ELUSIVE 4 times for VA, who plays musically and sensitively.; but one needs a greater sense of impact and focus.” Errm? Actually I expected the one VH did with Albert Coates in 1930 (LSO). Of course there could be a sneaky link regarding SR and LS.

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  21. The one thing wrong with that wonderful recording Steven is the ‘edit’ between the end of the d/bass recits at the start of the finale and the ethereal quiet entry of the ‘Ode to joy’ theme. All F’s other performances leave a long, meaningful rest before the theme enters but it seems obvious to me that on the ’37 version there’s an acetate side join – which ruins this magical effect.

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  22. Steven Swalbe.

    I know! Did he hear/approve of it? The same thing happens after the explosive, breath removing F major fermata: no pause before the Bb march section(who could keep up with that?) section.

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  23. Re Tan and other Steven, at a loss sometimes how others hear these things. The important issue is constantly to listen afresh … and I’m about to launch a thread on that very subject … Best …

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