Venerable record critic Robert Layton dies at 90. Some thoughts on reviewing.

The exact date of Bob’s death, 9th November. When I first knew him I was the ‘Young Turk’ among Gramophone’s venerated roster of old reviewers, though he was always hugely supportive, and enthusiastically encouraged new or refreshing viewpoints. We’d spar and laugh regularly, sometimes over a jar of this or that, or a meal. I have missed his writing of late and often wondered what he would have made of new Sibelius symphony cycles (a speciality) conducted by the likes of Segerstam, Paavo Järvi, Storgards etc. How, according to Bob, would they have stacked up against say Sir Colin Davis in Boston, Anthony Collins in London, various symphonies that Karajan recorded and so forth? And what’s more important, how would you rate his opinions alongside those of his various successors, especially in Gramophone? Have reviewing standards dipped, stayed level or risen? Does the fact that unlike Bob’s forebears the modern critic has sometimes to consider hundreds of rival versions of a particular symphony invalidate his/her opinions simply because it’s impossible to listen to everything? And how does the presence of so many unedited websites/blogs etc – some of them impressively authoritative – alter the state of play when it comes to assessing officially published critical viewpoints? How valid is record reviewing anyway? Do you simply learn to trust those who you regularly agree with? And was the scholar/broadcaster/musician Has Keller right when he called record criticism a ‘phoney profession’? Thoughts please!

4 thoughts on “Venerable record critic Robert Layton dies at 90. Some thoughts on reviewing.

  1. Andrew Ayton

    Your blog took me back to happy days in the mid ‘70s reading Gramophone in the Music Library at the Lansdowne, Bournemouth. Robert Layton was a sure guide to the lesser known byways of Scandinavian music, as well as to Sibelius and Nielsen. I recall reading his essay on Franz Berwald in The Symphony, ed. Simpson, vol. 1 (Penguin), followed by his book on the same composer. Gradually, I acquired recordings of the unconventional Swedish master’s music, starting I think with Sixten Ehrling’s accounts of the symphonies. Of course, there are now a great many alternative readings, which illustrates rather nicely how the reviewer’s task has become more difficult. As for how I, as a reader, respond to reviews: well, I must admit I do glance at the reviewer’s name before reading a piece that is likely to be of particular interest to me (long ago, I learned to take one Gramophone reviewer’s pieces on Brahms symphonies with a pinch of salt). But overall, I’d say that I continue to learn a great deal from what you and your colleagues have to say; and, as I’ve said before, I marvel at how you are able to do so much reviewing!

    Lastly, to return to Robert Layton: as my reference to his serious writing suggests, I do hope he’s remembered for his scholarship as well as for his carer of judicious and insightful reviewing – though, of course, as a now retired academic, I would say that!

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    1. I’d say that he definitely will be remembered especially for his judicious and insightful reviewing Andrew. Thank goodness for the online Gramophone Archive – where you can access any of his reviews at the press of a button. Best. Rob

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  2. Paul Chennell

    The criticism penned by Robert Layton certainly is not the product of a phoney profession, it is a great help to our understanding. This and all other positive criticism will survive as it aids education of audience and performers.

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