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What Makes a Good Record Reviewer


In 1988 I was asked that by another publication, and this was my answer:

A good record reviewer must have good ears, first of all. He must listen critically. He must compare. He must love music. He must be able to express what he feels and hears. He must not be gullible: the publicity people barrage us with hype! He must be open to unknowns. (One reviewer kept sending dismissals of every new pianist because he wasn’t a Rubinstein.) He must be a concert goer so he knows the natural sound of instruments. He must be well-read and willing to research beyond sleeve notes. I’ve run a series of editorials on The Art of Criticism—they help answer the question. There are a lot of bad reviewers in this field—people who might as well be deaf, who worship certain artists, who cannot criticize people they drink with or play golf with, and so on. I hate the qualitative approach to criticism, where you count the number of positive reviews and if they outweigh the negative ones, you buy the record. There are too many bad reviewers out there to make that reasonable.

I would add that I dislike critics who have absolute requirements: period instruments, fast tempos, repeats, completeness, and so forth. I won’t get rid of someone for those, but I won’t knowingly hire anyone like that either. I also consider it idiotic that some critics assume national superiorities, as if it takes a Czech to perform Czech music, a Spaniard or an Englishman to perform Spanish or English music. And I think, frankly, that audiophiles tend to be compulsive people; some of them need psychiatric help. One of our reviewers listens on a 1950s-vintage set, but I have found his comments utterly dependable.

WH Auden, in his book The Dyer’s Hand, asks “what is the function of a critic?” His answer:

He can do me one or more of the following services:

1. Introduce me to works I was hitherto unaware of.

2. Convince me that I have undervalued [a composer] or a work.

3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures.

4. Give a reading of a work that increases my understanding of it.

5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making”.

6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, religion, etc.

Winton Dean, in the New Grove article on criticism, makes his own list of qualifications:

1. A knowledge of the technical and theoretical principles of music.

2. A knowledge of music history and scholarship.

3. A wide general education, covering the many subjects music makes contact with.

4. The ability to think straight and write in a clear and stimulating manner.

5. An insight into the workings of the creative imagination.

6. An integrated philosophy of his own.

7. An enduring inquisitiveness and willingness to learn.

8. An acceptance of his own limitations.

Mr Dean goes on to say that many musicians are ruled out by that list, and active performers and composers make bad critics. I am not sure I agree, though I understand his point. I have found that instrumentalists understand better than I what is going on when their instrument is played, but they are inclined to fall at the feet of a virtuoso (because they have tried all their lives to attain that level) or to criticize someone for not playing the way they do (the way they were taught was the only right way). At any rate, ARG has a number of excellent instrumental musicians on our staff, and many of them even teach the instrument they play.

It is essential that a critic be able to criticize: the positive is no use without the negative. Even the greatest artists deserve real criticism, not mere approbation. Robert Schumann once said that the critic who refuses to attack what is bad is not a whole-hearted supporter of what is good. I know that if one really cares passionately about music, a bad performance demands rough treatment—or at least frank criticism. There is no way to do it without hurting feelings, so the real “gentlemen” among us are disqualified. You should not be doing this if you worry about hurt feelings.

Note that no credentials are necessary. Many of the finest critics never took a music course in their lives, and some of them never even played an instrument (at least not well—most of us have at least tried!). That makes me question Mr Dean’s first qualification: really, how important are the technical and the theoretical? The reviewer must listen for our readers; how many of them want a technical analysis or a dismissal on theoretical grounds? Music theory is also slightly mysterious, and no one can explain why some pieces are so wonderful on the basis of theory alone. In fact, the theorists often scoff at the very works of, say, Schubert or Tchaikovsky that most of us like best.

I also question his No. 2, though I have personally read widely in the field. “Scholarship” is not an attractive word to me, but I think a critic should be aware of a wide range of thinking on the material he deals with. I am not terribly impressed with “experts” (worshipped in our technological society). I don’t really believe that a PhD or a professorship somewhere makes a person’s views infallible—or even dependable. I am more concerned about his philosophy, because if his assumptions are very different from mine he may not be much use to me. If, for example, he really thinks a performance can be dismissed for failing to observe current scholarly fads, then his “expertise” is no use to me at all.

So Nos. 3, 4, and 6 seem utterly essential to me—much more important than most items in Mr Dean’s list. As for 5, who understands the creative imagination? I find it quite mystifying. I am also inclined to assign less to the composer’s imagination and more to inspiration, but that reflects my religious world-view, and some would not go along with me. I certainly find most creative people hard to understand or explain, and I don’t understand what makes many of them “tick”.

As I said in those early editorials, comparison is the record critic’s bread and butter. Without comparison, any record may sound just fine. It is especially so if you love a piece of music and have not heard it for a few days or weeks—almost any recording will seem like water in the desert. But compare it to great recordings and you begin to hear its failings. Yes, it is unfair to compare every pianist to Rubinstein; but the truth is, every pianist who records the same music is competing with Rubinstein, and our reviewers have to say whether the new recording is worth considering if the Rubinstein is still available! Since I am absolutely convinced that no one musician did everything right, I see no reason why a young 20-year old shouldn’t out-play Rubinstein in some music. But it’s only fair to realize that not many will very often. It must also be said that Rubinstein is receding into history—that his approach to many pieces will begin to seem quaint and of another time. Music must be of our own time. One benefit of music’s built-in need to be interpreted afresh every time it is played is that it gets brought up to date. And it must be brought up to date. I have consistently rejected the arguments of the period performance people on the obvious ground that a piece of music does not belong to the period it was written but to the period it is performed. (Only the cold notes on a page belong to the period of its composition—and even that is doubtful if you believe in inspiration and transcendence.) That idea is one with the notion that music must be interpreted afresh in every age—that Furtwängler, for example, cannot give a definitive interpretation of anything to someone in the 1990s. Music cannot sound the same to us as it did to him. And, by the same token, Bach’s music cannot sound to us as it did to Bach—should not, must not. Of course, we know very little about how it sounded to Bach; but we need to know even less than we know. If “scholarship” is about that, why should the critic bother with it? What use is it to us to know how Bach would have been played in 1750? It’s utterly immaterial and irrelevant.

I am always adjusting the reviewing staff of ARG—mostly because people die or get too busy to continue. I respect the fact that readers need continuity and get used to many of our writers—find their reviews useful precisely because their tastes are known. On the other hand, I am always eager to bring on board the kind of writer who has a wide background in general culture and language and thought. Those are the people who do the most for me. And I think it helps to have instrumentalists writing reviews, too. So we will always have generalists and specialists, reviewers with credentials that would shut anybody up and reviewers who simply love music and approach it from a broad base in the humanities. A certain Boston critic once referred to the latter as “amateurs”, but their work is as good as his. At least an amateur really loves what he is doing. And, after all, Sir Thomas Beecham was an amateur. Where are the inspired amateurs today? We could use them to lead our orchestras!



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