Thursday, July 4, 2013

Thoughts on Record Reviews

Sinfini Music is a fairly new online classical music magazine whose motto "cutting through classical" I have never much liked. "Cutting through classical" and getting to what? Norman Lebrecht has a weekly review called "Album of the Week" and this week is a review of a new collection of pieces by Elliot Carter.

One of the advantages of the Internet is that it doesn't have the material restrictions of print. Whether you put up 500 words or 1000 words hardly matters in cyberspace. So you might think that a review of an album of music by Elliot Carter would take the time or space to tell you a bit about the music and the performances. In this case, at least, you would be wrong. Let's have a look at the review. Here is the teaser:
Ignore the dry-as-dust title - this captivating album shows off the witty side of American composer Elliott Carter and will make you smile, says Norman Lebrecht.
And here is the entire review:

Fun with Elliott Carter is not a phrase I ever expected my fingers to tap out. The US composer, who died last year at the age of 103, was a reflective intellectual who erred, if at all, on the side of asceticism. Which is to say, he could be as dry as dust.
But the three songs that open this album consist of a mock Elizabethan madrigal and two ballads that could have been written by Samuel Barber were the orchestration not so witty. A great big smile spreads across my chops.
Onto the serious stuff. Charles Rosen, the polymath pianist who died a month after Carter, plays pinball here with the prodigiously difficult, almost unfathomable Carter Concerto of 1967, a work in which, according to the composer, ‘the soloist becomes increasingly dissociated from and opposed to the orchestra’. You can say that again.
But no way is Rosen going to lose this fight. The Basel Sinfonietta under conductor Joel Smirnoff may think they’re leading the way, but the concerto is not over until the fat pianist clangs, and, when it’s over, you want to hear it again just to revel in the sumo-wrestling aspect of this musical fitness test.
Like I said: fun. (Who would have guessed from the library-style album title?)
A great big smile spreads across my chops
Artists: Charles Rosen (piano), Tony Arnold, Rosalind Rees (sopranos), David Starobin (guitar), Basel Sinfonietta/Joel Smirnoff, Colorado College Festival Orchestra/Scott Yoo, et al. 

Note that I am not trying to steal copyright material--I am making the point that these few words are the ENTIRE review. Excluding the pull quote and the list of artists it comes to a whopping 213 words. Was this just an anomaly? Are other reviews more comprehensive? Here is a review of a new recording of Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7 which comes in at 211 words. Is Mr. Lebrecht alone in his brevity? Going to the Gramophone site and picking a review randomly from the current listings, it comes in at only 347 words. In a recent group of reviews of classical recordings from the New York Times, a review of Wagner's Die Walküre only came to 280 words. I admit that I usually don't read record reviews, but didn't they used to be a lot longer and more informative?

I'm just noticing something and giving a couple of examples and already I'm over 500 words. My posts typically run to 1000 words and I often feel I have just brushed the surface of the topic. Is it really the case, as seems to be indicated by these examples, that people will not read reviews that run longer than two or three hundred words? What can you say in that amount of space? This recording is groovy and I liked it? Maybe find a couple of adjectives to describe the performance like "lucid" or "poignantly expressive". All the examples I found are highly professional, of course, and communicate quite a lot in their few words. But they are operating under severe constraints.

I think a record or concert review should do more, frankly. So perhaps I will do a few, just as a model of what a different approach might look like. In the meantime, let's listen to a performance by other artists of the first piece on the Elliot Carter album. This will sound surprisingly tonal, but that is because it was written in 1937 for a production of The Merchant of Venice. Carter did not develop his acerbic contemporary style until much later in 1950-51 when he spent a year in isolation in the desert in Arizona. You see, that is the kind of thing it is good to know. Here is the song:

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