Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Footnote on Music Criticism

Music criticism is an interesting nexus of debate these days, and I have been contributing the occasional piece here. There are lots of reasons why music criticism is in decline and I have taken up some of them before: diminishing levels of education in audiences and readers is probably the main one. But another that I have talked about less often is how music criticism is often attacked by people "in the business" who are supposedly on the right side. Sometimes I want to say, heaven protect us from our defenders!

Here is an example: there was a recent review in The Strad of a performance of Sibelius' Symphony No. 4 by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. Here is one critical statement from the review:
Rattle’s interpretation of the Fourth Symphony was closer to Karajan’s than to contemporary ideas of the piece as a bleak pencil sketch occasionally shot through with mirages of colour and optimism. Does that mean Rattle has to cast Sibelius’s Fourth as a vast Mahlerian wallow upholstered by luscious strings, its Largo bestowed with a huge unmarked rallentando? Does he have to transform it into something wholly removed from the sparseness and abruptness of Sibelius’s pencil-sketch original?
This seems to me to be acceptable as music criticism if it is indeed what the reviewer thought about what he heard. But Norman Lebrecht holds this review up for particular scorn over at Slipped Disc:


A London critic didn’t like the Berlin Philharmonic performances of the Sibelius symphonies because they’re not what he’s used to. So he concludes they cannot be right.
Then the critic equivocates a bit before deciding that the performances paid ‘little heed to the spirit of a score.’
As if that can spirit be defined, bottled and marketed as authentic.
Music in print is an approximation of an imagined sound. Interpreters exist to make sense of it, according to their own lights – northern or otherwise.
Some of the commentators pushed back effectively:
He explains why. He has his opinion, you have yours. What’s the problem for heaven’s sake?
 The problem is that, for Norman Lebrecht and many others in the business, aesthetics and the ability to debate aesthetic issues is a closed book. Discussion of "better" or "worse" is simply verboten. For "fffff's sake." You see, you benighted commoners, it has been decreed that aesthetics, like ethics is completely and utterly relative. There is no right and wrong, there is only your personal opinion and my personal opinion. But, if your personal opinion is different from mine, then you are an idiot! Wow, hard to miss that little logical contradiction. I suspect that what set Mr. Lebrecht off in this instance was the claim that Mahler wallows, which he does, and that Sibelius is better off NOT played as if he were Mahler or Bruckner, which is true.

Since this is the Music Salon, the home of aesthetic objectivity, let's do our own comparison. Here is the trailer for a complete performance of the Sibelius 4th with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Not sure if this is enough to give us an idea, but it is all that is available on YouTube:

Now let's compare that with a performance conducted by a Finn. Here is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra:

What I hear with the Rattle/Berlin performance is that they seem to think it is a delightful romp with occasional spicy notes. The Salonen/Swedish performance is much darker and starker. I think that I very much see the point of the review, though I would certainly want to hear a complete performance by Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic before coming to any conclusion.

It is dispiriting to realize that many orchestras, for economic reasons and out of sheer aesthetic dunderheadedness may be turning profound and weighty pieces of music into "delightful romps" for their ever more ill-informed and ill-prepared audiences.


Marc Puckett said...

Surely Sibelius must give some hint in the score that the sound ought to be more the one way than the other, at least sufficient to prevent it being turned into a 'delightful romp'? I suppose I mean that if I were a composer, I should take good care to mark this passage 'merciless' and the other 'without false consolation' if that's what I wanted my symphony to sound like.

"It is as if Sibelius were directly penetrating the merciless core of life, laying it bare without offering any kind of false consolation. [Ahem.] He himself had felt close to death a few years earlier, when a tumour had been removed from his throat in an operation."


Bryan Townsend said...

Well, it's complicated, which keeps musicologists and music critics happily employed. The notes, rhythms and harmonies are clear and so, usually, are the tempi. But the "feel" of the score, the subtleties of the mood, these things can be given a different slant in different interpretations. A rhythm can be played jauntily or threateningly or mournfully. A score must be brought to life and there are several good ways and a hundred bad ways and many, many mediocre ways of doing so. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are doing what they do well. The question is, how appropriate is it to Sibelius? And I think that Salonen and the Swedish orchestra show us that it probably is not very. As someone with a lot of background in performance, I think that the best critique of a performance is a better, or at least different, performance!