Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Reviewing Bach

I'm having problems with my main computer this morning, so I can't do the post I was planning to. In the meantime, let's have a look at a review of two new Bach albums in the Wall Street Journal. Terry Teachout is a justly renowned drama critic for the Journal who also has a blog. Terry often writes about more than just drama, in fact he has just published a book about Duke Ellington. Today he has a column in the Wall Street Journal reviewing, sort of, two new Bach albums. Read the whole thing.

Unfortunately, Mr. Teachout, while an excellent drama critic and writer, is not trained as a musician. His "review" of Jeremy Denk's new recording of the Goldberg Variations comes down to this:
For my part, I find Mr. Denk's interpretation of the "Goldbergs" to be enthrallingly involving. He is one of our finest musical minds, and anything that such folk have to say about the classics is by definition worth hearing. Yet if you asked me to explain to a nonmusician why that is so…well, I'd be up against it. As obvious as the differences are to me between Mr. Denk's "Goldbergs" and Mr. Perahia's "Goldbergs," they don't lend themselves to simple verbal description, nor will they be self-evident to a listener who doesn't already know the piece well.
Uh-huh. Does anyone else notice that there is no, nada, nichts, zero content there? There is the subtle subtext implying that if we were all musicians instead of nonmusicians, then perhaps he could say something, but other than that... Isn't it odd that while one would imagine that the job of writing about classical music albums in the newspaper would have to involve explaining what is going on to nonmusicians, that is exactly what he refuses to do!

The other album is Chris Thile playing music by Bach originally for unaccompanied violin. Here are Terry's comments on it:
His delicate yet propulsive interpretation of the G-Minor Sonata would be more than worth hearing on violin, and the pointed sound of the mandolin endows it with a thrillingly new palette of instrumental colors.
If I had to guess what the future of recorded classical music will sound like, I'd bet on Mr. Thile's Bach...
That first sentence seems entirely incoherent. Pretty much everything played on the mandolin sounds delicate and propulsive. And does he really mean to say that this is more worth hearing than on the violin, the instrument it was written for? Or what is it that he is trying to say? Vague journalistic bumf, and that's it. All the rest is pretty much background and journalistic filler.

So what is the problem here? I have to break a lot of taboos to even talk about it, but here goes. The problem with mainstream criticism today is that it is becoming the domain of amateurs. Nothing against them, but their opinions are half-digested, shallow and lightweight. Every professional musician I have spoken with shares these opinions: Haydn is hugely underrated, Debussy is much more interesting than Ravel, Beethoven was a poor composer for the voice and Chris Thile's Bach is pretty awful. These opinions are fairly predictable because there is a wealth of objective evidence in their favor. Amateurs' opinions are also fairly predictable because they tend to be received opinions reflecting current fashion. Here is what amateurs think: Haydn is a dull predecessor to Mozart and Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy are both colorful impressionists, Beethoven was a great composer so of course he wrote well for the voice and Chris Thile's Bach, because he is a cool guy and plays mandolin, is just really cool!

Another part of the problem is that part of the decline of classical music over the last few decades has involved drastically reducing coverage in the mainstream media. Most of the media have long since cut their classical music critics. If any criticism is needed, they just send out the culture guy, or the drama guy. The Wall Street Journal does still have classical music critics, as does the New York Times. One wonders why one of them is not writing a review of these Bach albums? The answer might be that negative criticism is very much discouraged. Just like in college courses these days, everyone gets an 'A'.

Another interesting aspect of this kind of journalism is that, since any kind of writing about music that includes technical terms or musical examples is absolutely anathema, almost anyone can pass themselves off as a classical music critic. If they never use any technical terms then we can't tell if they are misusing them.

So let's listen. The only YouTube clips I can find of Jeremy Denk playing the Bach Goldbergs are buried in a bunch of commentary, so let's listen to a different piece. Here he is with the Corrente and Sarabande from the Partita No. 3:

And here is Glenn Gould with just the Corrente:

They are really very different, aren't they? Denk's performance is quick, smooth, flowing and legato with gentle dynamic swells. Gould's is slower, crisp, articulate and more on one dynamic level.

How about Chris Thile? Here is the Tempo de Borea from the B minor Partita:

And let's hear it on violin as well. This is Kristof Barati and the performance includes the Double as well:

The problem with the mandolin version is the thin, breathy sound and the near-loss of the other voices. It is a 'fun' performance, meaning that Chris Thile seems to be having fun. But it is rhythmically stiff and clunky. If you listen to the two versions side by side a few times I'm sure you will hear all this for yourself and other things as well, such as how each artist feels the harmony.

The real problem here is that while Jeremy Denk and Chris Thile's Bach albums are worth knowing and certainly are the big recent events in Bach recordings in the US, there are undoubtedly other, more interesting, artists and recordings. But the people who might discover these for us, professional musicians, not amateurs, are not being allowed to write for the mainstream any more. So it is the trendy and fashionable that sells more and more while the more aesthetically interesting is more and more obscure.

For example, there is a new recording of the Goldberg Variations on clavichord by Michael Tsalka:

Not to everyone's taste, certainly. But worth hearing and a thought-out individual conception. It is the job of a real music critic to alert us to music that we might not otherwise have heard instead of just promoting the already thoroughly promoted.


Craig said...

Very interesting, as always.

It would be interesting one day to see you comment on the quality of the recording reviews one finds in the leading online/print classical music publications (Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, Fanfare, ClassicsToday, AllMusic). These people should be mostly classical music specialists writing for a broad but reasonably knowledgeable audience. I don't spend much time reading reviews myself, but I might if I knew of a thoughtful and informative source.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Craig,

I have done something like this already, last July:


What I noticed in that brief survey is that even professional reviews seem to be limited to two or three hundred words.

Bryan Townsend said...

Also last July I did my version of what a record review should be. It comes in four parts. Here is part one:


Nathan Shirley said...

Put some felt in that spinet!

Bryan Townsend said...

It is a bit crunchy, isn't it?

Craig said...

Ah, so you did. Apologies. It's been a busy year over here, and sometimes things go in one eye and out the other.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hey, I don't remember half the things I have written about myself!

Jared White said...


Here is an interesting version of Bach's chaconne from the second violin partita.

Bryan Townsend said...

Cool instrument the hammer dulcimer. I once produced an album of hammer dulcimer music. Not Bach, though...