Friday, January 17, 2014

Reflections on Music Criticism

Sometimes I am reading some music criticism and it reminds me, in an odd way, of a typical New York Times political think-piece. You know the kind: "Republicans: Threat or Menace?" But in music criticism it is usually the opposite sort of thing, more like, "young, gifted pianist: too smooth or just right?"

It is likely that real music criticism demands a fair amount of courage, because if you are doing it right, you are going to annoy a lot of powerful people. One example I have mentioned lots of times is Richard Taruskin who writes articles in various places including the New York Times that often go against the conventional wisdom. But this is a subsidiary career for him; his primary one is as a musicologist, not a journalist.

I know the pressure not to give offence can be very strong. If I am not taking on the responsibility of doing a review of a concert, I prefer not to even start, especially if I know the artists personally. I would rather discuss it with them privately. But sometimes it can be good to have a real, straightforward piece of music criticism, just so we don't forget what it is like! Years ago I can recall reading some writing on wine by Auberon Waugh that was so acid, so telling and so funny that I often ended up laughing out loud. Here is a little excerpt where he talks about what writing on wine should be like:
Wine writing should be camped up. The writer should never like a wine, he should be in love with it; never find a wine disappointing but identify it as a mortal enemy, an attempt to poison him; sulphuric acid should be discovered where there is the faintest hint of sharpness. Bizarre and improbable side-tastes should be proclaimed: mushrooms, rotting wood, black treacle, burned pencils, condensed milk, sewage, the smell of french railway stations or ladies’ underwear — anything to get away from the accepted list of fruit and flowers. I am not sure that it helps much but it is more amusing to read.
I don't think that this would be the right approach to take with music criticism--sounds too frivolous--but most music criticism these days leans too far the other way, towards complete blandness. For example, here is how one review of a CD of Beethoven piano sonatas summed up:
While some might feel increasingly short-changed by these performances, others who admire the polish and assurance of Bavouzet's playing as well as the surface slickness that goes with it, may well enjoy every one of these performances.
If you can get performers to talk about the music, you might get either a mini-self-promotion or some candid thoughts. In The Guardian's recent article about Richard Strauss ("Richard Strauss: Threat or Menace?") no wait, sorry, the actual title was "Richard Strauss: profound genius or gifted entertainer?", we get a bit of both. Soprano Susan Gritton comments as follows:
It is always a glorious treat to sing Strauss. He knew instinctively how to write for the soprano voice; you feel this particularly strongly in those songs he wrote for his wife, Pauline de Ahna. The richness of the orchestral texture is actually where the beauty lies for the voice because, with a sensitive conductor, it becomes a sumptuous wave for the voice to surf, with wonderful opportunities for timbre and line. The lieder written later for Elisabeth Schumann have a deeper, more thoughtful quality; you can feel they were composed for a different voice. My own favourite Strauss role is Capriccio's Countess Madeleine – it is rich with sparkle and lyrical elegance – and fits me like a glove.
Which I think counts as self-promotion! Cellist Steven Isserlis is more critical:
I can't say that I like Strauss, as a rule. I saw Salome once, and never need to see it again. His natural language is post-Wagnerian hothouse romanticism that I'm just not into – I long for a bath of Mozart after hearing it!
I couldn't agree more. Sometimes the urge to compliment a famous composer comes out as mere blather. Conductor Juanjo Mena comments:
In 1896's Also Sprach Zarathustra, Strauss abandoned what he found to be the restrictive classical form, developing it to reveal a new structure that took the shape of a great symphonic work, but in one single movement. The process culminated in 1915's Alpine Symphony. In both works, Strauss was clearly conscious of presenting art as a form of expression, stressing that music should have poetic elements to it, as well as the most imaginative representations of living phenomena – those of man, life and nature. He channelled all this incredible optimistic energy into his scores in a masterly way, and his instrumentation, with its inexhaustible wealth of orchestral colour, is intoxicating.
Well sure, you don't want to say anything critical about a composer like Strauss when someone might read it who is thinking about hiring you to conduct him next season. "Art as a form of expression"? Wow, that's certainly a fresh perspective.

If criticism should be memorable, then Richard Strauss himself was probably a better critic than many of his critics. A sample:
I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.
Osvaldo Golijov echoed exactly this in an interview once, referring to himself. I only just now see where he got it.

One writer who does venture critical opinions fairly regularly is Norman Lebrecht. Here is a link to a piece on a new CD of music by Delius. A sample:
The weaker pieces here are the longer ones – a 25-minute suite for a theatre play satirising Norwegian politics (how amusing) and the interminable Eventyr, actually only 15 minutes long. Even the title sounds like eternity.
His best line about the CD: "Use it on friends to demonstrate Elgar’s exceptionality."

This is part of my critical methodology, of course. There is nothing quite so revealing as putting two things side by side. I learned this at quite a number of wine-tastings. You have to choose two things that are in roughly the same aesthetic arena, otherwise they are incommensurable. Two that Lebrecht mentions are Britten and Tippett. Let's have a listen. As I'm a guitarist, I'm going to pick two pieces for guitar. The first is The Blue Guitar by Michael Tippett:

And for comparison, Nocturnal by Benjamin Britten:

Without getting into technical details, which in a case like this are not helpful anyway, let me make an analogy. Imagine two television shows: one is full of interesting and likeable characters whose lives and fate engage you. The other is full of people whom you vaguely dislike at first and more and more as you get to know them. They seem vain, shallow, self-absorbed and very much not interesting nor engaging. You could care less what happens to them.

That is how I feel about these two pieces. With one of them, every note seems right and draws me in. With the other, the themes seem so pointless that I couldn't care less how they are developed.

Do you see what I mean? Which is which, do you think?


Craig said...

Well, I cannot listen to the Tippett piece while I'm at work, but I've heard Britten's Nocturnal before, and you couldn't possibly be saying those nasty things about it.

Bryan Townsend said...