Monday, January 22, 2018

Reviews and a Concert

I just ran across a delightful piece of journalism that is a bit of a homage to nasty, critical reviews. It is full of gems ranging from restaurant reviews to record reviews to movie reviews: Why everyone likes to read a negative review, but nobody likes to be reviewed negatively. A sample:
When Pete Wells, restaurant critic at the New York Times, descended upon Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square in the winter of 2012, and returned to his desk to pen an outrageously scornful open letter to owner and namesake Guy Fieri (in lieu of a straightforward review), he transcended New York, transcended his reputation and transcended even the circulation of the Times. “Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?” Wells writes, worked into a paroxysm of sardonic fury. “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?” Those, by the way, are some of the milder barbs. Even a harmless Baked Alaska Wells eviscerates as nothing less than “a representation in sugar and eggs of the experience of going insane.” Wells is, of course, an influential and prolific critic, and a fine writer. Not one word he has written before or since is quite as famous as these.
Restaurant reviews, like movie reviews, can be even more entertaining than their subjects. Music reviews, alas, rarely are. Not sure why, unless it is because popular music reviews tend to be largely advertisements for the product while classical music reviews have to avoid the kind of technical detail that would make for a really telling critique. Mind you, this was much less true in the past. Apparently Hanslick's review of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto haunted him the rest of his days and he was able to quote large portions of it verbatim! Nowadays most classical musicians trudge along, suffering the humiliation of no reviews at all, with the occasional ones consisting of a kind of bland boosterism: "audiences thrilled this past weekend to concerts by ******* and ****** as they performed a selection of music by ******** and *******.

This past weekend I did attend a concert by visiting artists Dmitry Kousov, cello and Yulia Kousov, piano in a concert of music by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev and quite enjoyed it. I have to admit to a fascination with Russian music and musicians in recent years. This was true even before my mammoth series of posts on Stravinsky (and before him, Shostakovich). Russians, as a people, just seem to take music so very seriously. The first piece on the program was the Sonata in C major, op. 102 for cello and piano by Beethoven. I don't know the Beethoven cello sonatas very well, but from the very first notes, the performers gave an engaging and committed performance. What do I mean by that? As a matter of fact, a lot of performers in classical music are what I call "note-spinners." They go onstage and deliver the right notes in the right order and right rhythm, but one senses that they don't mean a lot by them. They are something less than deeply committed artists. Audiences often don't pick up on this and regard these performances, if they involve enough virtuoso fireworks, as being perfectly acceptable. I find them boring. How is this manifest? It is really in how the details are handled: the timbres, the balancing of harmonies, the minutia of how phrases are shaped. This is where the soul of the music is communicated. In any case, our Russian duo were very much in the music and it was communicated very well.

The second piece was the Cello Suite No. 3, also in C major, by Bach and this was a lively performance. Actually, I thought the prelude was rather too fast. Also, I wish he had done the repeats, at least of the first halves of the dance movements, which he did not, apart from the second bourrée. Very enjoyable nonetheless.

In the second half the Schumann was beautifully lyrical, just as it should be. The Prokofiev was successful as well and I need to investigate his chamber music more. I was puzzled by the enthusiasm of the audience at the end of this piece, given as it was the most challenging on the program. But my companion explained it to me: the audience leapt to their feet and shouted bravo partly because this was the last piece and it is sort of expected. Ah. The performers came back and gave an encore, the Vocalise by Rachmaninov. Luckily we have a YouTube clip of the artists playing that very piece:

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