15 October 2013

No matter how you slice it, it's baloney

The exhortation, Give up on Beethoven ... You’ve got Stockhausen now (and it doesn’t matter which two composers’ names are plugged in there), does not somehow become a sensible proposition, just because Miles Davis said it.

There is a review which I have lately read, a review of the recently released Petrenko/Royal Liverpool recording of the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, which is unfavorable.  The good news, though, is that there is no musical content to the negative review.  There is scarcely a fact or a musical observation in the review, only fancy dressing for, not merely I don’t like it, but I don’t get why other people like this conductor’s work.

It is not that I object to negative reviews; only I think it is not unreasonable to expect the reviewer to give us musical reasons for his dislike.  Instead, this bloviator gave us a pointless litany of derisive phrases: curiously rhetorical, vacuous and/or banal, pawing at the soil, little to engage or inspire, tension slackens alarmingly, much too intent on manicure and polish, what a pity, rhythms lack menace, passes for precious little, a series of diverting, self-indulgent doodles, while pleasing in themselves they add nothing to the essential narrative, we’ve been here before, and all too often, weak, indecisive, no match for the strength and thrust of the best, nothing more than a mild attack of the vapours, it’s all so damn tentative.

Now, I have listened to the recording, and I think the performance and the interpretation excellent.  It isn’t that I disagree with the negative review;  there are no hard assertions to disagree with.  It is simply that all those negative phrases signal to me a reviewer who just wants to vent.  And I am a little surprised (even in these Days of the Blogosphere) that a reviewer thinks that there is somehow any charm just in venting.

For me personally, the funniest item orbiting around the review is . . . When Peter Bloom and I were chatting after our King’s Chapel recital the Tuesday before, something Peter mentioned triggered an amusing Wooster memory. For my very last jury at Wooster, there were only two jurors: my clarinet instructor, and the flute instructor (an adjunct faculty member who came onto campus two days a week to give lessons). I played something which not long before I had played (and played quite well) for my senior recital.

My clarinet instructor, Nancy, was entirely satisfied with my playing for the jury. The other juror’s comments on the sheet were brief, and went thus: You played fast, you played slow. So what?

Happily, my own teacher was there to put this into context, so that my spirit was not shattered. But, as I say, I felt I had played very well, and my instructor felt the same.

It struck me that a 650-word review, which opens with the Everybody likes this guy, so Ill telegraph that I refuse to like him chestnut, and concludes with the hand-wringing un-conclusion, Try as I might I simply cannot fathom blah blah blah, boils down to no more than: You played fast, you played slow. So what?

Reviews whose informational content never rises above I don’t like this recording, listen, here are these others I like better; sorry I cannot be bothered to give you musical reasons why are the journalistic equivalent of fruitflies.  Plentiful, but no one needs them.

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