Seen&Heard Editor: Marc Bridle                              Founder Len Mullenger:

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S & H Editorial

PART 1: An editor’s sideswipe at standards of music criticism.

Few, at least amongst those with a healthy interest in classical music, should now dispute the view that Internet music journalism offers a viable, and serious, alternative to the declining ‘art’ of newspaper criticism. This is particularly so in the field of concert reviews where the quality of criticism emanating from UK broadsheets is at best variable and at worst based on unintelligibly slack writing. The most recent example of this is a review of Jonathan Powell’s performance of Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum, the opening recital of this autumn’s PLG series on the South Bank. Turn to The Guardian and you are faced with a review that spends 90% of its time telling us about the composer and the reviewer’s own distaste for the music; finding the 10% that comments on the performance can often seem like trying to find a needle in a haystack (even in a review so characteristically brief as the one published.)

This is by no means an exception. The Guardian, which fields a somewhat younger team of reviewers than the ones from its rival London broadsheets, can often find itself out of its depth. Lieder recitals often seem to be reviewed by critics too young to be able to make the invaluable distinction between performances of the present and performances of the past; it is inconceivable to think that any of them might have been to the Schubertiade; some seemingly cannot read music, or determine the accuracy of spoken (sung) language. What they base comparison on is anyone’s guess. Yet, reviews are penned in the belief that what we are reading is an opinion of substance. It is not. It is more often an over-exposure to sentiment rather than to fact that leads these reviews to lack the clarity and stature – even the conviction – of the best writing in the genre. The Internet features this amply, of course – but at least the space provided for the review gives an opportunity to meld the sentiment with the factual. But this really isn’t the case in the broadsheets: amid psycho-babble and indiscriminate repetition of programme notes an opinion is rarely forthcoming (precisely because valuable space has been taken up with irrelevant nonsense), and, if it is, it is given with such scant attention to the detail of performance that one wonders what purpose it serves. No wonder performers – singers, conductors, pianists and so on - hold the ‘profession’ in such low esteem.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Part of this may be due to a lack of specialisation (something which I suppose the Internet can afford to nurture with its reviewers, even occasionally indulge) but the very fact a reviewer does comment on a performance they were, in retrospect, ill-equipped to comment on does leave them open to valid criticism and exposure of their own limitations. It is all very well to write with efficiency and knowledge about Lieder, but perhaps not on Bel Canto when the published result shows little empathy or understanding of that particular genre.

The Guardian is not alone in this, of course (and the above observations are not necessarily specific to that paper). The Times, The Telegraph, and to a lesser extent The Independent, where reviews are largely thoughtful and discriminate (though long out of date by the time they appear), are guilty of similar critical failures. Look to Europe – and especially La Libération, Die Welt, Wiener Zeitung and to the United States – notably the New York Times and the current dearth in critical opinion does seem to be a peculiarly English one. The only British newspaper to approach the continental level of music criticism is the Financial Times and even then it is the reviews from its overseas correspondents which balances out the indiscipline of its native English critics.

Yet, this is to tell only half the story. A Spectator article earlier this year levelled criticism at Internet sites for the shallowness of their writing. The author had a point, even if he had blindingly failed to look closer to home at the limitations of print journalism (including his own.) But in substance, Internet journalism can be as bad, if not necessarily worse, than what we read at the breakfast table or on our journeys to work. One Internet site’s blanket coverage of this year’s Proms was note-worthy for a clutch of reviews that were both uncritical and poorly written – and ultimately, weakly edited (and I have every sympathy – sometimes editors do receive reviews which are beyond rescue.) There might have been a greater preparedness in the reviews to discuss the performances - and that was often the case compared with the normal dross of the broadsheets - but it is questionable that even the most barely literate of those reviews would have made it into the second division of newspapers (though, one should say that they were a better read than the Mail on Sunday’s efforts which reminded one of a burlesque, florid musings uncomfortably close to Mills & Boon – a kind of journalism for which people actually get paid – and handsomely.)

It is this precarious balance – between the sometimes mundane and the sometimes revelatory – that makes Internet reviews at present a far from satisfactory substitute for broadsheets (at least that is partly what a press officer will tell you when looking for a byline to sell tickets – though many, of course, are happy privately to admit that a growing gulf exists between the two formats with the Internet providing vastly superior standards of criticism on the back of declining standards elsewhere.) Too randomly good, too randomly mediocre, they don’t yet offer a higher level of contrast with the broadsheets to make them indispensable reading – and indispensably quotable - and with those now available on the Internet daily it is a cheek by jowl contrast that is very easy to make. But look hard enough and you will find better reviews in the hidden corners of the Internet that reflect more valuably the truer sense of an event and an occasion.

Why is this the case? In part (and always a good scapegoat) it is down to a failure by successive governments to address the issue of arts funding that has largely left orchestras and opera houses so deplete of resources that sterility has set in; both seem largely to be preserved in a kind of formaldehyde that encourages them to dispense with the new and the original in favour of the safe and the old. If we live in a society where the overweening culture of thought is to denigrate the arts to the backwaters we cannot expect music criticism to reflect anything other than that failure. There is only cynicism and negativity, one lack of imagination spawning another. One suspects that the current spate of ‘Rattle Baiting’, in itself a growing and unnecessary blood sport, has less to do with his perceived artistic failures (just how many London critics, I wonder, have heard Rattle conduct Suk’s Asrael so glowingly with the BPO, an artists ‘right of reply’ if I have ever heard one in recent years) and more to do with the fact that he has taken his talents to Berlin, a city which takes its music seriously as we in London do not. British critics are unforgiving of any talent, let alone of one who deserts a sinking ship for the safety of a lifeboat elsewhere.

Yet, ignoring the funding issues one must also blame the businessmen/managers who steer the orchestras and opera houses, almost purposely, into choppy waters. Safe programmes – of which there are now so many any editor must find it difficult to choose which he wants a review of – no longer offer the comfort of capacity houses, the main reason they are offered in the first place. Lacklustre programmes, under unimaginative conductors, offer little critical challenge, at least in London (though look elsewhere and the situation is slightly different – in October, for example, the BBCPO will be performing Mieczyslaw Karlowicz's Revival Symphony (1903) and in November Oramo will be airing two complex scores by John Foulds – and those are simply representative examples.) An anodyne review might well be a reflection of this inherent ‘boredom’ (and what critic hasn’t dozed off during another run-of-the-mill Beethoven performance) – though that, in itself, is not a valid excuse for the vapid journalism we read. The only salvation for music criticism is a complete overhaul of what needs to be and what should be reviewed. Only through that can a writer regain a sense of perspective, a sense of newness in what was once a valuable critical art. Whether in the end that does anything to change concert programmes is anyone’s guess.

But as someone perceptively pointed out on a Sorabji newsgroup, in comment on The Guardian’s Powell review, the less a writer knows about a work the less intelligently he is able to comment on it, covering up a lack of intelligence with ‘bluster and nonsense’; or, as someone else recently said to me ‘with a lack of sophistication’. It is a universal truth that can nowadays be applied almost daily to the reviews we read, and not just in the newspapers. It is this struggle that confronts critics and which this editor will address in part two of this editorial.

Marc Bridle




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