MusicWeb International’s twentieth anniversary: A reviewer looks back
by John Quinn
I haven’t been contributing to MusicWeb International (MWI) for all of its twenty-year history. Nonetheless, this milestone anniversary has prompted me to reflect on my own experience of MWI. More of that in a moment, but first I hope readers won’t mind if I indulge in just a little background.
I began writing for MWI in 2001. My old friend and former teacher, Adrian Smith contacted me out of the blue and said that he had been reviewing for MWI for a while and that new reviewers were being sought; might I be interested? I’m embarrassed to say that until then I’d never even heard of MWI. In those days I was something of an internet novice and, as an avid collector of recordings for well over 30 years, I relied on the printed media. I’d subscribed to Gramophone since the early 1970s but was on the point of giving up on it due to the depressing superficiality of its reviews. I was much happier with International Record Review, of which I bought every issue until its recent closure, which I very much regret. (I similarly regret the demise, also in early 2015, of the equally valuable Classical Recordings Quarterly.) After some email exchanges with Editor, Rob Barnett, I was up and running as a probationary reviewer and 14 years and some 1400 reviews later I’m still here. Incidentally, the number of reviews I’ve contributed may seem sizeable but it’s a paltry effort compared with some of my much more prolific colleagues who mix quantity and quality with ease.
It may be worth reminding readers at this point that all the MWI reviewers are volunteers. We don’t get paid for our contributions: our only “remuneration” is that we’re allowed to keep the promotional CDs that we receive, which is a handy way of boosting one’s collection. Some of my colleagues past and present have experience either as professional musicians or writers but essentially we are amateurs in the best sense of the word. For myself, I try to write my reviews from the perspective of a collector. One slight issue that arises from our amateur status is that if we wish to make comparisons with recordings that we’re appraising we can only draw on other recordings in our own collection, though some of my colleagues may draw also on streaming services. I have an indecently large collection of CDs but even then comparisons aren’t always possible.
In my time with MWI many recordings have come my way but what I have found myself reflecting on recently is the extent to which reviewing for the site has broadened – and, I hope, deepened – my own listening experience. There are many recordings which, in all probability, I would never have heard and many pieces, especially of recent music, that I’ve encountered for the first time thanks to MWI. It’s that reflection which has prompted this article.
The first composer whose name springs to mind in this context is JS Bach and in particular his sacred vocal music. I might well have bought all the issues in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series; indeed, the initial review of this series that I contributed was a composite review of the first few releases which I’d bought myself. Thereafter, however, Soli Deo Gloria kindly sent me the subsequent volumes to review. It was a hugely satisfying experience to follow the series through to completion. As I say, I might well have bought all those recordings anyway; I am less sure I would have purchased the three big boxes of Bach recordings by Fritz Werner, which I was invited to cover towards the end of 2004 (review ~ review ~ review). Werner’s readings were very different to Gardiner’s but of course, there’s more than one way to perform Bach’s magnificent music and I found that I greatly appreciated Werner’s wise way with Bach – rather more so than the often heavy style of Karl Richter. I also enjoyed very much the contributions of several of Werner’s soloists, especially those of Helmut Krebs and Agnes Giebel. So thank you, MWI. A further revelation came more recently with the issue on CD of some remarkable Bach performances conducted by Karl Ristenpart (review ~review). Ristenpart was of Werner’s generation but in many ways his performances were closer to Gardiner. His Bach recordings were another welcome discovery for which MWI was responsible.
Turning to music of our own time, in 2012 I was given the opportunity to survey all the available recordings of music by John Joubert to mark his 85th birthday that year. I readily confess that prior to this I knew too little of his music and a crash course in the recordings was required. I found it very rewarding and I fear that much of his music would have eluded me if it had not been for MWI. I hope that one day it will be possible to make a recording of his very fine choral work, An English Requiem, the first performance of which I reviewed for Seen and Heard in 2010.
MWI led me to another discovery in 2012 when I was invited to preview a performance of The Beatitudes by Sir Arthur Bliss. This was to take place in Coventry Cathedral as part of the Cathedral’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The work was written for the opening of the cathedral but, shamefully, was not premièred there; instead it had to wait 50 years for a performance in that great modern church. I had read about The Beatitudes but had never heard it. Through the kindness of Michael Foster I was able to hear an off-air recording of the work conducted by Sir David Willcocks, which fired my enthusiasm for it. Reviewing the Coventry performance for Seen and Heard was a great pleasure and subsequently two archive performances have appeared on CD, both conducted by Sir Arthur (review ~ review) and these will fill the gap until a modern recording appears.
Coventry gave me a truly great experience in 2012. The Cathedral was the venue for a remarkable performance of Britten’s War Requiem conducted by Andris Nelsons. I was privileged to be present to review the concert for Seen and Heard. The performance has now been preserved on DVD and Blu-Ray (review) and I would say it’s mandatory viewing for all who admire Britten’s great work. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that evening in Coventry Cathedral.
MWI has presented me with many other opportunities to review recordings of important choral pieces. Some of these, like the lovely Requiem of Gabriel Jackson (review), are discs that I might well have bought for myself even if I’d not been an MWI reviewer. But would I have encountered otherwise the remarkable choral work, The Cloud of Unknowing by Francis Pott (review)? I rather think not; and I’m sure I would not have become acquainted with his imposing organ symphony Christus (review). Rodion Shchedrin’s very beautiful choral work, The Sealed Angel might also have passed me by (review).
A fine composer whose music came to my attention through reviewing was Alec Roth. I grasped the opportunity to review for Seen and Heard the premières of two excellent choral works, both of which were written for the splendid Birmingham-based choir, Ex Cathedra. The first of these was Earthrise, commissioned for Ex Cathedra’s 40th anniversary in 2010. (review).They went on to make a very fine recording of the work (review). Their second major Roth commission was A Time to Dance in 2012 (review). At the moment there’s no recording of that highly original piece but I hope it won’t be long before it’s available on CD for a recording will bring the piece to the wide audience it deserves.
Ian Venables is another excellent English composer whose work I’ve got to know through reviewing opportunities. I think I’m particularly drawn to Venables’ output because he has written many excellent songs and the English song repertoire is an area of special interest for me. His songs are increasingly well represented on CD (review) as are his chamber and solo piano music (review). Through Seen and Heard I’ve been able to review the première performances of two Venables song cycles (review ~ review) and it’s excellent news that recordings of both these noteworthy cycles are to be released imminently; both of them will be sung on the recording by the artist who first performed them, the splendid baritone, Roderick Williams.
In 2007, to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Edward Elgar, I was encouraged to compile a survey of most of the available recordings of The Dream of Gerontius. That wasn’t a completely comprehensive survey because it was confined, of necessity, to the recordings that I myself owned. Seven years – and a few more recordings – later I took advantage of the eightieth anniversary of Elgar’s death to update the survey. So far as I’m aware the only recordings of the work then available which weren’t included, because I’ve never heard them, were those conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson and by David Hill. Even since last year, happily, the record companies have continued to “conspire” to make my survey incomplete by issuing new recordings of Gerontius. Chandos have given us the splendid recording by Sir Andrew Davis (review) and Profil put us in their debt by releasing a very good live performance given by Sir Colin Davis in Dresden (review), which improves on his LSO Live recording. But the most remarkable discovery – and here I revert to my theme of recordings that would probably not have come my way but for MWI – was the first CD issue of a live performance conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. This was a recording is the first performance of the work in Russia and it’s of great interest (review).
That Svetlanov Elgar performance was issued by Melodiya as part of their celebrations of the label’s 50th anniversary. An even more praiseworthy Melodiya release around the same time was a complete cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky (review). There are several seriously good performances here, all stemming from concert performances, and the great Russian conductor’s genuine enthusiasm for RVW’s music is worthy of celebration. I might not have bought this set myself – even I would find it hard to justify the purchase of a sixth complete RVW cycle – but I’m profoundly glad that MWI gave me the opportunity to hear it.
In addition to my own direct experiences I’ve encountered recordings through the prompting of colleagues. I reviewed almost all the Shostakovich symphony recordings by Vasily Petrenko – and bought those which I didn’t review. I admired most of what I heard but the reviews of some of the Petrenko recordings by my colleague, Dan Morgan convinced me that I needed to look wider. That led me to buy the complete Shostakovich cycle by Kirill Kondrashin, especially since the Melodiya CD release had been highly recommended by other MWI reviewers. Several of those same Kondrashin recordings on LP had been my initiation to Shostakovich forty years ago or more so it’s been most interesting to reacquaint myself with them.
Dan Morgan also encouraged me, through a review, to investigate a wonderful recording of Grechaninov’s Passion Week. He is not the only colleague whose reviews have prompted me to add recordings to my collection. The review by Dominy Clements of Alan Gilbert’s recordings of the Second and Third symphonies of Nielsen, together with the equally enthusiastic endorsement of Jack Lawson, prompted me to acquire that SACD. I wasn’t disappointed though subsequent instalments in the cycle didn’t quite match that initial promise (review ~ review). How could I have resisted the temptation to add Vernon Handley’s Bax symphony cycle to my collection after reading the laudatory review by Graham Parlett, one of several colleagues who reviewed this set? Well, I didn’t resist and it proved to be money well spent.
More recently I read Simon Thompson’s review of the reissued Chandos set of the Malcolm Arnold symphonies and he convinced me that I need the set as an essential complement to the Andrew Penny and Vernon Handley cycles I already own and the set is on order right now. Previously I’d come across his review of Riccardo Chailly’s Beethoven symphony cycle. Did I need yet another Beethoven cycle in my collection? Of course I didn’t but Simon’s comments persuaded me otherwise. Within a matter of weeks Simon was endangering my bank balance again – his reviews really ought to carry a financial health warning! This time it was his appraisal of Chailly’s Brahms symphony cycle. The purchase of yet another Brahms cycle would be a needless extravagance, I thought, but Simon pushed me over the edge. Both purchases have added to my appreciation of these two great symphony cycles so I’m indebted to Simon. As if that were not enough MWI gave me the excuse – or opportunity – to hear a Beethoven cycle that, inexplicably, had eluded me for the best part of fifty years: Karajan’s 1963 DG cycle, reissued on both CD and BD-A to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. Reviewing it for MusicWeb International made me realise why it has been such an important presence in the catalogue for five decades, not least for the peerless playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker.
I fear that further expense may be on the way. For years I’ve thought I ought to investigate Wagner properly and I’ve vacillated over whether to acquire the celebrated Solti Decca ‘Ring’. Brian Wilson’s recent evaluation of the BD-A version of the recordings may be the straw that breaks the back of this particular camel, especially since I sampled extracts from the BD-A recording some time ago in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and was mightily impressed.
And still the learning process goes on, thanks to MWI. In 2015 alone I’ve had the chance to review Havergal Brian’s remarkable opera, The Tigers (review). That was new to me and so too was Maximilian Steinberg’s very beautiful Passion Week (review). There were also the first two symphonies by the American, John Harbison (review) – I hope to explore the other four symphonies shortly.
My work for MWI has given me so many stimulating listening opportunities over the last fourteen years – the examples above only scratch the surface. And it’s a tribute, I think, to the sheer quality of the composers, artists and recording engineers that neither at home listening to recordings nor in the concert hall have I suffered many disappointments.
However, my most rewarding MWI experience came through one of many Mahler reviews that I’ve had the good fortune to undertake. In 2011 I reviewed a CD set that coupled recordings of the Sixth and Eighth symphonies conducted by Eduard Flipse. Both were live performances from the 1950s. I admired them both. The story of the recording of the Eighth was quite remarkable; it was a veritable community project involving several amateur Dutch choirs who put in countless hours of rehearsal in order to take part in the performance. So unusual – and admirable – were the circumstances that led to the performance that I covered the background in some detail in my review. I submitted the review and thought no more about it until 2013 when our Editor received an email that was as delightful as it was moving. The email came from Marjan van Gulik, who had come across the review completely by chance. Her mother had been a member of one of the participating choirs but she had never owned the LPs of the recording and was completely unaware of the CD issue. Alerted by the review, Marjan bought the CDs as a birthday gift for her mother. We were so touched by this story that, with her permission, Marjan’s story was appended to the review. It’s well worth reading.
That was an exceptional case but we know from the comments that are posted on our Message Board that our readers study our reviews very carefully and feedback is always welcome. Some of the discussions that open up on the Message Board are fascinating and show the depth of knowledge and interest among our readers. The recent discussion about Malcolm Arnold, initiated by Colin Mackie, struck me as being an example of the Message Board at its best.
It would be fascinating to hear, perhaps through the Message Board, from our readers or from fellow MWI reviewers about their experiences of having their ears opened or led in new directions through reviews that they’ve read on MusicWeb International. Equally, if any of our readers are tempted by the prospect of the rewards of reviewing then I know our Editor, Rob Barnett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is always very happy to hear from music lovers who would like to join our team.