Classical music reviews – seriously, what’s the point?

Of course music is a subjective experience. Where I may hear unmatched beauty in a particular performance, others may hear the snooze-inducing self-indulgence of an uninspiring dirge. Opinion is divided along extremely personal lines, taking into account the experiences, preferences and tastes of the listener, as well as any of the other trillion factors that influence our moods and emotions (the bus was late, an argument with the wife, ‘I could have sworn that lady over there gave me a dirty look’ etc. and so on).

If you’re the type of person who likes to take into account a broad number of opinions, you’ll soon notice that one person’s ‘hogwash’ is another person’s Holy Grail.

So, seriously, what’s the point in a review?

Of course, you ask most musicians or composers this question and you’ll soon understand the impact reviews can have on their lives and work. You see, reviewers (as culpable of bias, uninformed opinion and strange personal preferences as any one of you or I) can, in one clumsy swoop of the pen, damn a performance, composition or recording irreparably. They can make the difference between sales and losses, success and failure, queues and tumbleweed floating around the ticket booth of a concert hall.

So, seriously, what’s the point of them?

We often make arbitrary decisions in our lives. We watch an advert on this or that and choose to buy or not to buy for the silliest of reasons (as someone who’s in advertising, I have some experience of this). But, when you take the time to look at a variety of classical music reviews of the same music or concert, you could be in danger of being left truly befuddled.

The BBC Proms – ‘Yeyyyy’, ‘Booooo’

One of the influences for this particular article was the recent Proms performance of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim in this year’s season of the BBC Proms. I read three reviews of the same performance and still came no closer to knowing whether it was an unmitigated success or verging on the precipice of disaster.

Let’s take a quick look:

The Telegraph

The Telegraph’s review of the Prom 12 performance of Beethoven and Boulez is filled with passionate praise.

‘The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, under conductor Daniel Barenboim, made Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony arch with radiant beauty’

‘It showed Boulez has the power to move as well as excite’

Beethoven’s Fifth ‘blazed with an optimistic fervour which took on a surprising colour at the end’

Wow – that must really have been some concert. Forget the kids’ tuition fees, book me an entire row for the next!

The Guardian

‘Barenboim’s way with Beethoven – carefully moulded, deploying large forces – wasn’t ideal for the Fifth, which had great nobility but at times not nearly enough drive’

Ahhh, right. Well, the kids can still go to school, but perhaps I’ll get one ticket for the next concert. After all, Ricky Gervais said that Beethoven is generally considered to be the best composer.

The Arts Desk

‘Heavyweight Beethoven proved leaden-footed at times’

‘The first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 may be marked “Allegro non troppo”, but the composer’s in-built caveat against high speeds surely doesn’t imply quite the ponderous plod that Barenboim took his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on last night.’

‘You couldn’t dine on Barenboim’s Beethoven every day; it would be altogether too rich for anyone’s digestion.’

Honey, grab your coat, we’re off to Butlins. Yep, forget the Beethoven, apparently that last concert was a proper train-wreck.

The rub

And here we come to the crux of the matter. You see, apparently this particular concert included a particularly unfortunate snafu. The programme notes had been bodged to such a degree that everyone trudged out of the concert at the wrong time, missing a significant portion of the second act.

I found it amusing that the Guardian article claimed that this was the main reason this concert would be remembered, while the Telegraph review didn’t even mention the mishap. Surely, you would have noticed the noise of an entire audience making their way back to their seats half-way through the playing of a piece.

I’m not suggesting that this is what happened with the Telegraph reviewer but it does remind me of a story I once heard from my father-in-law. A concert that was to be played in Venice was cancelled at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances. The next morning, he read the papers. The first newspaper discussed the cancellation, while the second was highly enthusiastic, speaking in gushing terms about how the concert was a fabulous success.

It brings me back to my first point:

Classical music reviews – no, really, seriously, what’s the point?

To leave you with today I am linking to a video of (what else could it be) Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, 1st movement played by the wonderful, useless, exquisite, hapless (insert newspaper name where appropriate) Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. No, seriously, this one’s great! Take my word for it… or don’t.

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