Archive for May, 2010


Musicians and critics

Way back in the late 1970s when I began my career as a professional music critic I learnt that musicians respond to press criticism in one of three ways. The vast majority let it pass, accepting it for what it is – the valid comments of an informed listener – whether or not they agree with the critic’s opinions. But others feel obliged to respond largely, I suspect, through a sense of insecurity.

These musicians fall into two groups. The first, responding when you say nice things about them, with a gushing letter describing you as “informed” and declaring their undying respect for you and your “perceptive comments”. The second, responding when they perceive (sometimes wrongly) that you didn’t like their performance, with a stream of vitriol describing you as “uninformed” and declaring that they dismiss your “ignorant comments” as the ramblings of one who has no idea what they’re talking about. Of these two groups, I think in my case that the former is rarely accurate while I am almost proud to be associated with the latter. What’s the point of a critic who knows so much about something that he regards himself as superior to the performer; the type of critic who writes (as I have actually seen in print) “when I play this work I would always start the crescendo at least a bar later”? As I have always told my musical criticism students (and, by the way, I run a pretty good course on musical criticism so if any music conservatoires are reading this, I’m available for hire!!), the job of the critic, especially at a live concert, is to be the mouthpiece of the audience; to give an informed opinion but not to get up on to a pedestal and talk down to anyone who listens. The musicians want to know how their performance came across, while the audience likes to have a valid opinion on which to hang their own less confidently voiced ideas. Once you start lecturing, showing off a depth of knowledge far beyond that which is the norm in any concert/recital audience, you have stepped outside the realms of criticism and entered the realms of frustrated performer. Surely there’s no validity in that.

In my time I’ve had some really wonderful encounters with enraged musicians who fall unquestionably into that latter group. There was the Swedish organist who, having churned out no less than eight CDs in the space of a year, objected when I wrote a review on the ninth which included the comment; “xxx xxx must be pretty tired of so much exposure to the microphones by now, and I have to confess there is a touch of the routine about his unenlightening trudge through the [Bach] Prelude”. (At that point, he blew a fuse and fired off a missive, apparently unaware that the very next sentence of my review read; “However, by the Fugue, his enthusiasm is restored and we have an account as bright and breezy as if he is fresh back from a holiday far removed from either organ or recording apparatus”.) Within days of the review appearing I received this from him; “My playing of Bach can never be described as ‘routine’. I devote many hours into preparing every bar for my recordings. Your cruel review made me want to commit suicide”. It’s wrong for a critic to respond – we usually get the last word so we shouldn’t deny it to others once in a while – but I couldn’t resist a reply on this occasion, sending him a postcard with the message; “I’m delighted my review almost had one positive result”. The trouble was, he gave up playing for six years and I had a few sleepless nights until he re-surfaced.

Then there was the famous English composer, best known for his sickly choral arrangements of Christmas Carols, who objected to a review I had penned for The Musical Times (Ah! there’s a magazine that used to be worth reading). I expressed the view that they all looked the same to me, describing them as “formulaic” and adding; “once you have heard one oh-so-sweet flute descant, you have heard them all” and “one can quickly grow tired of endless successions of butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-your-mouth added sixth harmonies”. The composer sent a vast letter to Stanley Sadie, the then editor of the magazine, who forwarded it to me with suitable editorial underlinings and comments to let me know whose side he was one. It began; “Dear Dr Sadie. I wish to tell you how much I respect your work as editor of The Musical Times. Under your guardianship, this noble publication has risen to great heights of academic and musical scholarship, and is respected throughout the English-speaking world for the breadth and depth of its insight and observation. So I am at a loss as to why you should employ such lightweight and ill-informed ‘critics’ as Marc Rochester, whose name is totally unfamiliar to me. Who is this Marc Rochester? I’ve never heard of him and I suspect nobody else has. He knows nothing and parades his ignorance in esteemed company with which he has no right to associate. His sole purpose in his appallingly written review of the “xxxxxxxxxx” was to denigrate me. I have no interest in his opinions. They are worthless. Like Jeffrey Archer and Andrew Lloyd Webber, I have become used to the carping and destructive criticism of those who envy our popular success. I am surprised that you have allowed your magazine to jump on to the bandwagon usually the preserve of tabloid newspapers”. Stanley found the bit about Archer and Lloyd Webber particularly amusing, adding a comment over the name on the embossed notepaper from the composer, “Who is HE?”.

Best of all was the physical response to my criticism from an eminent Cambridge College organist of the 1970s and 80s. While George Guest was Director of Music at St Johns’ College Cambridge, he created a choir of considerable acclaim and they produced some ground-breaking records for the Decca label and its subsidiaries – most of which still exist on CD transfers, so that shows how good they were. I’ve written admiringly about many of his recordings. But I always found it vaguely daft that he felt the need to turn, in his later years, into a quasi Welsh nationalist. He was Welsh by birth, lived nearly all his life in England, and for most of his life passed himself off as an English gentleman . As retirement loomed, he suddenly became aware of his Welsh roots and started to parade them with increasing blatancy. He studied Welsh and eventually got an O level in the language. On the strength of that, he asked to be an adjudicator at the National Eisteddfod held, that year, in Caernarfon. It was, to me, a ridiculous spectacle; an eminent Cambridge musician, a pillar of English choral music, standing in a draughty marquee, commenting in schoolboy Welsh on the antics of various Cor Meibion and Penillion groups made up of farmers and farmers’ wives, with a gravitas not helped by the fact that it was so muddy he was obliged to wear green wellies and a plastic mac. I was in charge of the event’s press coverage for one of the Welsh national newspapers that year, and wrote a very long piece about how the Welsh only rule on the Eisteddfod field was being stretched beyond credibility by “ersatz Welshmen with an O level pass in Cymraeg as their solo qualification for pontificating on activities which, in other circumstances, they wouldn’t touch with a bargepole”. Funnily enough, George took this personally, and he never forgave me. It may have been fuelled by the fact that he had been largely responsible for appointing me to my the sub-organist’s post at Bangor Cathedral and that I had resigned from the Royal College of Organists on a point of ethics immediately after he had been appointed its President – and that was a genuine coincidence. Matters came to a head after Evensong in Southwell Minster one sunny Thursday several years later. Attending as a delegate to the Incorporated Association of Organists conference held in nearby Nottingham, I was not surprised to see George Guest there and, afterwards I went up to him to say hallo, myself having long forgotten the dispute. He hadn’t! He grabbed my tie and threw punches in my general direction. I responded, and the congregation of elderly organists, even more elderly ladies (who inhabit all Anglican choral evensongs) and incredibly ancient clerics, hobbling out of the Minster, were greeted to the unedifying spectacle of two portly gentlemen laying into each other. Frank Fowler, a kindly and talented organ builder, managed to separate us and while George was led off by his embarrassed wife, I was hustled into a nearby pub. I wrote to apologise to George, but he never replied and died not long afterwards.

Has my policy of always voicing my true opinions been a mistake? Might it not have been better to ingratiate myself with those on whose talents critics feed and, irrespective of my true feelings, always said nice things? Should I not have cultivated friendships with musicians rather than risked alienating them? No. If I did that I’d have made an enemy of the person whose opinion I value most highly; myself! And if a critic doesn’t tell the truth, there’s absolutely no point in him writing anything. I’ve made mistakes (a classic being my assessment of Arvo Pärt as someone “having a joke at our expense”) and often changed my mind after committing things to print, but all my criticisms have always been and always will be, genuine and fair assessments made on the basis of what the performer has presented there and then, and informed – but not governed – by my own experience and knowledge. Once a critic starts to look over his shoulder, either to cement or create a friendship with a musician or to impress his readership, the value of criticism is negated. Our job is to say what we think and then face the consequences, be they suicide threats or the odd punch on the nose in a Nottinghamshire churchyard.


Suggested Recordings

The most common question which comes into the “Ask Dr Marc” page on the MPO website concerns the Suggested Recordings we put in the programme booklets for every MPO concert. I’ve also had queries from respondents to this blog asking about the lists of recordings that go with the SSO and HKPO notes. It seems that there is a very large body of music lovers who believe that having a large CD collection, which they can buy in a proper CD shop and play on proper CD equipment, is an essential part of being a true music lover.

I couldn’t agree more. To have ready access to great music and great recordings is something every true music-lover should cultivate. After all CDs are cheap (yes, they are, when you consider the costs of musicians’ fees, music copyright, venue bookings, time and effort from engineering staff and the cost of the recording equipment) and in most civilised countries of the world, are easily available. And when you have bought your CD you want to hear it to its best advantage, so you don’t mess around putting it on a home theatre system, with its grotesquely disfiguring (to music) amplifiers and speakers, nor yet do you stick it on a disco-combi thingy where all the energy goes into flashing lights and none into faithful music reproduction. On top of that, most true CD aficionados build their collection by part-seeking out specific CDs, but more especially by browsing through the shelves in stores and picking up things they don’t know and wish to try out. If you’re not willing to experiment and try something new, then you’re not a music lover; you are just someone who likes, say, Beethoven’s Fifth or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth.

So this post is for those who, while they realise that no recording can ever begin to be a substitute for the meanest live performance (and especially not those spurious “live” recordings which are rarely any such thing), love their CDs.

A year into the MPO’s existence, we thought we might encourage our audience to seek a little further into music and point them in the direction of worthwhile recordings of the music they heard at each MPO concert. Not wishing to blind them with choices, I used to select the one recording of each work performed which I thought (and it has always been a personal choice) was the best. The rule was simple; it had to be available through the CD stores in KL. In those days we had a couple of fantastic outlets – Tower Records and a fantastic one run by the Dama Orchestra under Merdeka Square – and I would go along every week and riffle through the shelves, see what was there and check that they had w; which often proved very enlightening. At one point, when Tower Records moved into KLCC, I even tried to set up a partnership between them and the MPO, but it never came to anything. It was Kees Bakels who suggested that one recommendation wasn’t enough and suggested 10 or 12. The idea of such information over-flow horrified us all, but we settled on three; one (if possible) featuring the artist or conductor concerned in the concert (or, failing that, a popular artist with MPO audiences), the second being my personal recommendation and the third being either an historic recording (which KB thought were important to introduce to the audience) or a bargain-priced one. In the case of the latter two, these still had to be available locally.

And so it continued until both those great CD shops disappeared; Tower Records struggled once the American parent went into receivership and eventually had to move into a dingy corridor in Lot 10 where it now peddles wall-to-wall pop videos in a pale shadow of a once great high street name, while the Dama premises was flooded out in those horrendous pre-Smart Tunnel floods, and went out of business. With major labels reluctant to ship to Malaysia because of the piracy problem, as often as not my recommendations, when I would try them out on any of those awful online shops, would come back with the message that the product could not be shipped to my location (would I like to move to, say, Los Angeles?, while at the same time finding it impossible to refund my money). So I decided against recommending any disc unless it was available either directly from the label’s own website or through the major CD stores (which, sadly now, means HMV) in Singapore.

So, for those who ask, I don’t recommend the “best”, but I recommend the best that you can realistically get hold of legally. You’ll not see many Karajan or Bernstein suggestions from me – because I can’t stand most of their work on disc – and Naxos don’t feature very much – they are neither as ubiquitous nor as cheap in South East Asia as they are elsewhere (which is odd for a Hong Kong company) and a lot of their discs don’t, when you delve into it, bear up well in direct comparisons with the major labels, orchestras and artists. But, while it remains my personal suggestion, I love to hear what others think, and after a very kind and gentle rebuke from a certain MPO conductor, I was delighted to stumble across a disc which he had recommended but which I had never suggested simply because I had never heard it and didn’t think it was possible to get hold of in Malaysia. I stumbled across it in a Hong Kong store last week and have to admit it was all it was cracked up to be and more; Claus Peter Flor’s Beethoven Piano Concertos on Berlin Classics is well worth rooting out, and now I can point you in the direction of a store which sells is and can send it out to those who can’t make it to Hong Kong.

It’s a store that’s been there for years, and I had visited it many years back, but I only found it again when I happened to be looking out of the upstairs window of a passing bus. It specialises in the small labels and carries not just the entire ASV, Berlin Classics, Chandos, CPO, Hyperion, Dorian catalogues – and hundreds of others I’ve never even heard of – but ships them around Asia. Their showroom is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave for CD aficionados and you could spend a day there drooling over things you’ve never even heard of. The Regis and Brilliant Classics labels are there in full swing, as well as NMR, RCO, Testament… the list goes on. Of course, there will be those who will immediately write in to say they’ve known about it for years, but from now on, I’m going to check their stock when I draw up my lists of suggested recordings, so expect to see something a little more way out in the future.

May 2010