Thursday, 3 December 2015

Wanting to like: a personal (sustained) note on classical music criticism…


Generally, I have a lousy memory. Yet, held in my head is a bank of hundreds of concerts (both as audience member and performer): some in great, specific detail; some encapsulated in one particular element or work – the majority just as broader experiences. However, these still contribute to the fuel that is my intense, fathomless love of music in its manifold varieties; and which, pieced together, form the backbone of my spiritual existence.

I wondered if the depth and significance of each such ‘episode’ was related to its emotional impact: and that does seem – on the whole – to be the case. (Technique, novelty and location also play their parts – although only with a few walk-on words halfway through Act IV.) Take this random, disorderly sample (of ten – and excluding the likes of Springsteen, U2, The Who, Rush and even AC/DC) that suddenly tumbles into view:
  • Maurizio Pollini playing Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces as an encore at the Edinburgh Festival. I have no idea what was on the main programme! This was so beautiful, though. I was on the front row, trying not to cry. Having just learned to play them, this felt like the most personal of messages.
  • Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – again in Edinburgh. Again, I cannot remember what else was performed; or whether this came before or after the interval. It was truly electric – although ragged as heck!
  • Accompanying two more-talented friends on the piano as their instruments sang the Bach Double Violin Concerto, in Wesley Hall, Blackburn; sharing a programme with duettists Peter Donohoe and Martin Roscoe. I must have been sixteen or seventeen. We all turned pages for each other – although if I’d known how famous these two would become (although very funny, ordinary blokes in the flesh, they are also, of course, extraordinarily accomplished), I would have probably hidden under the piano, instead!
  • The wonderful, rich-voiced, marvellously expressive – and sometimes bloody hilarious – Michael Rippon, singing the baritone rôle in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. Glorious. “Slain!”
  • Mitsuko Ochida playing three Mozart sonatas, quietly, immersed in reverential silence, in the Chicago Symphony Center, on a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon. Warmth of the most human kind.
  • Singing Past Three A Clock, solo, in the fabulous Raadhuis Hilversum – only finding later that it was a live broadcast on the local radio station! I was eleven: and was simultaneously discovering the power of great architecture.
  • Janet Baker in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. No idea of venue – probably the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Sometime around a thousand years ago…. No voice before or since has been this perfect. Nor ever will be.
  • The Orchestra of the Swan (who else) at the Pittville Pump Room, in Cheltenham, slamming gleefully through Adams’ Shaker Loops. Not really my cup of tea… – but the enthusiasm and clarity (two of the many positive properties that still grip me) were astonishing (and have not waned one jot): and therefore fluently quashed my cynicism. The Guardian drily referred to this as “suitably spirited playing”. (Bloody journalists.)
  • John Lill accompanying a string quartet (whose name will not emerge from the fog) in Elgar’s haunting Piano Quintet, at Malvern. Sent the shivers continually up and down my spine: like a paternoster on speed.
  • Conducting Messiah at the very last moment, due to illness, in King George’s Hall, Blackburn – when I only had a bit of fluff on my top lip. I had never directed anything bigger than a church choir; had only ever sung the treble and bass lines, and played piano for rehearsals. It scared the pants off me – but I understood immediately the addiction of shaping a performance (although I must have barely achieved this). It was just unnerving to have so many people staring at me all the time…! (When you’re playing an instrument, you can usually ignore any audience.) Hallelujah!


I started pondering on this subject during the interval at Tuesday night’s splendiferous A Scandinavian Serenade – after someone very generously said that my review of the truly-memorable-in-all-its-heartbreaking-glory Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday was “just like being there”. (They hadn’t been: so I took this as great praise… of course!) And, although it would be easy for me to be glib about such approbation – although I have no desire (or ability) to be “the best music critic who ever lived” – it actually, accidentally, is one of my main aims (retrospectively) in producing these things: aspiring to capture the moment; create a written snapshot (JB Priestley-style), an aide-mémoire for myself and others; and to crystallize the ephemeral for eternity, as well as those who could not be there.

Some performances are recorded in sound and vision (for that posterity, of course); but, however wonderful, these have been subjected to an engineer’s cleansing touch in some way; are from impossible multiple viewpoints; and cannot, and do not, replicate the immersive involvement of simply being part of it. Who cares about the odd cough or sneeze (like the pops on vinyl); habitual programme fiddlers; or fidgety children? There is something ineffable about the atmosphere; as well as the sounds and sights, that are filtered through your own subjectivity and singular perspective. Yes, there are the musical details to be listed (and I apologize if I sometimes become overly technical – “you can tell that you are a musician”, I was told – more adulation… I think) – but it is that strange umpteenth dimension; that dangerous Boojum… that I am trying to ensnare.


Cardus gave me two tips… One was: don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, and the second was: never write out of a bad mood. I’ve tried to stick to those principles.

Theatre reviews – especially commercial ones – have a different purpose. (Professional writers – the few that seem to be left – are also often limited in word count. (I make no comment. Just don’t expect my critiques to be as succinct – or as Twitter-short as the ones I catalogued above.)) Unquestionably – although not necessarily when I write them… – they are to put seats on seats.

But, with a musical event – even when the same programme is repeated at a later date (often in a different venue) – I think there is so much variation, all a write-up can do is say “look, this set of musicians is good/indifferent/stupendous; you may not like the music they play, next time; but at least you know the quality of performance you should be in for”. Hopefully, it will also “make you want to hear that music” – or even regret not being there – as the great Neville Cardus, and his successor (and my hero), Michael Kennedy (“one of Britain’s most distinguished voices on classical music”), often did. A concert review therefore points you in only a general direction; not to a specific place: although, in effect – in also rendering the abstract concrete (for want of a better phrase) – it can make tangible a particular moment in time; at a particular place; from a very particular (and partial) standpoint.


Music was my first love
And it will be my last.
Music of the future
And music of the past.

To live without my music
Would be impossible to do.
In this world of troubles,
My music pulls me through.

There is – although it may be hard to spot… – a leitmotif of explicit emotion running through my appraisals: which is often absent from those in the mainstream media. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, that, however intellectual or technical a basis there may be for its creation, I believe the essential communication (between players and listeners) that the act of performance represents must provoke such a response to be valid. (If art only engages you at the objective level, I am not convinced that it has fulfilled its aim, or its potential.) Secondly: music is just so damn’ important to me. It is fundamental, integral to who I am.

After being ‘in the wilderness’ for so many years, waiting for technology to catch up with my hearing loss (which it has now, thankfully, overtaken), it is wonderful to be once more involved in something that is entrenched within my soul – and always has been. Music was once the major motivation in my life; and it is rapidly resuming that core meaning again. My only fear is that, one day, my hearing may fail completely. Until such time, I will be writing my reviews under the guidance of Robert Herrick; and will therefore also be producing immensely personal interpretations!

And, although I find it easier to listen to music I know well, I will do my best to seek out new works, when I can. In many cases, this will mean studying the scores (as with Tuesday’s Sibelius): as this is an easier way for me to absorb the structure, layer, texture, and all those tiny details that are so fundamental to interpretation and enjoyment. (It’s difficult to explain: but I have always fuzzily ‘seen’ the music as it is played; and having ‘absorbed’ the score – as you might (and I do) with a Shakespeare text – this foundation heightens my enjoyment, and reinforces my dulled ears, adding new layers, new dimensions. (It is also why, I’m afraid, a few too many of “those tiny details” – so important to my understanding – leak through into my reviews. I am simply rendering the music through my ears and eyes: describing what I hear and see as important and relevant.))


After writing to this point in one huge antejentacular burst, I then ground to a halt: and thus struggled to come up with an ending. But then, having digested my coffee and toast, I had an epiphany for dessert, and remembered this – from one of my favourite (and I think one of the greatest, most searingly honest) speeches ever given on the subject:

Listening to classical music is a journey, not a state, an activity, not a meditation. Music is not a background noise. It’s something you bring into the foreground of your experience, by engaging with it, by doing some work. Only recently have I come to listen properly to Schumann, Haydn and, especially, Bach, and begun to get that sense of rich, deep satisfaction that I first encountered more immediately as an adolescent in Mahler. I’m aware that it’s easy to fall back on quasi-mystical, pretentious language when trying to talk about one’s experience of classical music, but that shouldn’t stop us trying. We don’t talk about music enough. As someone who’s never felt he’s had the technical language at his fingertips, I feel all I can do is talk about it in whatever English I have at my command. I want to emote about how I feel. After a concert, I want to grab people by the lapels and tell them how lucky we are as a species that, out of all the hundreds of billions of us who ever lived, one of us managed to come up with the Goldberg Variations. But I don’t, because that's not the done thing. So instead I mention that the café downstairs does some fabulous chocolate éclairs.
– Armando Iannucci: Classical music, the love of my life

Just think of my reviews as my way of grabbing you by your lapels. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much.


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