9 Criticism

9.2 The metaphorical language of record reviews


The purpose of journalistic performance criticism, it by now surely goes without saying, is to promote and reward the most persuasive normative performances and to discourage everything else. Performance critics are thus people with a particularly strong sense of what is normative and a particularly acute ear for what is not. They acquire these by extensive listening, checked against the values in which they were brought up as musicians or music-lovers. If they have degrees in music this upbringing may have included familiarity with quite sophisticated historical and critical musicology and music theory. They are likely to be, or at an earlier stage in life to have been, frequent attenders at concerts (in the case of record critics) and listeners to recordings (in the case of concert critics). They generally know many performers, composers and other gatekeepers well. They are in every sense insiders, an in-group within an in-group, deeply imbued (perhaps deeper than any) with WCM ideology and norms. For us, then, what they write about performance is likely to be particularly revealing.

What follows in this section, based on the words of a still-smaller subset (those who review classical recordings), shows their words in an unflattering light. The words are theirs, it’s true, but I can’t claim not to be implicated: I share this background with them; I know where they’re coming from; I’ve written like this myself.[1] People like us, greatly advantaged in so many ways, educated into a sense of western culture, belonging within it, feel entitled to judge. I do it again and again throughout this book, perhaps (we’ll see) nowhere more than in this and the next section. True, I use this sense of entitlement to judge the system in which I’ve lived (comfortably); and/but (it’s both), I know whereof I speak when it comes to prejudice. You’ll have to bear that in mind. The exclusion of difference is practised by WCM to such an extent that few who are not white, male and middle or upper class have enough interest in it to be in a position, or even to be bothered, to call it out.

What we’ll see in this section continues to develop the theme that was emerging through chapters 6 and 7, and that will be reinforced in the chapters that follow: WCM is ideologically a microcosm of the ideology of elite, white, western, capitalist culture, and indeed one of the very clearest examples of it. Here, in the writings of performance critics, and especially record critics (those most thoroughly implicated in the values of the commercial WCM business, that is, of musical capitalism), we see its assumptions and prejudices displayed more explicitly than anywhere.

Performance from their perspective requires constant and intense vigilance: comparing the current to the recent past, seeking out the non-normative, pointing to it and writing in such a way as most effectively to discourage it. Their scrutiny therefore reaches down to the smallest details of a performance in order to draw our attention to anything that differs from their expectations.

She also loses the momentum of the agitato pedal-point…, which in turn loses its climactic aura on account of Fliter’s mincing ritenutos. (Gramophone, October 2018, 67)

Several things are achieved in this short passage. The critic shows us that they’re an acute listener; they’re at home with the technical jargon; they know the score well and the affects it ‘should’ produce (i.e. has produced in performances they know well); it’s open in front of them, serving as an authoritative reference, the sacred text that must be meticulously obeyed; and in order to condemn the non-standard handling of small-scale timing they’re willing to use the dog-whistle term ‘mincing’. Here’s another recent example, discussing pianist Anatol Ugorski:

The first time I heard it, I felt dirty all over. … His monkey tricks render Var 18 unrecognisable … his mincing, droopy and impossibly vulgar reading of Für Elise makes Liberace look like Artur Schnabel (Gramophone, Awards issue 2018, 128) [Liberace was a famously flamboyant and extravagantly-costumed gay pianist specialising in light music on TV and in films. You can hear an extract from this Für Elise recording in episode 2 of the Challenging Performance podcast.]

Any other pianist reading this now knows what might be said of them if they play so much as a ritenuto fractionally differently; as does any CD label thinking of recording them, or concert planner thinking of booking them. At this level, and in a magazine read widely across the record business, this matters. The control of deviance could hardly be more obvious or more discouraging.

Critics are thus highly attuned to and on alert for difference, testing it against expectations on the one hand and aesthetic pleasure on the other: is it, they wonder, an unusually powerful confirmation of the norm, or is it wrong? We’ve already seen in chapter 1 how easily belief trumps aesthetic response, and so inevitably most difference seems wrong: the possibility of a new reading of a score being wrong but pleasing doesn’t arise, therefore; if it lies outside the pale formed by the composer’s imagined intentions (in truth, the recent norm), it can only generate a hostile reaction. Thus, paradoxically, composers themselves are much more capable of tolerating difference than are critics. Lotte Lehmann, in a masterclass happily recorded for posterity, recalls Richard Strauss accompanying her in his ‘Heimlicher Afforderung’:

You know, I must tell you a very funny story about this song. I sang it with Richard Strauss, and when we rehearsed it I took a very wrong tempo. He wants it very slowly…. But I felt it very differently; I felt it very quickly and I started… He said, “Are you crazy? What’s the matter with you? This is a slower tempo.” And I said, “I think that’s terrible, I feel it quick.” And he laughed — he had very much humour — and he said, “No, this is very wrong, but let’s go through it so, if you like it; I want to hear it.” And I sang it very quickly, and he laughed very much on the end. He said, “What you do is entirely wrong, but I like it.”[2]

Not much chance of that from a modern critic of performance.

Critics’ strong tendency to fear and condemn difference makes WCM performance criticism another form of social and cultural exclusion, and so criticism offers us a particularly brutal and explicit forum for the intolerance that is integral to WCM ideology.

A selection of quotes will illustrate the kinds of associations that are routinely made between performance details and the character or behaviour, gender, sexual orientation, class, or race of performers. Much of this must be the automatic, unthinking use of descriptors whose implications have not been consciously considered but which spring to mind as apt, as one writes about a performance, because they call upon assumptions, as well as habits of speech and thought, that are part and parcel of one’s culture; in this case typically the culture of white, male, middle-class, enthusiasts for WCM. But nonetheless, bearing in mind that in every case the aim is to discourage difference, it’s important to see what kinds of associations are being made, however unconsciously. It clarifies how habitually WCM ideology reaches into and faithfully mirrors many dark corners of white western heritage. At the same time, and on the surface, these quotes are also concerned with how noticeable a performer is; noticeable, that is, to the critic who knows, thanks to the confidence that comes with entitlement, that their values are objective, rational and indeed natural (cf Chapter 6.5 on ‘natural’ musicianship). For the ideal performer is both one of us and also so discreet as to go unnoticed, which is what ‘one of us’ naturally does: ‘we’ only notice the interloper.

Let’s begin, then, with some unvarnished sexism.[3]

…she is as tempestuous and temperamental as the music demands: some might even say more than it demands. But she never loses her head (Gramophone, Dec 2018, 94)[4]

This is as clear an example as one could wish of the trope of the hysterical, childishly irrational woman, seen from the perspective of the judicious, rational man, relieved that this time, at least, she manages not to lose her precarious self-control.

…the cover photo shows more leg than is usual at an organ console (July 2016, 71)

where, to many, women still seem a novelty.

And from there, we may continue into performers accused of drawing attention to themselves. It’s never the critic’s fault for having their attention attracted, or as they would say, distracted. And that’s the point: there’s a curious intertwining of attraction and distraction in which what is heard seems enticing and yet (or therefore) wrong. It’s out of place, and yet the temptation is there to succumb.

The whole of this section, the Andante un poco tranquillo at fig. 92 (indexed as 5 on the CD) is, I’m afraid, not completely free from narcissism (June 1988, 32)

Note the way in which how someone plays is taken, quite explicitly and insultingly, to reveal something about who they are. If I play a passage in a particular way I must be in love with myself, more with myself than with the composer whom alone I ought to serve.

By contrast, a set of performances from Adam Harasiewicz are

not for those who warm to Chopin plastered with self-serving idiosyncrasy. (Feb 2011, 77)

Here, to play Chopin in an individual way—and we see here how performers, encouraged within the commercial ideology of WCM to think of themselves as having something individual to contribute, are pilloried for doing it—is to plaster Him with… what? Makeup? In the next quotation that link is explicit.

Less self-regarding or at least less wilful… Is Mahler’s emotive force blunted by Fischer’s careful manicure? (Apr 2009, 69)

Notice how, in all the quotes in this group, the self-serving is feminised. The undesirable, the out-place, the interloper, is a woman—or gay.

Telling in the next extract is the use of ‘coy’. (‘Displaying modest backwardness or shyness (sometimes with emphasis on the displaying); not responding readily to familiar advances; now esp. of a girl or young woman.’ Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Coy, 2a.’) We may well ask what is the reviewer thinking about here; certainly something in which gender stereotypes are well entrenched:

a more assertive swagger is surely required for… K271… (why the coy diminuendos in the former’s first piano entry?) (May 2011, 81)

And here?

…as cloying as it is enervating…. Its four bedfellows provide comparably mellifluous, audience-friendly fare… (March 2014, 71)

Why, in this context (cloying, enervating), choose bedfellows as your metaphor?

such warmth and opulence often undermine the music’s visceral impact, which is emasculated within a haze of pastel-shaded rumination. No other recording makes it sound so alluring (June 2018, 109)

All these quotes, and so many more (I have a database of almost 1000 accusations of ‘mannerism’, the image discussed in Leech-Wilkinson (forthcoming), with a rich hinterland of evocative and moralising metaphor), are hovering around longing mixed with fear of being emotionally affected, of giving in to a seductive musicianship that critics know they ought not to like. The images of effeminacy, sensuality, display and attention all seek to condemn what is also desired, the more strongly because of what their appeal suggests.

Nothing makes this clearer than the regular use of the word ‘eschew’: ‘To abstain carefully from .. an indulgence’ (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Eschew, 3.’), limited now to literary use. Whatever a reviewer finds a performer eschewing one can be sure has a dangerous appeal. Here’s a selection of things that are eschewed in Gramophone over the five years between 2012–2016.

all sentimentality; any suggestion of hectic flashiness; overt emotion; flashy continuo; grotesquerie; overindulgence; residual hints of Romanticism; portamento; surface charm and expressive clichés; flamboyant showmanship; rhetorical overkill; attention-getting; theatricality; any suggestion of Romantic excess; inflated gestures.

You get the idea. With a wider date-range the list could go on for pages (again, I have collected many hundreds of uses from 1923–2016).

How much easier for the performer to be unnoticed, to know her place, a mere servant to the composer’s wishes. Compare with the previous group the desire for the performer to vanish, what Richard Taruskin has called ‘one of classical music’s most venerable but useless assumptions: to wit, the funny notion abroad among classical-music reviewers that the best thing a performer can do is disappear’:[5]

their musicianship… absolutely serves the music: no intrusive personalities getting between … music and … listener. (July 2011, 87)

at no point does he seek to overlay the music with gratuitous individualism. (Apr 2004, 53)

And these last two categories often combine in celebrations of the lack of any distracting affectation, while somehow never failing to reveal affectation’s appeal:

her superbly serious performance, one that eschews all personal vanity, all preening mannerism and flamboyance (March 2015, 71)

As commanding as ever, Mutter is differently intrusive, her pulsations slower and wider – and even she is not above inserting the odd apocryphal smooch. (Aug 2018, 110)

In Part 4 we’ll look at some of the psychological drivers that underlie critics’ feelings of discomfort-mixed-with-temptation, exploring the way in which music is perceived as another person with whom one interacts as one listens and as a model of perfectly-shaped feeling and with which one aligns oneself (on this see also Chapter 12.2). In these contexts it’s easy to see how uncomfortable it might be to experience and be moved by a performance one believes (for ideological reasons) to be improper.

Finally, perhaps most shocking, is the category of comment in which hostility to the Other is at its most blatant, where performers are held not to belong because of where they come from. Take this example, reviewing Wu Qian—born, the review notes, in 1984 in Shanghai—who is:

a cut above the stream of Asian pianists… (Sept 2009, 71)

The ‘stream’ is reminiscent of ‘hoards’, ‘swamped’, ‘overrun’, and so on, words often arising in xenophobic comment about immigration; and it’s then combined with common clichés from western criticism of Asian musicians evoked in the review by ‘mere digital efficiency’, lack of individuality or musical insight. Dehumanising the yellow performer, as they become indistinguishable within a mass, is underlined, not redeemed, by singling out one to praise. By the same means, the supremacy of the white norm is emphasised.

From the same writer, the following year, comes a complaint characteristic of what Robin DiAngelo (2018) has analysed as ‘white fragility’,[6] that white people are somehow, despite their overwhelming cultural dominance, being disadvantaged:

The number of young Asian pianists winning major prizes at piano competitions … makes one wonder exactly what … European and American pianists are suddenly doing wrong. (March 2010, 79)

As if white pianists could ever be disadvantaged by their whiteness, with the overwhelming cultural, social, political and economic advantages it brings. It’s not so hard to fall into these patterns of thought, however, when your view of WCM assumes cultural ownership by white people: another form of Small’s ‘this is who we are’ (Small, 1998).

To know that a performer is East Asian is to look for what you expect to find. The same tropes appear repeatedly. A review of the pianist Yundi somewhat grudgingly admires his ‘exceptional technical command and accuracy’, ascribed by the reviewer to his Chinese training (as if technical perfection were not compulsory for students in the west):

but too often … here that is all you get. (May 2016, 58)

A review of Yekwon Sunwoo, the following year, complains of ‘a heartless fingerfest’ and likens him to the

now long list of brilliant Asian-born American-trained pianists undistinguishable one from another. (Dec 2017, 93)

Similarly, ‘Japanese pianist’ Ryutaro Suzuki ‘dispatches’ Scarlatti ‘with neat efficiency’. The performance is ‘exceedingly polite’, a chord-sequence so equal as to be ‘devoid of meaning’. He is ‘imperturbable’, his playing lacking ‘the tiniest hint of personality’ (May 2018, 73). What was the reviewer, what where the editors thinking of when they let this through?

A sense of how oblivious white WCM professionals can be to what they’re saying in comments like these comes from the following, from the head of a conservatoire, published in a ‘China and Classical Music’ issue of Gramophone, which is quite breathtaking in the way it patronises and stereotypes:

My colleagues and I are always impressed at how quickly Chinese students respond to the styles and fashions thrown at them when they come to a sophisticated European city, and how quickly their personalities emerge. (Apr 2019, 21)

These examples may be shocking to white people who consider themselves free of racism (on this delusion see DiAngelo) but they will hardly be news to people who have to put up with this sort of thing all the time.[7] By now, though, it should be obvious and unsurprising when viewed in the context of the delusions and behaviours we’ve already seen in chapters 6 and 7. At its root the context is the society whose values WCM performs and upholds. Brought up to see white culture as superior and classical music as one of its most complex and skilled manifestations, the WCM establishment would have to think long and hard not to assume that those brought up outside the culture are likely to be inferior in their performance of it. Thus musicians from ethnic minorities have to prove their qualification for membership by playing normatively even more persuasively: to be musically whiter than white. The idea that East Asian or indeed any performers have a right to different kinds of musicianship with different norms (just as western musicians practised different musicianships 100 years ago) seems not to be conceivable.

Cultural imperialism, white supremacy and patriarchy are wholly consistent with a set of beliefs in which an elite culture reproduces itself through passing on as exactly as possible a set of values which it claims have remained unchanged since at least the 18th century (Bach to Birtwistle). While musical practices have in fact changed hugely (as recordings show, chapter 3), it would seem that attitudes have not, at least not enough to shake the structural oppressions at work here. This is still an unforgiving culture in which disobedience is punished and in which you are either aristocracy (composer, gatekeeper) or servant (performer), masculine or effeminate, white or not; and then within that, musical or unmusical, normative or wrong. The culture of 20th– and 21st-century WCM and its criticism, like that of much of contemporary society, is the culture of the 18th– and 19th-century West, preserved in musical practice just beneath the gorgeous surface of superlatively skilled performance which is the sounding equivalent of Classical and Romantic architecture and the decorative arts, built on capitalism and slavery.  The survival of these attitudes in writing around WCM performance bears out much that’s been said above about the nature of WCM ideology.

It’s clear by now that WCM reproduces the same oppressions we see in society more broadly: a white, straight, male, selectively-educated norm is held Naturally to embody and to perform supremacy, skill, technique, power, control, decent expressivity, understanding of and respect for tradition. WCM is the conservative establishment in sound. How ironic that it has so cut itself off from contact with the general conservative populace that it’s no longer a tool for which they can find a use. For that, at least, we may be thankful.


Is it unfair to single out Gramophone in this brief survey? I don’t believe so. Gramophone has been publishing reviews of recordings since 1923, representing faithfully the tastes of the culture from which it draws its reviewers and (it seems more than likely) most of its readers. It offers a fair impression of the attitudes and tastes of gatekeepers to the profession. Across those (near) 100 years, tastes in performance have slowly and unintentionally changed (Leech-Wilkinson 2009),[8] but the language and the images used to discourage change have remained surprisingly constant. You’ll have noticed, though, that almost all my quotes come from the last few years. What you read here represents current acceptable thinking among WCM gatekeepers. It is for exactly that reason that I’m not identifying individual reviewers in the references I’ve provided. If I could avoid providing even those, I would. I’m not writing about this in order to point fingers at individuals. My aim is to open to view and to debate a whole culture of thinking about classical music as a means to sound belonging, belonging to a forcibly restrained practice that barely has room to be more than minutely individual; a practice that enforces in order to exclude.

In the end the question we must keep asking ourselves is whose interests we serve by seeking to discourage variation in performance. ‘The composer’s’ (as we saw in Chapter 6, and shall see again in Chapter 11) is not a sensible reply. Is it the critic’s identity, which they’ve allowed to become entwined with a particular kind of musicianship? Is it simply their desire to control, which they owe it to musicians to overcome? Is it merely the comfort of belonging to a like-minded group? Whatever it is, it needs honest self-criticism in the interests of a more generous, inquisitive, hopeful approach to experiencing performance.


Continue to 9.3 ‘The value of record reviewing

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[1] Examples are quoted in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2020. Moral Judgement in Response to Performances of Western Art Music. In Ananay Aguilar, Eric Clarke, Ross Cole and Matthew Pritchard (eds), Remixing Music Studies: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Cook (Routledge), 91-111.

[2] Transcribed from an unpublished audio recording of a masterclass given by Lotte Lehmann in the Wigmore Hall in 1960, from recordings made by the BBC Transmission Service. I’m most grateful to Michael Letchford for sharing these recordings with me.

[3] I’ve written a separate research study of ‘Moral Judgement in Response to Performances of Western Art Music’ (see note 1) which examines reviewers’ use of a single concept, deployed in an astonishing variety of ways, to wrap up and dismiss many different kinds of response to performer individuality. Here I’ve used different examples and a much less forensic approach.

[4] Except where noted, subsequent references in this chapter are all to Gramophone. I’m not naming individual critics: this isn’t intended as an ad hominem attack (and there’s hardly any opportunity for ad feminam). It’s a culture of thought about WCM that I’m discussing.

[5] Taruskin, Richard. 2009. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berlekey: University of California Press), 129. See also Taruskin, Richard. 2006. Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? (Part II). Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 63/4, 309–27 at 310–11.

[6] DiAngelo, Robin. 2018. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. London: Allen Lane.

[7] For a thoughtful discussion of this issue in conservatoire see Ford, Biranda. 2020. Can Culturally Specific Perspectives to Teaching Western Classical Music Benefit International Students? A Call to Re-examine “What the Teacher Does”. Frontiers in Education 5, 113 www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/feduc.2020.00113

[8] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2009. Recordings and Histories of Performance Style. In Nicholas Cook et al. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music (Cambridge University Press), 246–62.

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