Challenging Performance: The Book. 9-3 Reviews 2


9.3 The value of record reviewing

In the previous section we saw some quite unpleasant and highly personal criticism of performers. But on the whole, and especially in record reviews, performance criticism is overwhelmingly positive. Partly this is because, as I’ve repeatedly emphasised, standards of performance at this level are so astonishingly high. These are wonderful performers making glorious music. That being so, what is the point of performance criticism at this level? Record reviewing seems to have no function other than to rank difference in order to offer a recommendation service to buyers. And the only criterion for that ranking appears to be faithfulness to the norm disguised as faithfulness to the critic’s understanding of the composer (which depends on what they’re used to hearing). As we saw in Part 1, there’s little or no basis for the beliefs on which these norms and understandings rest.

There is another factor involved, however: the magazines depend on advertising, and the advertising comes from the record companies. There is a strong incentive, then, to praise their products. The US CD-review magazine Fanfare is the most up-front about this relationship. Their standard letter from the editor to artists offers that “If you advertise, I will personally guarantee that your CD will be reviewed”. The letter continues,

Here are the four options for advertising if you’d like to be interviewed (and have your CD reviewed).

1) Inside front cover ad or inside back cover ad in two consecutive issues (total cost $3000).

2) Inside front cover ad or inside back cover ad and full page color ad in two consecutive issues (total cost $2500).

3) Full page color ad in two consecutive issues, or a two-page spread in a single issue (total cost $2000).

4) Full page color ad and 1/2 page color ad in two consecutive issues (total cost $1700).

When you’re interviewed, the review of your CD will be attached to your feature in the front of the edit review section of the issue. … If you decide to accept the proposal, I won’t proceed with any aspect of it unless I find a critic who’s receptive to your CD.[1]

How telling, that last sentence.

Immediately below Norman Lebrecht’s publication of this letter are reader responses, including sympathetic reactions and also posts from the editor of Fanfare. What’s especially interesting about the discussion is how easily some performers accept this practice, reflected also in Fanfare’s being so upfront about it. All credit to them. But this may help to explain why criticism of musical deviance tends to be partly covert, at one metaphorical level removed from plain accusation. For the most part, though, one suspects that reviewers are also deluding themselves, unaware of the full implications of the language that comes most easily to mind, yet in need of it in order to have quasi-moral grounds for making distinctions of quality between performances that are too good for distinctions of quality to have any rational basis.

Continue to 9.4 ‘Performance criticism in social media’

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[1] Norman Lebrecht’s blog, ‘Slipped Disc’, 24 October 2011. . (Italics in Lebrecht.)

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