I sometimes think when I read a critic’s negative comment about a concert or any other art form, ‘could you do better’? There can be an Olympian detachment and superiority in the opinions of such people. And even a vendetta. The chief musical critic of The Guardian for example could be relied upon to disapprove of any performance conducted by Leonard Slatkin, the previous conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Similarly the critics gave the Austrian Franz Welser-Most a difficult time of it when he was conductor of the London Philharmonic, but in this case disapproval came from his orchestra as well; they nick-named him ‘Frankly Worst than Most’ (He has had a much better time since with many well reviewed recordings to his name, as Director of the Zurich Opera and in his present tenure as Chief Conductor of the prestigious Cleveland Orchestra.)
I watched the two Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra relays from the Albert Hall last week, and there are criticisms of them in our paper this morning.
The big work of the two concerts was Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. Tim Ashley approved of a ‘performance of great splendour’ but added that ‘some of the phrases sounded over-sculptured’, the ‘tempi too calculated, the pauses and echoes too adroitly managed’. I agree with that and hearing Rattle conduct in Amsterdam, London and Birmingham on several occasions, have often felt that everything was so well prepared – characterised by enormous climaxes and almost silent pianissimos – that the danger of a live event was perhaps missing. But the glamour, exuberance and sense of occasion of a concert conducted by Simon Rattle will always be irresistible!
Eduard Hanslick(1825-1904), was widely respected as the author of a book called ‘The Beauty of Music’ , as a lecturer in the history of music at Vienna University and as the foremost music critic of his day.
He was at the centre of the great argument about the ‘new’ music of Wagner and the more classical work of Brahms and Schumann. Although impressed by Wagner’s earlier works Hanslick became hostile to him and therefore to Bruckner, for whom Wagner was almost a god; certainly a friend and mentor. He made the composer deeply unhappy, robbing him of what little confidence he had.
So, musical criticism may be a necessary exercise, but ultimately it is a fallible one. Even with a breadth of musical knowledge that I envy, perhaps ‘The Critics’ are telling us what they do or don’t like about a composition or a performance, and therefore, in the end, they are just like us.