Piano notes

When bad reviews happen to good people

DistlerMon 31st January 2011

And how I make sure every disc gets a fair hearing

Those who complain about my reviews in print or on line usually do so in response to a mixed critique, rather than a negative write-up. Here’s an extreme example. One distinguished American pianist recorded a disc of mostly standard repertoire. I wrote unfavorably about certain performances, yet praised others. Over the next year I received three nasty, handwritten letters – not necessarily from the pianist of course – each apparently posted from a non-existent return address. By contrast, several pianists responsible for some of the worst recordings I’ve ever reviewed attempted to “friend” me on Facebook.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews, especially when they concern lesser-known artists on small labels. These releases tend to be vanity projects: self-produced, self-financed, and usually destined not to be a best seller. The artist puts lots of time, money, heart and soul into such a production. Yet the truth of the matter is that John Doe’s self-produced Goldberg Variations, no matter how brilliant it is, invariably competes alongside tried and true major label reference versions. Not that John Doe shouldn’t record the Goldbergs, but you get my drift.

For this reason, I try to broach reviewing assignments with equanimity, and I’ve devised a convoluted system that attempts to ensure fairness. It’s not unlike auditioning musicians without seeing them in the flesh. First I digitize the disc under review before I hear it. Second, I load the digital files into iTunes. Third, I then load at least two other versions of the same repertoire by artists I wouldn’t be able to recognize right off the bat (in other words, no Glenn Gould) – decoys, if you will. I create a playlist from the review CD selections and the alternate versions. Then, without looking at my computer screen, I engage iTunes’ random play function. This enables me to hear the review selections interspersed with the “non-review” decoys. Without knowing who’s playing, I take notes on what I hear. Next, I identify the culprits, and then play the review CD from beginning to end before I write my piece.

I went through this process with a recent JS Bach/Scott Joplin recital – not your usual pairing, but sort of interesting. I duly digitised and loaded in. Next I booted up my trusty 2 TB hard drive, where my classical reference digitized files live - they’re also backed up another 2 TB drive, and they’re catalogued in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (am I compulsive, or what?). From the drive I grabbed my “decoys,” a few non-Gould Bach First Partita and Italian Concerto recordings plus random Scott Joplin tracks by pianists whose names I can’t remember (an aside: why hasn’t Dick Hyman’s incomparable Joplin piano music cycle for RCA ever appeared complete on CD?). Then I listened.

The worst renditions stood out like sore thumbs: dryly engineered, lethargic tempi, pedantic, choppy phrasing, and without any trace of pedal. Sadly, these belonged to the disc under review, but I had a job to do, and called the situation as I heard it. Then I read the booklet notes, and immediately felt like a jerk. It turned out that the pianist was a beloved musical mentor in his community, and could not use the pedals due to a medical mishap. His recent death inspired friends and relatives to release these performances. Sure, I could have refused the assignment, but given the breadth and high artistic quality distinguishing most of Albany’s catalog, I felt the disc warranted a professional response. However, I did mention this pianist’s unfortunate circumstances in the context of the review.

All of this is to say that bad reviews happen to good people, and, believe me, I’ve been at the receiving end of some pretty punishing critiques, fair and unfair. When that happens, I take a deep breath, thank the Lord for the free publicity, and move on.

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