Friday, November 20, 2015

Distraction time: are we too nice?

Mulling over the online papers with coffee just now, I came across the punchiest, most to-the-point, one-star CD review I've seen in a while. It's of Kylie Minogue's Christmas album and The Guardian's Tim Jonze says: "Spare a thought for the music critic this Christmas, for whom the festive season is not 'the most wonderful time of the year', but a whole new circle of hell. Even listened to while off your knockers on sherry, Kylie Christmas is a confusing package...delivered with all the joie de vivre of a Sainsbury's advert..."

Read the whole thing here.

Reviewing classical recordings is arguably a different dish of sardines. We have the impression, in our corner, that Christmas pop albums are in any case going to be cynically manufactured tat designed to induce emotional blackmail on the shopping mall sound system, the sort of crooning that makes people spend, spend, spend, if only to get away faster from the noise. Or that they consist simply of famous names singing popular Xmas numbers to shift stock and get the tills ringing, and never mind what it sounds like because the job is to fill space in stockings and under trees and probably no one will actually play it.

Classical recordings, though, are difficult to make: if you're a classical musician, there's nowhere to hide the shortcomings of your technique or your artistry. Those of us who slogged away in practice rooms for years on end never quite lose the memory of the effort involved in learning, perfecting (??) and performing a piece of great music. It's demanding to do, it's satisfying to be able to do it, and if people hear and like it, so much the better. Therefore when CDs plop onto the desk for review, and you don't think they're terribly good, you might feel honour bound to give them the benefit of the doubt - usually in the form of two stars instead of one, or sometimes even three stars instead of two - because you know that to make even a 'meh' sort of recording probably takes a lifetime of hard work and dedication.

But there are times when it sticks in the gorge nonetheless. A very few of the piano discs that have crossed my computer in the past couple of years have been so dreadful that when offered the same artist's next album to review, I've said 'thanks, but no thanks'. Because what sells, and who sells, is not always the same thing as what and who can offer worthwhile musical insight, colouristic control of the sound, sophistication, variety of technique and, overall, a satisfying, communicative and justifiable listening experience for the buyer of the disc. The saddest thing is that some knowledgeable music lovers are still being bamboozled into thinking x, y or z is the greatest thing since sliced bread, because he/she records for a good company or happens to have some pretty photographs (this can apply no matter the artist's gender).

But you know something? Even the worst of them has probably been through hell and high water for the sake of his/her art.

There you are at your desk, charged with describing a recording so people can make up their minds whether or not to buy it. And you can think, without trying too hard, of 50 pianists who deserve the chance to have made that recording for that company instead and could have done it 100 times better. And you think, "Didn't anybody listen to this before letting it out there?" Or maybe: "How did this person get to be where he/she is anyway? How is that even possible?"

And then you dig for some mitigating qualities and give it two stars instead of one, or three stars instead of two, because it's a really, really difficult piece to play and they deserve credit for sheer chutzpah, or something like that, because you might picture to yourself the childhood lost to intensive practising, the terror of the competitions, the frustration of trying and trying and trying and getting nowhere, but keeping on trying because he/she has never trained to do anything else, and then the big break - however it may have arrived - and the opportunity seized with both hands and both feet too in case it never returns, and the probably messed-up private life, and the pressures from the industry as someone realises this disc can sell and starts to milk the artist and the industry for all they're worth, which in this day and age may not be much but can be too much in any case, and you wonder what will happen to them, after all that, when eventually the next hot young thing arrives and they're middle-aged and overweight and the work dries up.

Yet the playing on the CD is still not much good.

Are we too nice?

Next time: my top choices for really good discs to buy your music-loving friends for Christmas, and please note that they'll have nothing seasonal to say at all.