Criticising the critics 3: the wife who piped up, then piped down

Criticising the critics 3: the wife who piped up, then piped down


norman lebrecht

January 24, 2012

Regional orchestras like the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic get very little coverage in the UK national press. So credit to the Telegraph for occasionally publishing a review of this effervescent ensemble with its going-places conductor, Vasily Petrenko. The Telegraph cannot, of course, afford to send a critic from London so it relies on an academic from Manchester, David Fanning, who is knowledgeable and often shrewd, except for several bees about Shostakovich under his bonnet.

This week, he had a bad night. He hated the concert, the audience, the conductor, the world (it happens on wet nights in Liverpool) and declared the ovation ‘undeserved’. He even wondered whether the Russian conductor had become ‘too English’ for Shostakovich. Read his review here.

Vasily Petrenko, principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The orchestra, understandably upset, posted the review on its facebook page and asked members of the audience what they thought. Most disagreed with the review. Some disparaged the critic.

At which point Mrs Fanning stepped in with a few choice words of her own. Then she, or others, took them down. I wonder why.

I see no reason why a reviewer’s spouse should have to bite his or her tongue. Let’s hear it from the silent minority. It all adds to the gaiety of nations.


  • If you post something on FB and make it public, I think it’s fair game for anyone who wants to leave a comment. If you don’t want people to comment, don’t post on FB!

    As I’ve said before, critics do not, and should not, have the last word on a performance. They are merely offering their thoughts. Many aren’t even specialists, or musicians, or indeed musically trained. When I first started reviewing last spring, I had some very unpleasant feedback from one of my readers. He called into question my critical faculties and even suggested there was something wrong with my hearing (we had heard the very elderly Charles Rosen playing Chopin at QEH – I enjoyed the concert because it was wonderful see Rosen still playing and clearly enjoying it). It’s an important lesson – for both critic and listener: live music is a very subjective experience and one person’s glorious night out, might be another’s total wash out.

  • Marcus Crompton says:

    Ms Assay (Dr Fanning’s wife) has now been good enough to paraphrase her deleted comments, in response to the Facebook post linking to this page.

  • John Broggio says:

    You utter snob. DF only an “academic”? Pah. He’s a far better informed critic than most in London. You really should get out of that ghetto more…

    • Marcus Crompton says:

      Eh? Unless the phantom text fairy has been at the delete button again, he says “an academic….who is knowledgeable and often shrewd”. I don’t see “only an academic” nor “poorly informed academic”.

      Touched a scholarly nerve?

  • This is interesting… David Fanning is, of course, no average lunkhead musicologist, but possibly the leading expert on Shostakovich with high regarded books on the Symphony No 10 and the String Quartet No 8. The question is, is he a good critic? Being a good musicologist is not quite the same thing. But you really can’t accuse him of not knowing his stuff. He knows much, much more than the average reviewer. So let’s have a look at the review.

    First off, I have a small quibble: I don’t hear a lot of cribbing from the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, more from Petruska, but quite a lot from Steve Reich. In fact, much of John Adam’s music sounds very much like Steve Reich, but with less rhythmic interest and more harmonic activity. There is usually less to John Adams than seems, so I find myself in agreement with the review so far. Qigang Chen’s music I am not familiar with. I know the Symphony No 7 of Shostakovich very well, but I was not present for this performance. I certainly see nothing wrong in principle with a critic finding the last movement very well done, but the first ones lacking tension. I do find it hard to imagine how anyone could conduct that 11 minute long passacaglia/crescendo in the first movement without it being extremely powerful, but I suppose it’s possible.

    So while the review was fairly critical of some of the music and a bit critical of one performance, it really didn’t seem to match up with Mr. Lebrecht’s characterization. Hated the concert? No, but he did have some critical comments. Isn’t that the job description?

  • Jack says:

    Sounds like Professor Fanning was indeed having rather a bad night.

    Although I cannot comment on the live performance of the 7th, I recently bought the Petrenko/Liverpool recording of the Shostakovich 10th. It was heavily lauded by critics and I feel that it lives up to the hype. It’s now receiving a lot of play on my car stereo. Kudos to Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic!

  • Bryn Gerard says:

    I feel I have to say something about the review of the RLPO by Prof. Fanning in the Telegraph. This is the weakest piece of journalism I have encountered for a considerable time. I have to wonder about the quality of the Telegraph’s editors if this represents their best.

    What did I gain from the outburst of vitriolic bile? Well quite a lot as it happens. Having been a warrior and lived with the tug of death at my sleeve each moment in time gives me a great affinity with art that represents the terror of combat and forthrightness & courage needed to end the damn thing. The Leningrad Symphony represents a pinnacle in artistic expression with regard to that subject, the full gamut of martial will, power and orchestration is there for the warrior to bathe in. Many call the piece propaganda but so what, war is all about propaganda.

    But what I gained most was the confirmation of the mightiness of Real artists the triviality of academics trying to be critics. Prof. Fanning, Who are you to criticise anything?. Your not an artist, what would you know of such things? I am reminded of my dear departed friend Florian Fricke, one time arts critic for Suddeutsche Zeitung. He would often write things like “I went to see such-and-such an exhibition.”, full stop. I used to laugh at him and asked how he could submit such things for publication and get away with it? He said “Who am I to criticise the work of other people? How can anyone pass judgement on the work of artists because it doesn’t resonate with them? I am nobody. That “nobody” wrote the music for Werner Herzog’s films, he was a real artist and not a little academic that comes across as an intellectual dwarf, not that being an intellectual will ever help you become at one with any art.

    Vassy Petrenko and the RLPO are a first rate outfit. The reason they get standing ovations is because of the dedication and professionalism of all engaged, including the audience. Their are too many snobs who haunt the corridors of classical music. Elitism is dead Prof. Fanning. Like you, it belongs to yesterday.

    Petrenko and the RLPO regularly sell out to a broad spectrum of Liverpool’s community because their performances are dynamic and full of vitality and energy under excellent direction. Music must be dynamic for it to come alive. This can only happen with the live performance. It takes the audience to a level whereby creative listening is possible and the narrative unfolds in an intuitional way that academics will never understand. Vassy & the crew deliver this quality consistently.

    Vassy and the RLPO are at the top of their game and should realise that this goes with the territory. People who do great things will always be assaulted by the mediocrities. This fellow is beneath mediocrity and I feel totally affronted by the little man’s scribblings. I feel honour bound to invite him to three three minute rounds of boxing at my local Gymnasium in Toxteth. I will then render three three minute lessons to him on Creativity, Warriorship and the Law of Cause and Effect.

    We could erect a boxing ring in the car park between the Belvedere Public House and the Philharmonic Hall. Proceeds could go to fund the RLPO’s work in schools across the city. I don’t imagine any of us will be hearing from Prof Fanning any time soon but as always I live in the NOW and am ready each moment in time.

  • Tommy says:

    This is only relevant if you think critics matter

  • Brendan Ball says:

    For those not familiar with the live concert, last Thursday, it is on the BBC iPlayer. Very good recording too! Even though I say it myself. I entirely agree with Bryn Gerard and Norman Lebrecht in their criticisms of Fanning. If Fanning wasn’t that keen on the repertoire, or Petrenko, in the first place, perhaps he would have been better choosing another programme, where he would not feel he had to judge so subjectively. There was little musical comment on the performance in his review anyway, in my opinion.

  • James Inverne says:

    It’s probably worth pointing out for for those who don’t know that in his position as one of Gramophone’s reviewers and foremost Shotakovich experts, David Fanning has previously given huge support to Petrenko and the RLPO, lavishing praise on their recordings of that composer and contributing to their international prestige. I’m commenting without having read this Telegraph review, but thought it pertinent to mention that..

    All the best,

  • Marcus Crompton says:

    It’s been a long while since that was the case James. In fact, as the Petrenko/RLPO combination has achieved wider critical acclaim, Prof Fanning seems to have gone the other way – over the last two seasons, it seems that nothing is good enough for him any more and a series of disparaging reviews have appeared in the Telegraph. He was also the only reviewer to rubbish the recent Shostakovich 6/12 recording on Naxos.

    Prof Fanning appears to be something of a lone voice – he just doesn’t seem to like anything much that Petrenko does nowadays.

    It does make you wonder why critics (and Prof Fanning isn’t the only one by any means) bother to review performances when it’s clear that they just do not like the interpreter or composer in question. A recent review of Jurowski and the LPO (also in the Telegraph) could have been summed up with “I don’t really think much of Prokofiev”.

    The main problem with this review, and the reason it has caused a big reaction with the RLPO “paying public”, is that it insults the intelligence of the audience – an error compounded by the Prof’s missus, who went to quite a bit of trouble in her “Facebook” comments to explain why the audience at the concert weren’t fit to listen to the great Shostakovich’s work, and in no position to decide for themselves whether the performance was any good.