Criticising the critics 6: In breach of the Second Commandment

It never fails to amaze me that, nearly 60 years after Stalin’s death and 20 after Karajan’s, there are still music critics around who lavish conductors with the kind of superhuman praise demanded by the great dictators.

The objects of their admiration are, admittedly, fewer than heretofore but the hyperbole remains the same. It is founded on the assumption that a conductor is all-knowing, all-wise and all-loving. The most prevalent object of this false worship is Claudio Abbado, who has acquired something of the aura of a latterday saint (if not higher) since he survived a bout with stomach cancer. Abbado is a man like any other, faults and all. But you’d hardly believe it from his reviews.

A CD review in Friday’s London Times caught my eye. The paper is not online, so I shall not name the offending critic. The works on question are the violin concertos of Berg and Beethoven, played by Isabelle Faust in Bologna with the Orchestra Mozart guided by their artistic director Claudio Abbado, a great conductor whose ability to reach a work’s soul seems only to have increased during his ten years of battling stomach cancer (you can see where this is leading).

The critic continues: Time and again the ear is brought back to the burnished clarity of Abbado’s textures.

If they were so clear, they should be unobtrusive.

Each ghostly strand in the music’s web is picked out in tender pain.

How, exactly?

And it’s Abbado we must thank…

Does he mean God?

The luminous sound of Abbado’s orchestra, a continuing glory

a phrase taken whole from the lexicon of Karajan hagiolatry

infuses the concerto with a real sense of joy.

Either the composer wrote the joy, or it’s not there. It cannot be infused.

Faust is a wonder on this disc, but Abbado is even more so.

Oh, give over. He’s a conductor, doing his job and edited for the record. Nothing miraculous in that.

Abbado, unlike Karajan, never required a diet of hyperbole. So why write, or publish, such guff?

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    • I’d have to agree. Orchestral scores contain hundreds of thousands of elements left up to the interpretation of the performer. How fast is Adagio? How loud is a solo passage marked pianissimo if half the orchestra is playing? Should the woodwinds in this passage play with a placid and smooth tone or with plaintive vibrato? The answers to these questions can substantially alter the emotional impact of the music. Unless the composer has explicitly indicated the answer (and in most cases they haven’t), it is up to the performer to make a decision, and the composer can’t claim credit for the resulting impact on the emotional content of the music. This holds true whether the emotional content in question is joyous, sorrowful, furious, or anything in between.

      For better or worse, conductors are not just restorative artists who “clean the dirt off” of scores and reveal the genius of the details within. Conductors shape those details, alter them, and make them conform to the conductor’s ideal.

  • I just saw on Mezzo Live HD (TV) the compelling 2005 Abbado performance of Mahler 7 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. I recommend it highly to those who might doubt that Claudio Abbado is one of the truly important conducting musicians of this or any other century. I shall never forget a miraculous performance of Mahler 6 which he led with Philadelphia Orchestra in the late 1960’s!! long before he had any health problems. I can’t judge his saintliness or the state of his health; I can only appreciate his music making. We must always forgive conductors and critics for their excesses. De gustibus, Norman.

    • If you read carefully Mr Lebrecht’s post, you will see that nowhere does he say that he does not like Claudio Abbado, or that he thinks that Abbado is unworthy of praise. This is why your final ciceronian stance is a non sequitur. One can appreciate, like, or even love a musician and nevertheless be a little bit annoyed by the excess of melodramatic adoration he or she is surrounded with. The worst part is that this hysterical religiosity is not always based on the actual experience of hearing the music; people indulge in it just because it is fashionable, and that it is a good topic of conversation in any social event.
      It is true that today’s voyeurism and cheap sentimentalism leads to emphasize things like “cancer” in order to create mass emotion.
      But do not get me wrong : objectively, I can say that some of Abbado’s performances and recordings are just the best I have ever been fortunate to attend or listen to. But in some other cases, he was not quite as convincing… Here comes in the de gustibus all right: but with the de gustibus comes the right to criticize on objective grounds : if, because of the de gustibus, you are obliged to adooooooore whatever the hot maestro does, and if you are denied the right to take a deep breath and to try to put forward a dispassionate judgement, then your de gustibus motto becomes a tyranny of fashion.

      • P.S. In order to be truly objective, I would have to say that Mr. Lebrecht’s arguments can be boomeranged angainst him. His recent posts about Dudamel’s Mahler were very close to falling in some kind of idolatry… (No offence intended)

        • Nonsense. I have a working relationship with him, which would be impossible if it were in any way idolatrous. That said, I found all of the Mahler performances that I heard in Los Angeles to be exceptional by any standards, as did several other Mahlerians.

          • I did not intend to cast any suspicion upon the sincerity of your accounts of these concerts; besides, you have notoriously been critical of Dudamel in the past, and anyway he is not such a “hype” as Abbado. I was just commenting on the general tonality of your accounts: “historical” is not a common epithet, let alone in your writings. I mean, you can find a performance excellent in every aspect, but historical… I am an avid, if young, concertgoer, and I do not think I have seen an “historical” performance yet — except some by the great late Gustav Leonhardt, but I will refrain from playing on words here.
            Besides, admit that the fact that you have a working relationship with Dudamel precludes you from being overcritical of his work: I do by no means imply that you are biased or anything of the sort; I simply mean that if you had criticisms about these performances, they would not be as harshly formulated as enthusiastic your praise was.

          • I don’t think I can agree, Mathieu. If I had found fault with a performance, I hope I would have said so. I usually do. Let me be more specific: I was giving lectures in the course of The Mahler Project and had private conversations with Gustavo Dudamel. That was the nature of the relationship.

      • The “de gustibus” actually referred to the work of critics. I realize that Norman wasn’t really stating a negative opinion on Abbado. But I took the opportunity to praise him and I also like the rather poetic flights of hyperbole in the review. As the late, great Flip Wilson once said: “I came to seize your berry not to praise it.” Or was it the other way around? A chacun ses goûts…

  • Actually, I think this falls more in the first commandment category: no gods before me! Yes, of course, fatuous unsubstantiated praise is something no-one deserves. I have another beef with this kind of reviewing: it fails to engage with the specifics of the performance and it seems to have no aesthetic principles. If you do, then from time to time you have to actually write something critical. I made a stab at assembling a set of aesthetic virtues and sins in a post on my blog last month. Here it is:

    http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2012/01/aesthetic-virtues-and-sins.html

    • Is that meant to be funny ? My humour doesn’t stretch that far ,in fact in pure American useage of the English language, “it cramps my Style ” ! 1.Shostakovic only composed 2 Piano concertos,& not a 3rd. & 2. Stalin didn’t play the Piano. & 3. Stalins favourite composer was Mozart. & 4.Hitlers favourite composer was Wagner, & apparently according to hearsay Tony Blairs was the ” Spice Girls ” urggghhhh !

  • You havent heard the Shostakovich 3rd Piano concerto coupled with Beethovens 6th Piano concerto with Ivor Pulltheotherone conducted by Stalin. Very rare but might still be a few about

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