A critic’s dilemma: How do you review a friend?

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

A critic’s dilemma. The cellist Steven Isserlis is a pal. He lives around the corner, and we bump into each other at local amenities. He knows I have received his latest release for review. He will be disappointed if I ignore it and grumpy if I find fault. To review or not to review?

If I ruled out reviewing friends, I’d have to turn down half the record output. By the same token, if I mentioned a friendship every time I reviewed, readers would switch off. So what to do?…

Read on here.

And here.

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  • “I am in the smallest room of the house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.”
    As Sue would say, First World Problem.

  • ”I refuse to believe that if a critic is friendly with a musician he can be impartial. If word gets around you are a friend of a musician, your opinion becomes suspect.” Harold Schonberg (1915-2003), NYT critic who “[establisched] a code of conduct in which friendships with performers and composers were prohibited”
    https://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/nyregion/harold-c-schonberg-87-dies-won-pulitzer-prize-as-music-critic-for-the-times.html

    Then again, what can we make of Norman Lebrecht’s reviews if it comes to people or institutions he repeatedly bashes in this space?

  • In his introduction, Norman should have included his next sentence: “I made a rule a while back that I would only review friends’ works if they represent a stride beyond past achievement.” He then goes on to say that this recording meets that standard so he is reviewing it (and does so positively).

    What Norman could do is tell us how many previous Isserlis recordings he has decided NOT to review because they did NOT meet his standard.

    For example if this is the only one out of the last five review requests, then Norman’s positive review of this one carries more weight. On the other hand if this is his fourth review out of the last five requests, it shows that Norman thinks almost all Isserlis recordings are breakthroughs.

    I like the Harold Schonberg approach that is quoted by Petros Linardos from the New York Times obituary of Schonberg.

    • Indeed.

      This line in the review drew my attention: “If I ruled out reviewing friends, I’d have to turn down half the record output.”

      It is a bold claim. I would be quite interested to see a Venn diagram which maps “Performing artists whom Norman Lebrecht considers to be friends” against “Performing artists who consider Norman Lebrecht to be a friend”.

  • Very simple. One must simply declare an interest. By the same token,A judge or a magistrate will do the same thing if someone they happen to know appears before them

  • It’s a problem I run into all the time. You have to be honest: if you think the musician in question didn’t reach the standards that he or she is capable of, you have to say so – with dignity, of course, but clearly. The musician knows, too, that he/she has not given of his/her best, and if you don’t say say, you will forfeit his/her respect. Same with compsers. A few years after I give a fairly caustic review to a Proms commission, I was introduced to the composer who had written it. I started to say I was afraid I had panned his Proms piece and he silenced me, saying, no, no, you were quite right.

  • My experiences with Mr. Isserlis, albeit brief, made it quite clear that he has no qualms whatsoever about criticising other musicians, friends or otherwise. What’s good for the goose. . .

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