How records get chosen for review

As of this week, Lebrecht Album of the Week will appear on two additional outlets. For that reason, among others, I decided to give some indication of how a reviewer’s mind works. Here goes:

Let me take you into the process by which new releases get selected for review – at least by me who for years has reviewed just one album a week. The process is not scientific, but I’ll describe it as best I can. Monday morning, I face two towering piles of CDs.

First, I reject the known knowns — famous artists recording familiar repertoire, and probably not for the first time. They won’t have much to say that changes the state of my world.

Then it’s the turn of the unknown unknowns, where both the composer and artist are extremely obscure and neither has the weight to advocate for the other. Sorry, but no.

Next to go are artists who have failed to impress me in the past. I don’t see the point of wasting my platform on dismissive reviews, so listening to a voice that I have previously found unappealing does no good either to me or to the performer.

Finally, there are whatever boundaries I have set myself within a particular time frame. In the three months of COVID, I decided to review only music from the late-20th and early 21st century, not out of masochism but because this is a marvellous opportunity to expose myself and my readers to repertoire that lies outside the regular concert tramlines.

That said, this week, I am breaking two of my rules…. 

Read on here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

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  • ==gimova reverses this revision and plays, for the first time, as Shostakovich intended.

    Aha – that alone makes it worth hearing. I’d never realised that first sketch (soloist starting off the finale, rather than having breathing space) actually existed. Had thought it was just an idea DSch discarded

  • Working on the label side I can tell you exactly how reviews work. You usually get contacted by the advertising department saying

    “we might be reviewing your new album…now would be a great time to get a half page (600 pounds) or full page (1200 pounds) ad.
    If you take out an ad we can assure you that your release will be reviewed..”

    They gave up other pretense of actual journalism a long time ago. It’s a simple play for play situation. This includes the largest most reputable publications.

    • That Shostakovich disc does sound interesting. I too was not aware of this cadenza situation. But I am a bit confused, it isn’t like there is a nice relaxing break (or most challenging of all, an opportunity to re-tune) between that cadenza and the mad-cap final movement.

      It must be nice to belong to a record reviewer’s country club and get to pick and choose. Speaking from a (blessedly) FORMER reviewer’s perspective, there were no choices in what to review. A box about the size of a shoe box would arrive from Joel Flegler at Fanfare crammed with CDs (and almost all of the plastic boxes were shattered and broken in the process of mailing; Joel had no budget for bubblewrap). There were almost bound to be between one and a half dozen (groan) Bruch Concerto No. 1s in the box. Quite possibly a colleague at Fanfare got some of the same discs to review because Joel Flegler liked the contrasting views (or if the views agreed, the contrasting writing styles).

      How you felt about the artists or the repertoire or the record label or whether they were advertisers or not was utterly irrelevant. You had a remarkably brief period of time to listen and pen your reviews because before too long another shoe box of CDs would arrive, sometimes bumping right up against the deadline. There were weekends when I would spent 10 or more straight hours listening, listening, listening, dozing off…. Worst of all, 65 or 70 minutes of listening is over and you look down at the page before you and see that all you’d written was something like “measure 3 2nd mvt not at mp [mezzo piano]. Nice staccato.” Crap, I’m supposed to pen a page and a half out of that? So you’d cue it up again.

      Joel Flegler had something of a bias against reissues which I did not necessarily share. But I was on the staff long enough to get the very same recording three times on three different labels (Schubert for violin and orchestra, and not bad at all. Hopefully I had the same general reaction each time!).

      On the other hand right from the start (years before I joined the staff) Fanfare was willing to review what were then called “vanity press” releases, things that High Fidelity and Gramophone and Stereo Review and, for the most part, American Record Guide would not touch, and I sure got my share of them. These days almost every release is in some way a vanity/subsidized/sponsored release! But for a long while that made Fanfare unique. If there was pay-for-play, that is, if Fanfare wanted advertising before a disc would be reviewed, we reviewers had no way of knowing. It was just one more “jewel box” CD in the shoe box stuffed full of them. If it was a stinker than the advertising bought them a bad review. And there were some stinkers. It is not easy to write an entirely negative yet fair and thorough review, in my experience, but it was something you needed to learn how to do.

      Now and then your box would have some CDs marked “don’t bother to review,” but whether that meant Joel didn’t want it reviewed for whatever reasons of his own, or that he was sending you a duplicate and someone else was reviewing it, or it was a reissue that someone else had reviewed in a past issue, you had no idea. We reviewers rarely ever talked to each other, and I certainly never met any of them in person. And don’t tell Joel but now and then I’d review it anyway (and it would get published).

      Sometimes a CD would arrive marked “review if exceptional.” Whatever that means. Often I’d review it regardless since I had to listen to it to make that judgment. Those tended to come nearer the deadline when the editor already sensed the issue was full (and each issue of Fanfare was an inch or more thick in those days).

      I can only recall one review that was not published – a multi-CD set of Wolfgang Schneiderhan recordings and broadcasts, including some really nice chamber music, and things recorded with his wife, Irmgard Seefried, so it was a rare chance for me to review vocal recordings and I labored hard on that review. At the last minute the importer decided nobody in the US would be interested in it. I think they were dead wrong but they told Joel Flegler not to bother with it.

      Only once that I can recall was I made aware that an advertiser had used that fact to specifically ask for a review. A well-respected violinist had just recorded two major concertos and it received (from another reviewer) a shockingly negative review, I mean it was brutal, and I was surprised reading it because everything prior that I had heard from that artist was really fine, and the label itself was small but quality. The label felt the review had to have been biased and asked for a second review so I was asked to be the fresh pair of ears. And my reaction was just about as negative. And I was paid the usual shocking pittance by Fanfare. I name no names.

      So if that is pay-to-play, then paying got them two negative reviews rather than one.

      At one time Fanfare was known as the magazine that reviewed everything, which was nearly but not literally true but must have seemed that way given what was not being reviewed by the others but was reviewed in Fanfare. But if the record labels were going to bombard Fanfare with product, and from what I got in the mail every few weeks they surely did, then the money to pay for all that has to come from somewhere. If Company A objects to paying to have Company A’s records reviewed, then on what basis should they expect Company B (and C and D and so on) to pay to have Company A’s records reviewed? No advertising, no magazine. No magazine, no reviews. But you want a review?

      • I remember your name from ‘Fanfare’, David. What I most like about the magazine are the occasions when there are more than one review of a release. As I lack any formal university or conservatory-level musical training, I find that two or more lengthy but informed reviews that dig into musical detail are greater than the sum of their parts. The Honeck Pittsburgh SO releases engender many Fanfare reviews. Like many Fanfare reviews I cut them out and file them with the CDs that I get, for easy reference when I may play the CD. I certainly found it valuable to have read the views of Honeck’s Pittsburgh Shostakovich 5 before I was lucky to have seen them in tour in Paris last year. The Chailly/Leipzig Brahms symphonies set that won ‘Gramophone’ magazine’s record of the year award attracted rather the opposite view from a couple of ‘Fanfare’ reviewers, who also seem rather less enamoured of the cooler English choral singing eg Peter Phillips conducting the Tallis Scholars.

        It isn’t easy to set down in coherent detail why a particular interpretation is good or bad if there are minimal technical shortcomings of the musicians involved. Usually, a two or so paragraph review is basically an amplified Amazon or restaurant customer ‘review’, which is the writer saying ‘I loved it’ or ‘Totally yuck’ several times using various synonyms, rather than stating a coherent argument.

        BTW; after concerts, I am continually disconcerted by how much people are swayed by the visual performative aspects of a concert : if a conductor flails the air at many RPM on the podium it’s almost invariably an ‘exciting’ performance. A couple of East Asian women conductors I’ve seen have relatively restrained podium gestures compared to their male counterparts. Their interpretations have been excellent, with the orchestral sections notably well-balanced. They received informed critical acclaim, though concertgoers afterwards were somewhat cooler in their response compared to Mr mime-Bernstein.

        As for the Ibragimova Shostakovich release, it really is fantastic violin playing. Only Vengerov comes to my mind in being occasionally more daring than her in making his tone ‘gritty’ and earthy at certain points, and scooping certain phrases, in the 1st concerto. The idiomatic playing of the orchestra, well-matched to Ibragimova’s heartfelt style, makes the release a complete success all-round.

      • I was told directly by the owner of a “major/minor” record company (like you, David, I name no names) that Flegler always demanded that he pay for reviews of his label’s product in Fanfare, and if he wanted a feature interview with an artist on his label, he (or the artist) had to pay much much more.
        And the owner wasn’t talking about advertising, either: it was a straightforward case of pay-for-review.
        He got tired of being extorted, and that’s why one never sees reviews of that label’s product in Fanfare.
        BTW, David, I loved your reviews. I don’t miss Fanfare (I stopped subscribing years ago), but I miss your writings.

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