Professional Music Reviews
I’ve been very clear on my blog here that whatever I’m writing is nothing more than my personal view on the music and interpretations I write about.
You’d think that it should be different for professional reviewers. OK, maybe nuances according to individual tastes, but a good album is a good one, and a bad one is bad, right?
Well, I’ve previously given already one example of a Mahler album that received extremly contrasting reviews from two of the most respected classical review magazines out there, UK-based Gramophone, and French Classica.
And here we go again:
Bach: Goldberg Variations – Mahan Esfahani (Deutsche Gramophon 2016)
Mahan Esfahani is one of the rising stars on the harpsichord. I’ve briefly mentioned him in my musing’s on the Gramophone Awards 2015, but haven’t properly reviewed any of his albums yet.
I really liked his previous album Time Present And Time Past that went from Scarlatti to Reich.
So I was very curious about his take of the Goldberg Variations. I’ve previously praised Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord and Igor Levit on a modern piano. Both remain favorites of mine, but I have dozens alternatives.
Gramophone and Classica totally disagree
But before I get into my personal assessment, let me get back to my opening comment: How professional reviewers can disagree, in the most drastic possible way.
October Issue Gramophone: “His navigations of the music’s structure […] is carefully considered without sounding in the least bit studied, or different for the sake of being different. His Goldberg Variations clearly belongs […] in all serious Bach collections”. They even gave it a Gramophone Award.
October Issue Classica: “Il donne même l’impression de réinventer le Bach machine à coudre” (he even leaves the impression of reinventing the “sewing machine” Bach style), or “errements d’un jeu qui se laisse aller à un rubato et des manières agacants” (this is a bit harder to translate, but basically they find the same freedom that Gramophone likes above totally annoying), and speak of “La première version post baroque” (the first post-baroque version). Result: 2 out of 5 stars, which is their way of saying “disappointing”.
So what is it? Does a disappointing album belong in all serious Bach collections? I don’t blame you for being confused.
But this is my point, right? You can never use any kind of review individually. You can try to find a magazine (or even better, individual reviewer) that has a similar taste to yours, but then need to make up your own mind.
Side note: This is why I love streaming so much, as you can simply try out new music as much as you want before buying. But please, don’t forget to buy stuff you really like, if you want the musician to make a living.
To close this chapter on reviews, what is helpful if you find “meta-reviews”, that compares and contrast several individual reviewers. If you find consensus among many reviewers, you probably have a higher chance of finding something truly exceptional. Classica every month does just that, unfortunately only comparing French reviewers, they call that table “Les Coups de Coeurs” and summarize the opinions of 6 different French classical music specialists from Le Figaro to France Musique. But I don’t think anybody does this at an international level.
So what do I think about this album?
Now it get’s difficult. Esfahani’s recording is clearly VERY different.
What I love about it is the sound of the harpsichord, a two keyboard reconstruction that has a splendid sound (and isn’t ruined to much by Deutsche Gramophones sound engineers).
About the version? You’d think this is a love or hate recording. Well actually, it isn’t. I’ve now listened to it at least 5 or 6 times, but it doesn’t touch me as much as a Goldberg recording should. I’m just a bit indifferent. I clearly see how this recording is different, and why Esfahani does what he does, but I don’t think this version will get a lot of additional spins on my system. I’d go to Hantaï, or Levit, or Perahia, or, or, or.
My rating: 3 stars
4 thoughts on “Why Bother Reading Reviews If There Is No Consensus? The Example Of Esfahani’s New Goldberg Variations?”
As a regular reviewer (and I prefer that description to the word “critic” which implies negativity), and a reader of reviews myself, I think what your excellent article demonstrates is that one’s taste in music in highly subjective and personal – and that includes the taste of reviewers and critics too. I heard Esfahani play the Goldbergs at the Proms in 2013 and I was really bowled over by his playing, which was vibrant, fresh, imaginative and quirky. Some people like their Goldbergs served very “straight” (i.e. traditional – whatever that means!), others enjoy a more creative/unusual approach. Neither is wrong. My review is here https://bachtrack.com/review-mahan-esfahani-pcm1
I heard Andras Schiff earlier this year in “my” Schubert Sonata (D959) and I hated his take on it. In fact, I hated most of the concert (too precious, too mannered, too reverential on the part of the audience), but others loved it. There’s no accounting for taste!
I think reviews have a purpose in offering readers, listeners and potential concert goers a range of opinions which, hopefully, will allow to make an informed judgement about a concert, performer or recording. The rise of blogs such as yours, and mine, have made reviewing more democratic and offer readers more choice, which I think is a thoroughly good thing.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for your feedback.
I had seen your review of the Esfahani live previously, and must admit I would have liked to be there. Esfahani is truly a great harpsichordist!
Regarding Schiff, you’ll find that in a previous review I quite liked his Fortepiano approach, at least as captured on ECM (I have yet to see him live, I keep being busy when he comes near me).see here: https://musicophilesblog.com/2015/06/07/schubert-on-fortepiano-by-andras-schiff-not-for-beginners/.
He wouldn’t be my number one choice for Schubert, but you gain some really nice insights from this different take on things.
And fully agree with your that choice is good, regarding music reviews.