Why Bother Reading Reviews If There Is No Consensus? The Example Of Esfahani’s New Goldberg Variations?

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)

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Mahan Esfahani (24/48) Deutsche Grammophon 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

 

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 9 or What To Make of Album Reviews

Reviewing music

Before we get to Mahler, let me start more general. You’ll see that I often recommend albums that have also been recommended by major classical magazines such as Gramophone and Classica. Sometimes it gets a bit extreme, when Gramophone recently came up with a list of the Top 10 Schubert recordings, in my handful of reviews so far I’ve already mentioned 2 out of the top 10 (Schiff and the Pavel Haas Quartet)

That is obviously no coincidence. I read several magazines to keep me posted on new releases and to get a hint on which ones are worth a closer look. So you could kind of ask, why bother reading my blog and not go directly to the original source. Well, obviously I strongly encourage you to read the original source. Our ailing classical press is probably even worse off than the rest of the music industry and needs every paying subscriber they can get.

That said, I simply don’t always agree with the critics, and you’ll always find my own personal  opinion here. I’ve described here how I come up with my ratings, which are obviously absolutely subjective.

The thing is, I’m not the only one being subjective, everybody else, including the professional reviewers, are. There simply aren’t any objective standards to say why one recording is good, another one is bad, beyond simple technical faults (and even here, many prefer an Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven in spite of his many objective playing mistakes).

Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 9

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This recording is a case in point. Gramophone names it among the Editor’s Choices of the month, and calls it “a potential Gramophone award winner”, Classica in this month’s issue calls the very same album “disappointing”, and gives it one star, the worst ranking out of 5. They even just bring it up in the “Egalement réçus” (also received) page, which I usually don’t even bother reading (it’s very text heavy and not easy to read). Doesn’t get more extreme than this. (Footnote: Overall, I like this approach, these day too often every single review is positive, and positive review ONLY make sense if there’s also stuff you don’t like at all).

So who is right? The problem is, I don’t know. I’m not a big Mahler fan overall. I like the 1st and 4th, and the 5th up to a point, and struggle with the rest. The 9th I’ve only started partially appreciating recently, 1-2 years ago (with Abbado), and so I simply don’t know the work well enough to make a proper judgment. I really liked Fischer’s approach to Mahler 1 and 4, which I feel comfortable judging, but on the ninth all I can say I haven’t found any obvious flaws yet.

What I can say is that the recording, like pretty much every single album by the Dutch Channel Classics label, is extremely well recorded, and is a pleasure listening to just for that. With a good hifi system you’ll be in for a treat. I recommend download a high resolution version directly from their website or buy an SACD if you have a compatible player.

If you’re a Mahler aficionado, and you’re reading this, I’d very much appreciate your opinion in the comments section on this rather controversial approach to Gustav Mahler.