criticizing the critic

In today’s New York Times Anthony Tommasini reviewed pianist Stephen Hough’s recital at Carnegie Hall. A major component of Hough’s recital was a piece of his own invention, his Piano Sonata No. 2 “Notturno Luminoso”.

My problem with this review is that there seems to be no critic alive (with the possible exceptions of Steven Smith and Alex Ross) who is not afraid of praising a work or a performance without also giving some sort of sly, backhanded dressing down of same. Here is what I mean:

At 51, Mr. Hough has established himself as an extraordinary pianist, a thinking person’s virtuoso. Whether he is a towering composer is another question. Music history usually takes some time to make those calls. And, from this one hearing, I cannot claim that Mr. Hough’s Second Sonata is destined for a slot in the repertory.

But it is an exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived for the piano. Mr. Hough, a polymath who also conducts, paints and writes poetry, is a lively writer on music who contributes a blog to The Daily Telegraph in London that is essential reading. Not surprisingly, he wrote a vividly detailed program note for his sonata.

The title “Notturno Luminoso” is meant to suggest the experience of a fantasy on a sleepless night in a brash city setting. As the piece, loosely organized in three parts, opens, we hear steely chords thick with clusters, like Messiaen’s harmonies but with a touch of bracing Copland or early Carter.

Now, what was wrong with saying it was an ‘exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived’ without saying that it also might not be ‘destined for a slot in the repertory’? Is it too much to simply enjoy a piece without also downgrading its chances at entering the repertory? How many of Liszt’s piano works were criticized at their premieres because the critics were concerned with whether any other pianists might not be up to their virtuoso challenges? I would guess that contemporary critics of Liszt were more concerned with the performance of the great pianist/composer, and with the novel techniques he may have introduced in his compositions, rather than if pianists would be playing his works fifty years hence.

Does this seem strange to anyone else but me?

11 Replies to “criticizing the critic”

  1. …seem strange…?

    no – expected – but “…no critic alive (with the possible exceptions of…” seems farsighted – looking right around here, one finds critics far from intent on ‘getting the boot in’ (so to speak) at every turn

    as for determining any music’s place in history (including Stephen Hough’s), I doubt Tony what’s-his-name, has much to do with it

  2. Well, given the long history of critics getting it drastically wrong, he can’t very well claim that it WON’T earn a slot in the repertory, can he? I agree, it’s “needless bet-hedging.” Is he worried about coming off like a fan-boy or something? Are there readers who won’t respect a critic who doesn’t say something negative? Perhaps, but why cow-tow to them?

  3. You’re barking up the wrong tree. The real problem is this sentence: “Whether he is a towering composer is another question.” It’s a ridiculous question. No one is asking, suggesting, predicting, expecting Hough to be a “towering composer.” It’s like reading Stephen King and saying, “Whether he is Shakespeare is another question.” A false comparison. Tommasini should have judged the piece without raising the question of historical importance. Methinks.

  4. slonimsky’s “lexicon of musical invective” is a fun & fascinating read with abundant examples of critics “getting it wrong.”

    as for “towering composers,” there are & have been very few of those – in any period. with very few exceptions, the “beethovens” generally rise to the top over time.

    so, for now, let’s simply listen up in the here of the now & let the rest play out into the there of the later . . .

  5. but according to what i’ve been reading elsewhere, what difference does it make. Once the composer is dead, then he joins the ranks of “dead white composers” and the playing of his music, however worthy it may be, should be discouraged in favor of those composers who are still alive.

  6. I don’t find this review particularly venomous: it avoids personal attack and cheap shots and simply expresses the view that this piece, however, sparkling in some ways, doesn’t sound as though it will have staying power. The critic could be wrong about this, of course–but he could also be right. The collections of reviews that were badly wrong about what are now considered masterpieces (they exist for literature as well), don’t tell the whole story: the collection of reviews that that judged a work to be flawed or trivial and which seem to have been correct in this judgement would run to many volumes and one could also easily fill volumes with reviews of works that were initially praised to the skies as the next masterpiece and are now utterly forgotten. What I take this reviewer to be suggesting, in a rather veiled way, is that this piece has a glossy veneer but lacks substance. I don’t see any reason that couldn’t be an accurate judgement and I don’t see any self-contradiction in saying the piece is well suited to the instrument but nevertheless not any kind of masterpiece in itself.

    If anything, I’d say there is a dearth of probing music criticism at the moment. I recently gave up my subscription to The Strad because the articles have essentially become publicity write-ups for performers. No doubt the people who write these articles are afraid if they say anything remotely critical, others won’t be willing to be interviewed, but it makes for very bland and uninstructive reading. Moreover I don’t see why one should pay to read prose that reflects no greater discernment than one would expect from a publicist (which is I guess what cheerleaders become when they get too old for college).

    1. Nina – exactly! If he had just said “glossy veneer but lacking in substance” I could have accepted that, but praising pretty much completely and then yanking the rug out from under, not cool, in my opinion. But, it’s just that, an opinion. Just like his!

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