About

WHO I AM, AND WHY THIS WEBSITE

Originally posted on Amazon.com, as My Profile. Revised for publication on this website.

I am a classical music lover, an avid listener of CDs and big collector of records and scores, living near Paris, France. I enjoy doing comparative listening of classical music, and can become obsessively accumulative with my favorite works. No kidding: I must have close to or over a hundred different versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and possibly Schubert’s C-major Quintet (haven’t counted those). I am equally interested in modern (e.g. first half of 20th Century) and contemporary music, off-the-beaten track repertoire and the well-trodden music territory from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. I also make increasingly frequent forays into Medieval music.

Comparative listening is, of course, a way to obsessively listen to music you love, as you would with an album of the Beatles, but unlike the album of the Beatles, it’s never exactly the same music you listen to. More fundamental still, comparative listening is, I find, a way to deepen one’s understanding and knowledge of a piece, by assessing the various interpretive possibilities explored by the performers throughout the piece’s recorded history. I also like to see how certain interpretive traditions develop and how a given performer fits in (or out). Comparative listening is also a way not to be bound to a given interpretation, and to confuse the beauty of the composition and the excellence of the interpretation. About this, an anecdote:

 Early on in my listening career, I had a badly-dubbed cassette tape of Bartok’s Violin Concerto in the famed version of Menuhin-Furtwängler 1953. One day I bought the then new recording of Chung-Solti, also on cassette tape. I listened and there was something that bothered me about the interpretation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I could have left it at that and decided that the new version was no good, but like kids wanting to know how the clock works, I decided to try and understand what it was. I didn’t have scores back then, so I painstakingly jumped from one tape to the other (eject, insert!), phrase by phrase. But the conclusion of that unrefined comparative listening was not what I expected: Chung-Solti were better! More urgent, more biting – qualities that I recognized as genuinely “Bartokian” – with no loss of lyricism. Only, I had become so used to the sonic perspective of my dub of Menuhin-Furtwängler, listening to it over and over again, that I had been bothered, indeed, not to hear it in the new version. I had confused the interpretation (or rather, in this case, the recording) and the composition itself, and become addicted to elements of the interpretation and sonics that were not an integral part of the music, and possibly didn’t even do it justice. That’s the day I decided that it was vital never to become stuck with only one interpretation of a piece. For more about how I became a record collector, see this.

What I’ve learned from comparative listening is that there isn’t such a thing as ONE interpretive “truth”; and ONE “best” version (or musicians as indisputably great as Furtwängler and Toscanini would not have offered such incompatible visions of what that “truth” is). A composition is rich with the variety of its interpretations, and even the one the composer himself imagined, the one that fits his “intentions” (inasmuch as they can be construed from all the available evidence, the first being the score), as important and significant as it is to know these intentions, are only the first word, not the final one – and sometimes not even the most convincing one.

Not that I am a relativist, but I think that hierarchies of “better” and “not as good” can be made only within a certain interpretive paradigm. You can’t seriously say that red is “better” than blue, or Furtwängler “better” than Toscanini. But what you can do is to establish varying degrees of intensity among red and blue hues, and within a spacious, Furtwängler-like approach or a brisk and biting one in the style of Toscanini, you can establish that one interpretation is a better realization than the other – based on a variety of parameters: sonics, crispness of articulation that offsets any sense of dragging or rushing, or else. But choosing between “Furtwängler” and “Toscanini” is a matter of personal taste. I had more certainties when I knew less (don’t we all?). Now, I like a variety of approaches, and I think all illuminate a certain aspect of the composition.

Much bickering among music lovers, fans and even performers themselves takes place, I think, not just over matters of taste (they do), but because the issue remains confused of what the legitimate goal of the interpreter really is. Many interpreters and listeners (and composers!) take for granted that the interpreter’s (only) legitimate goal is to realize the composer’s intentions. Thus, incredible intellectual contortions have been exercised to explain why blatant travesties of the letter of the score (especially regarding tempo choices) remain realizations of the composer’s intentions, or “spirit”, or what not.

But such contortions needn’t be once you understand that this is only ONE of the interpreter’s legitimate goals, but that another one, no less legitimate, is to realize a potential contained in the score that even the composer had no hint of. I don’t think Furtwängler was anywhere close to realizing Beethoven’s “intentions”. Beethoven, who, like Stravinsky, was extremely finicky about faithfulness to his scores’ indications and especially tempi, would have been thrown into a fit hearing Furtwängler’s Beethoven. But it doesn’t make Furt. less legitimate: he certainly realized a potential of Beethoven that Beethoven have no idea of, but yet that was entirely revelatory and illuminating. He realized, certainly not the intentions of Beethoven, but, in his own way, a certain “spirit”; of Beethoven’s scores.

So, I try to make my reviews as “objective” as I can and always keep the distinction clear between description (of the parameters of an interpretation and how it fits or not in a given interpretive tradition) and opinion, or how I personally react to these parameters. Typically, when listening to a recording and writing a review, I will first try and be as descriptive and objective in possible of the “facts”, e.g. the parameters of the interpretation – among which tempo choices take pride of place, because they are I think the most immediately perceptible differentiating factor, but there are all the matters of phrasings, balances, ensemble-playing and pitch-precision when relevant, sonics, etc. I’ll try and establish how faithfully or not the interpretation realizes the score (even considering the essential ambivalence of such literary notions as “Allegro” and the likes, it is surprising to see how many liberties interpreters take with the printed page), and/or how effective a realization of a certain interpretive tradition it is, but more as a matter of objective description than judgment. Judgment, or personal subjectivity and opinion, comes only next, especially when the interpretation is at variance with score or tradition: the question then becomes how well or not it “works” musically – and this is where my own subjectivity is most at play. But ideally I’d like my reviews to be sufficiently descriptive to enable the reader to draw opposite conclusions from mine.

You can disagree with my opinions, but you can trust that I’ve listened very carefully to the recording, whenever possible with the score and minutely comparing different versions. So, agree or disagree, but trust that the opinion is not just the result of vague “impressions”, but but one informed and based on solid arguments.

WHY THIS WEBSITE

To be posted. Where I’ll recount my “adventures in Amazonia” – and how I found the way out. A decade of posting reviews on Amazon.com, which I was very happy with, until the time came when accumulated issues and irritations with Amazon made me jump off the board and decide to create this website.

22 thoughts on “About”

    1. Thanks Mark! Welcome to Discophage.com and I hope you enjoy. It is still sketchy right now – lots of work to transfer all my reviews from Amazon.com

  1. Good luck with this site. Your reviews are very important, especial in an age where, “I like it” is considered to be a review.

  2. Hello, stumbled in here by accident through a cd info web search, thinking “is this the discophage I know from amazon reviews?” Good luck with this project, interested to see how it develops.

    1. Hi Perotin Cannes, thanks for your message and support. Yep, this is Amazon’s Discophage. Amazon has gone from welcoming to serious reviewing to absolutely hostile, and I resent it. In fact, I’m even barred from reviewing now, even editing my old reviews, because I haven’t done 50 dollars of purchases on Amazon.com in the last year – regardless that I’ve done thousands of dollars of purchases on Amazon.fr or uk. And of course I don’t purchase any more on .com, given that if I buy a CD five dollars, they’ll charge me 20 to ship it over to Europe.

      I’ve been working very slowly these last few years, alas, on importing my Amazon reviews over here, and diverted from the job over, well, various concerns over the political situation in the United States and the world. I’m hoping that I can be more productive in the coming years. Pay me a visit once in a while ! All best regards.

      1. Hi Discophage. I found out what you were talking about when I submitted a review on Amazon uk. Good reviewers are few in number and should be ENCOURAGED. Best wishes. By the way, Immortal Performances has a Toscanini NY Phil Pastoral and a few other new Toscanini items.

        1. Hi Lawrence, good to hear from you. Hey, I don’t know if I told you already, but I’ve been even BARRED by Amazon.com from reviewing, and even from amending my posted reviews. Why ? Because I haven’t spent 50 dollars on Amazon.com purchases in the last 12 months (and of course I haven’t, given the ludicrous prices they (or US Post Office) charge to ship a CD overseas). No matter that I spend THOUSANDS of dollars yearly on Amazon.fr and Amazon.uk, no matter that, after having not posted a single review on Amazon.com since January (and very few in the two previous years), I am still ranked circa 1,400th reviewer. Amazon.com has gone from welcoming to serious reviewers to damning.

          Well, I can do so much more by way of accurate and complete information here. I’m currently reposting all my reviews of the Swingle Singers. I had a big Swingle Spree back in 2011-2012.

          1. Amazingly a wedding will be in my future. After Teresa died, I figured I’d be alone and I met a friend on a grief support group and am spending the holidays with her. I even inspired her to buy some beginner classical CDs. While you are at it, I hope you can create a search engine for your reviews. While you have competition, I think you are the best reviewer I’ve seen currently. I hope you are keeping up with Immortal Performances Toscanini material.

            1. Hey Laurence, congratulations on the great news and I wish you bliss. Search engine: do you mean, on the website itself? But there IS one:

              http://discophage.com/wp-content/uploads/search-engine-correspondence-with-Laurence-Levine.jpg

              If you are talking about having the site referenced on Google, I haven’t done anything specific about it, but I think it is. For instance, if I Google search – first thing that came to my mind – “EMI Reflexe”, since I published a discography of the label, and without any reference in the search to discophage, it shows to me as second Google choice. (This may be because my computer is filled with Google cookies. I’d be interested to know your own search results. You can also try “concert discs discography” (me: first choice) or “Everest discography” (me: fifth choice). All best wishes

                1. Ah ah, yes, because, you see, I still have a LONG way to go to transfer my 2,500 Amazon reviews over here. Each transfer takes some time, it’s never a matter of just “copy and paste”: it’s “double-check and enter all the accurate information, scan and post the front and back-cover photos, find all the info about original LP releases and if possible cover photos, give all the subsequent CD reissues with barcodes and legible front and back cover photos, and then cross-link all the other versions that are referenced in the review”. Pfffuui. But at least I can be fairly confident that (unlike Amazon, which is a sorry shambles) each of my entries is accurate and complete. So be patient for Toscanini.

                  1. Frankly I wish that some publisher could release all your reviews. It goes without saying that many published reviewers are not in your league.

                    1. Thanks for your kind words Laurence. Well, I guess the best publication is here on Discophage.com – as long as the system doesn’t crash, of course, and I pay my yearly maintenance fee.

                      Hey, I don’t promise, but I’ll set it as a goal to myself in 2019 to import over here all my Toscanini reviews. I had also started what, if I can ever get it done, would be a huge chronological discography (by chronology of recordings, I mean, and that spans something like 1922 to 1954). But now, that, if I ever complete it, is going to take years.

  3. I agree with you about Amazon and I’ve actually threatened them in the last few months with a class action lawsuit over their algorithms and the way they determine your reviewer “standing” or “rank.” I think they actually prefer morons as reviewers, not people who actually know what they’re talking about and helpful. And having to buy $50 to review. Um, no and I think THAT is also a class action lawsuit in the making. Anyway, good to find you here. We don’t always agree on things, but I always enjoy reading well thought out and written reviews whether I agree with them or not.

    1. Hi Bruce, nice to see you here. Sorry if I took a while to respond, I haven’t been very active on my website these last few weeks, alas. Still buying a lot, listening to far less, reviewing almost nothing. I hope I can soon divert time from the unnecessary and devote more to music.

      You know, brave of you to threaten Amazon with a class action, but frankly, why bother? It’s like trying to move the Himalaya with your bare hands, and, though I’m not a lawyer, I don’t see how there could be cause or standing to sue them! After all, it is a private website, they do what they wish. As long as we are happy, we participate (I still buy, marketplace prices are often very cheap), if we’re not, we leave (I hardly review there any more).

      However, I do pity the average, and even the more than average customer trying to find a specific CD on Amazon. The site is such a mess. Wrong photos, piecemeal product info by which more often than not the sought CD will NOT respond to the obvious search criteria like composer, performer, label, linked entries so that comments for one version will appear under the other and further mislead the customer. Chances are, said customer will end up, either not finding his CD, or not finding the cheapest edition available, or buying another edition of his CD than the one he wanted, or even altogether being landed an entirely different CD. Salvation is in the barcode (with, still, rare exceptions) – but who knows that? I’ve been a collector for decades, and I only discovered that some 5 years ago… Now, all my label discographies (I maintain a good hundred), and all my reviews, include the barcodes…

      All best wishes

  4. This is a noble effort indeed, I applaud you. It’s certainly a bizarre state of affairs that Amazon could be such an important go-to for substantive reviews of music like this, yet the site behaves as if it is doing their dedicated reviewers a favor for “allowing” them to provide genuinely informative, engaging commentary on the very items being sold there. W.T.F. This is a real turn-off to anyone like me who wishes to write or learn more about music!

    Still, I wonder if perhaps a coordinated group effort might lend more weight to the issue. A class-action suit (as entertained above) is one obvious option, but a complex one. I am thinking more of a collective, evolving library or resource, like a parallel “wiki for reviews” or some other avenue which could help readers sift through all the different views on these amazing pieces of music and their many interpretations. Perhaps there’s even a way to “siphon” reviews off of Amazon through creative mining of caches, etc? If a fair number of the better known Amazon reviewers (many of whom seem to be borderline musicologists/scholars/professional critics) were to suddenly do such a thing, it might get Amazon’s attention (however slight), or at least be a rewarding resource in and of itself.

    Short of that, I will just say how happy I am to come across your site, which I suspect will provide me with many good hours of reading and music-hunting.

    1. Hi Luna, sorry for responding so late, I haven’t been visiting my own website in quite a while, alas. Thank you for your kind comments. One thing is certain : NOTHING we do will get Amazon’s attention. It is now a mammoth bureaucratic institution, classical music is a tiny minuscule niche in their operations, those who run the website daily are totally incompetent in matters of classical music, and they don’t given a damn. I hope to find the time soon to come back to tending to my own website. Cheers.

      1. Sadly, you are right about Amazon. Also quite often they have several different performances under the same listing.

        I hope you are aware that Toscanini’s performance of Brahms second from 1935 and Brahms third from 1933!!! Are among Immortal Performances’ releases.

        Laurence

  5. I don’t know how I ended up on this website, but am glad I found it. If I don’t get any more value than from what I got in reading this about page, then I will have had much more from this page than most of the other music related sites I have visited. Well done.

    I may be an outlier in this group. I love classical music and it comprises the major portion of the music that I listen to but I have nearly completely shifted to high resolution file-based music. My point is not to start a debate about merits of the different formats, just pointing out my perspective. All of the comments about tempo, and other elements of interpretation would be the same whether listening to an LP, CD, SACD, or high resolution fileI think.

    Perhaps because of my perspective, I have found that most of the new interpretations of classical work seem to be coming from Europe. When I go to the sites I use to find music, it is very rare to find something by U.S. based performers. It may be because most of the sites are based in Europe and don’t seem to have U.S. equivalents.

    If anyone has information about new interpretations, or reissue in high resolution file-based format of either great historic performances or, new interpretations, I would appreciate the information.

    Some other day about the trials of getting music with reliable information in my new desired format. 🙂

    1. (with Jon’s authorization, I’ll publish here the private correspondence that ensued between us)

      Jon S
      June 4

      I am not sure if this got through before, so sorry if this is a duplicate.

      Sorry if my post on your about page was a tad off topic. I really think you captured well why listening to new interpretations is so fulfilling. As I mentioned my primary source now is High Resolution file-based music. I am sure you know all the sites like NativeDSD, Channel Classics, Acoustic Sounds, Hight Definition Tape Transfers, HDTracks, and sites by performers like the LSO. Even combined these sites have relatively few releases. Are you aware of any other places where I might find either new interpretations, or releases of classics.

      Best,

      /jon

      ***********

      Discophage
      June 4

      Hi Jon, welcome to Discophage.com. I did approve your previous comment left on the “About” page of my website, so now it is public. I can’t be of much help to you however. Not meant at criticism whatsoever, but I’m the very opposite of you: I don’t give that much importance to sonics. I don’t have a very sophisticated system, I listen over headphones (I find that it favors more concentrated listening), which some music lovers consider a heresy, I’m more than happy when the sound blooms but I can do with transfers of scratchy 78s, and I’ll always prefer a great interpretation of Toscanini to an indifferent reading by anywho in high fidelity. My reasoning is that ANY sound reproduction system, however infinitely Hi-Fi it may be, is only an artefact, a simulacrum, a “make believe”. It is NOT Yo Yo Ma that you have in your living room, even less the Berlin Philharmonic, but membranes vibrating. And all that with the goal of prodding on the listener’s imagination, of letting HIM/HER reconstruct in his/her imagination the sonic image of Yo Yo Ma or the Berlin Phil based on the sound produced by those vibrating membranes. The sound reproduction is just the foundation on which the imagination builds.

      Shakespeare said all there was to say, centuries before Edison: “the best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” That’s my motto, when it comes to sound reproduction.

      But your plight reminds me of my very early days of music listening, when I did NOT like the scratchy surfaces of LPs and bought audio-cassettes. But the choice was way more limited than LPs. I rapidly switched back to LPs. Then came the CD, and CD reissues, revealing (to my ears at least), with labels like Everest, Vanguard, but also CBS/Sony, RCA… many of the sonic splendors of recordings from the late 50s and 60s that had remained hidden by the scratchy surfaces and other limitations of the LPs. I’m perfectly happy with those CD reissues. Sometimes the “enhanced” reissues bring small sonic improvements, sometimes greater ones, but oftentimes I find myself so contented with the original CD-reissue that I don’t really feel the need to go for a purported “better”. I still have the first (Western) CD reissue of Bruno Walter’s Mahler 9th with the Colubmia Symphony Orchestra, I find the sound stupendous. And Szell’s Brahms Piano Concertos with Leon Fleisher on CBS Masterworks Portraits? Stupendous sound.

      Best wishes

      Disco

      *********

      Jon
      June 5

      Hi Disco,

      I did not see our conversation on your site yet, but I did want to reply to your thoughtful note. Feel free to post this or not, as you wish.

      I understand your focus on the music/performance. I don’t think that it must be either the music or the sonic quality of the reproduction whether it is in CD, SACD, Streaming, or High Resolution file based format. I will use your word interpretation to include all aspects of the performance, from the arrangement by the conductor or someone else, and orchestra which includes the performers, how well they do individually and collectively, the arrangement of the orchestra in the venue, to the sonics of the venue. I am not an expert, but I would say that there is both art and science behind capturing the performance, where and how the microphones are placed, mixing, editing, and everything else in the chain to the point where you and I get to hear the music on our systems. Let’s call this aspect the engineering of the interpretation/performance.

      I think what you are saying is that of the two, the interpretation is of paramount importance. Everything that follows, the engineering chain is of low importance. In my listening, I agree the interpretation is very important, but I also highly weight the engineering, and the ability of the home system to accurately represent what was played by the musicians and captured in the engineering process. My reasoning is, I want to hear all of the interpretation. If the engineering process and my system are unable to reproduce faithfully the interpretation, then I may not hear all of what was there and my experience may be diminished. Before providing some examples, I would like to define what ‘listening’ is to me. I should call it ‘active listening’. There is a difference between playing music while I work on my computer and sitting down in my music chair and doing nothing else but listening to the music. One is passive, the latter is very active. It is this active listening that I am referring to. Not to take anything away from listening to music while you work, play, drive, etc.

      Here are some examples of where breakdowns in the engineering and playback chain can adversely impact my listening experience. I know that there are technical terms to describe the elements below, but I think it is best to avoid labels and just describe how my listening is impacted by variations in the engineering chain.

      I want to hear all the music that was put there in the first place. What I mean by this is: can I hear each instrument or vocalist in the proportion that the leader of the interpretation intended (e.g., conductor)? This, and most of my other comments, apply to non-classical music as well. I remember first listening to a high resolution version of Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon and I heard notes from the band that I had not heard in all my previous listenings to this album.
      I want to hear each element of the orchestra and choir/vocalists clearly. This is most problematic when the performance has a high dynamic range and there is a lot going on. One of my favorite pieces is Te Deum by Berlioz. In the Judex crederis you have multiple choruses, an organ, and a large number of instruments. I heard this performed once by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at their summer shed in Tanglwood in Massachusetts. To be able to hear each of these elements blending with each of clearly was an experience I will never forget. In many recordings this just does not come through. Is the music still worth listening to, yes but my enjoyment is diminished.
      I want to hear the arrangement of the instruments and choir/vocalists ad the conductor placed them —Beethoven’s 7th is also one of my favorites. I have heard many different recordings and the best ones technically let you hear/feel where the instruments like the timpani are. It is interesting to note, that some of the best technical reproductions are not what I would call great performances. That said, I want to hear all that there is.
      I want to experience all of the notes. A clear example is when the organ is used. When you are at a live performance, not only do you hear the organ, but you can also frequently feel it. This is certainly the case with the previously mentioned Te Deum or the Saint-Seans symphony #3.
      I want all the ’texture’. Going back to Beethoven’s 7th again. The interpretations I know freely use some number of bass. I want to be able to hear the bowing of the musicians which is sometimes lost in recordings. The sound (and feel) of the bow on the strings, is part of the performance and I want to hear it.

      Can there be great music worth listening to with lots of defects in what I would call the engineering chain. Absolutely, but to the degree that these defects impact the music my experience is diminished. Sometime there is no choice. I also like Sidney Bechet. Most of the recordings I have heard were made so long ago that there are lots of technical problems, but the chance to hear this great musician outweighs the technical defects.

      Sorry for the length, but I have been thinking about this quite a lot over the past few years. This exchange gave me the chance to write it down.

      Best,

      /jon

      1. Jon, where I’ll join you, although in a rather oblique way, is that I am fully aware that, when listening to a CD, you are NOT listening to the actual performance. The CD (or any medium of sound reproduction) is NOT a testimony of a given performance, it is a total artefact : you are listening to a CD. Many reasons : first, you don’t know how spliced and doctored a studio (or even “purported to be live”) performance can be. So maybe what you get after all that editing, splicing and doctoring can be considred the “ideal” performance that the performers were never able and would never be able to obtain in actual performance ; which makes that recording, as accomplished as it may be in the eyes of engineers and performers, not the record of a performance, but an sonic artefact.

        Second, due to the limitations of recording mediums (microphones, dynamic range that tape or digitial systems can record) AND sound reproduction mediums (grooves of the LP, constraints on the dynamic range that digital files select, quality of equipment), it is very rare that you get, as you wish for in your wildest dreams, the full dynamic range, balance, subtelty, that a perfomer would ideally want to hear and want you to hear. Some performers are famous – I’m thinking of Furtwängler, but there are many others – for having such a dynamic range that it was never captured by any recording equipment: the sound engineers had to drastically lower the knobs in the climaxes, and all those that have heard him live confirm that no recording has ever captured his sound. And Celibidache is another conductor famous for going the full way, and downright refusing to record, because he was too aware of the limitations of the recordings and the betrayal of his intentions and musical message that they would result in.

        It is something that is entirely obvious to fans of rock and pop. A record of the Beatles isn’t a “performance” of the Beatles, it isn’t (pun intended) the “record” of a performance : it is an sonic object in itself, totally independent of what a live performance (or even the recording of a live performance) of the Beatles would be. And it’s obvious as well in the movies : as apparently “realistic” as they may be, as much as they will give you the illusion that, by empathizing with the characters, you are living “the real experience” – no, it’s all fake, these guys aren’t actually being killed, they’re actors, pretending, and you know it, and you accept the convention, you accept, for the time of the movie, to forget that it is all fake, all make-believe, and pretend that they are all real characters.

        All this to say that, when I am listening to a recording, whether live or studio, I am (in my analysis) NOT listening to “a performance”, or the “record of a performance”. I may go as far as to say that I am listening to “the imitation” of a performance, or “the simulacrum” of a performance, something that tries to pass itself off for a performance but that is not: it is a pure sonic artefact, a sound object in itself, that I listen to not relative to what the actual performance may have been, but for the sonic experience that in itself it conveys to me – “warts and all”. I’m not listening to a performance of Toscanini or Furtwängler or whoever – I’m listening to a record. And the pleasures I derive from it are immense.

        None of that said to criticize your own approach, just trying to explain mine, and it’s a vast world, and I have music-loving friends who consider it a heresy to listen over headphones because, they say, music is an experience that engages the full body, and I’m okay with that.

        Take care

        Disco

        1. Hi – I do get what you are saying, especially with your Beatles example. Even with a good classical recording with the technology we have today, it falls short of what I hope for. I won’t go so far as you say with the movie example though. I just want to get as close as I can to a live performance. As you say, there are lots of different ways to enjoy music.

          Best,
          Jon

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