26-27 October 2017
Along the same line, my discovery (probably in the same record shop, and around the same time) of Fanfare, the magazine for serious record collectors, was another event of long-lasting impact. I must have started with volume 1 No. 4 (and have acquired the previous issues since), and Fanfare seemed inordinately thick at the time – looking back on those initial issues, they seem woefully thin in view of what came after! I’ve been a subscriber ever since, and have the complete collection, six issues a year, and can it really be… forty years????, which is now posing problems of shelf-space. In truth, I now very seldom rely on Fanfare or any other record magazine, I think I’ve done enough comparative listening and reviewing to rely on my own opinions and judgments rather than on anybody else’s. If anything, I have grown a certain defiance of others’ opinions and judgments, because, when I had done myself the listening, I realized that so many comments by so many so-called “professional” critics were such crap, not just different tastes and conclusions, which is entirely legitimate, but blatant mis-perceptions, mis-representation of the basic facts and parameters of an interpretation, ignorance of the composition’s recorded history. Also, I don’t particularly listen to the new releases – SO MUCH has been released every year, every month, since the commercialization of the CD in 1983, that the backlog is never exhausted. For all these reasons I’ve long ago interupted my subscriptions to The Gramophone and the French Diapason, but I still continue to subscribe to Fanfare (in fact I just renewed my subscription, for three years), for sake of “the good ol’ days” and as a gesture of support for Captain Flegler.
Much of what I know in music and music history I’ve learned through Fanfare. Fanfare pointed me to directions I would probably never have explored otherwise, and to discoveries I would have never made without the magazine. I still remember that it is a short review by Neil G. Levenson in Fanfare of March-April 1979 (vol. 1 No. 4!) that drew my attention on the importance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (“Alongside Debussy’s Etudes, Gaspard de la Nuit of Ravel, and the Ives Sonatas, Messiaen’s Vingt Regards stands out as the most resourceful and musically rewarding piano music of our century. No description could begin to recreate the transcendental experience of hearing it”). It is thanks to Fanfare and critics Paul Rapoport and Adrian Corleonis that I discovered the existence and music of Kaikhosru Sorabji (as well as of the still widely unknown and unrecorded Bernard van Dieren – “a figure comparable in stature to Berg“, really? – and Cecil Gray, when they both published, in Fanfare of May-June 1981, a glowing review of the first-ever commercial recording of music of the composer (by Michael Haberman on Musical Heritage Society). You can be in disagreement with their opinions and judgments – I’m not yet as convinced as them by the genius of Sorabji, I’m enclined to think “too many notes Mister Sorabji!”, and in fact I never finished listening to his Opus Clavicembalisticum by John Ogdon on Altarus since I purchased it in 1989 – but you couldn’t dispute the breadth of knowledge and expertise that lay behind it, and I admire the enthusiasm.
Some divisive Fanfare reviewers…
Besides my own dwindling needs in what a record magazine has to offer (a simple but complete list of monthly releases, as The Gramophone used to publish it and still may do, would probably be more useful to me), I’m also acutely aware that Fanfare hasn’t always evolved in a satisfactory direction. The hiring of Jerry Dubins, with his offensively aggressive behaviors in response to reader’s criticism, and his often (contrary to his claims) grossly uninformed reviews (“qui trop embrace mal étreint“, goes the French saying, “don’t bite off more than you can chew”) was a huge fall down. It introduced an aggressiveness and divisiveness into the magazine that, in my opinion, did not belong there and durably corrupted the civility that once reigned. I appreciate the “hands-off” attitude of editor-in-chief Flegler and the leeway he grants his reviewers (that is indeed Fanfare’s main asset and what makes it so special), but he should not have let that happen. About this an anecdote:
I remember still acutely an instance when Dubins came – negatively – to my attention. He had written a review of a recording of the string quartets of Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Hanns Eisler by the Vogler Quartet on Nimbus, in Fanfare of March/April 2005. Together with egregious historical inaccuracies, like putting Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Paul Dessau in the “Viennese circle of composers and artists that included the likes of Schoenberg, Berg” – no, these guys were from Germany, Brecht and Weill steeped in Berlin and Dessau from Hamburg, and Brecht’s and Weill’s political outlook would have made them draw knives had they ever met Schoenberg and Berg! – he made the inept claim that “some readers will in fact be familiar with Eisler from a program of Brecht cabaret songs sung by Lotte Lenya on a Sony CD“.
I mean, come on. Yeah, maybe Dubins was familiar with Eisler only from that (unspecified) program of Brecht cabaret songs on Sony – if so, it would only show that he was mostly unfamliar with the composer. Incidentally, although he didn’t say in the review, he was referring to Sony Masterworks Heritage MHK 60647, which was absolutely not a program of Brecht cabaret songs, but a program of Kurt Weill American theatre songs (none on texts of Brecht) and cabaret songs (an error which he failed to acknowledge in the exchange that ensued), with ONE single track devoted to Eisler’s “Song of a German mother” on a Brecht text. But, you know, for Dubins, Brecht, Weill, Schoenberg: it’s all the same. So much for the factual accuracy that, in many responses to readers, Dubins has prided himself of. And so much with “familiarity” with Eisler’s music: one song!
But “serious record collectors” interested enough in Eisler to read that review might have been famililar with the composer from more substantial works, no? Certainly my case, and I was kind of hopin’ the reviewer in the “magazine for serious record collectors” would tell me how the new recording compared with previous versions of Eisler’s quartet, like the one by Kammerensemble Zürich on Accord 200362, or the one by the Leipziger Quartet on Cpo 999 341-2 which had been reviewed by someone else in Fanfare of May/June 1997.
Ultimately, it was a useless review, filled with blabla to wriggle around the fact that Dubins had obviously no clue about the composers, the music and its interpretation, finally admitting that, “after several hearings, I still can’t make any sense of either of these pieces” but still, concluding that “while I personally do not respond to this music, I understand where it is coming from and what it is about, and I believe this is an important release worthy of attention. Whether or not you are more in tune with this sort ofthing than I am, I can tell you that this is a very fine release.” But how would you know, Jerry?
So, in the next issue of Fanfare, as could be expected, Dubins was taken to task by a reader (not me), especially on his claim that “some might be familiar with the music of Eisler from one song sung by Lotte Lenya”. His response was particularly crass, neither the first nor the last in that style. In substance, he advocated that “Eisler’s music may be known to many readers from numerious readily available recordings, but the composer is still not a household name. Therefore, I chose but one of many recodings that I thought might be familiar to some readers“. Oh, yeah, sure, doesn’t that look like post-fact reconstruction. Who did Dubins think he was writing for? The “I don’t like Classical music but I like this” type? Not a household name to whom? To himself, evidently. And you’ve got to love the logic. Sure, some readers might be familiar with Eisler through that one song. And by the same token, “Beethoven was a composer who gravited in the circle of Mozart in Vienna [false]. Some readers may be familiar with him through his “Musik zu einem Ritterballett WoO 1“. Well, sure, there might be a reader or two in the world who’d be familiar with Beethoven through that work, you can’t take exception with the claim, can you, and after all it does not imply that those readers, or all readers, would be familiar with Beethoven only through that work, rather than through… all the rest. But, here as in numerous other cases, Dubins would have better expressed his meaning more accurately and less ambiguously, had he wanted to avoid needless misunderstandings and ensuing disputes. In fact, Dubins’ response struck me at the time as particularly disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. For his defence, I see now that he had been embroiled, in the same issues of Fanfare, in the bickering dispute with scholar and Kraus specialist Bertil van Boer who, in response to a dismissive review by Dubins of a Kraus recording, had called him “a cretin”. Not courteous and not scholarly, to be sure, so Jerry was probably in a “punching back” mood. Also, going back to these bitter exchanges, I see that bad faith and lack of intellectual honesty was on both sides. His critics on the Kraus affair took Dubins to task on points that they clearly misconstrued and distorted. His Eisler critic left his flank wide open to Dubins’ retort by stating that the Lenya recording he referred to simply did not exist, so, sure, Dubins jumped in, which allowed him not to respond on the rest.
The degree of divisiveness introduced by Dubins in the magazine is shown by the fact that he wasn’t castigated only by readers, but also by his colleague reviewers. I would have said that it was unprecedented in Fanfare, but honesty compels to say that in the same issue where there were those exchanges about Kraus and Eisler, there was another nasty feud and name-calling that was vented in the Critic’s Corner between two other reviewers, James Camner (a terribly reactionary critic who specialized in Gluck and endorsed any interpretation that smacked stylistically of the 1950s) and Brian Robins.
I want to make it clear again that I’m not taking issue with differences of opinions, tastes, and judgment. These are normal in music appreciation. One can hear the same thing, but react in an opposite manner to it. Toscanini plays fast, Klemperer slow, and you can legitimately prefer Toscanini’s way or Klemperer’s way. But if you claim that Klemperer conducts a fast version or that Toscanini is inordinately slow, or if you review Klemperer and it is clear that you’ve never head, or even heard of, Toscanini, or of any approach other than Klemperer’s, there is a problem with your perceptions and knowlege, and the judgment based on them isn’t worth much, and certainly not useful.
That said, I find that Dubins has improved over the years – but it took years! It may be the fact that I just leaf through the new issues of Fanfare these days, but I seldom chance on anything by Dubins that strikes me as truly offensive, and I occasionally read reviews of his that are witty, informed and appropriate. Oh, yes, there was that time in 2012 when he challenged a reader to mention 25 complete recordings of Ravel’s piano music between those of Gieseking and Steven Osborne… That sparked a letters from me that wasn’t published… The problem with the letters to Fanfare is that, by the Editor-in-Chief’s choice, the reviewer will always be allowed to have the last word, even when he is bluntly wrong and smearing egg over his face…
There’s always worse…
In fact, going back to the original Kraus review which had sparked the violent reaction of Dr. van Boer (ironically, he is now a critic with Fanfare…), I don’t find that it called for such a violent, disproportionate reaction. Sure, you may disagree with Dubins’ dismissal, but he states his reasons very clearly and thoroughly, and they are defensible, although Dubins was still arrogantly offensive by basing such an accross-the-board rebuttal on, by his own admission, two CDs of the composer. But he seems to have opened the way for more critics writing in the same crassly aggressive style – or even worse. To wit, an appallingly nasty and disingenuous retort in Fanfare of January-February 2016 by critic (and, it turns out, pianist) John Bell Young against his fellow pianist Michael Habermann, who, while fully admitting that “of course, Young is entitled to his opinion” (which happened to be not just dismissive but incredibly contemptuous) was so bold as to try and correct some invented claims that Young had made about him in a review of someone else’s recording of music of Sorabji. To which this asshole found no better than to retort: “of course, those glib pianists who care to devote years to the cultivation of this glib repertoire are free to do so – at the risk of decimating their careers, or ending up as largely unknown performers who either sit behind a desk at a day job, or worse, in academia”. That in turn intiated this letter I sent to Fanfare’s Editor-in-chief:
“I have to react to John Bell Young’s unacceptable response to Michael Habermann’s letter about Sorabji. I have this strange and hopelessly passé notion that knowledge, culture, understanding, always goes with a degree of moderation in the expression of one’s tastes and opinions. By that token I will conclude that Mr Young as none of the above. He has the opinion he has on the music of Sorabji, I have no issue with that, but the heap of muck – detritus indeed! – in which he chose to garb it, the self-satisfied contempt he shows at his fellow pianists who happen not to share his contempt for Sorabji, and, “worse”, at “academia”, paints him as one despicable person, more ready to vomit than to argue.
And don’t you love the comment about how in the last 50 years of his multi-faceted and brilliant career he’s hardly met anyone who paid any attention to Sorabji, “save for those who have nothing better to do”. Beyond the total non-sequitur represented by that sentence (in my 50 years of music listening I’ve never met either anyone who paid any interest to Bach… save for those who have nothing better to do, indeed), I conclude that in his 50 years Mr Young has never encountered Madge, Ogdon, Habermann, Stevenson, Hamelin, Grante, Ullen, Amato… Now where HAS Mr Young been all these years, one wonders?… and Fanfare erstwhile critics Paul Rapoport and Adrian Corleonis, through whose enthusiastic reviews I was first introduced to the music of Sorabji, decades ago (“One need not concur with Sorabji and his friends in their facile invocation of monumental works and revered names to recognize in the Opus Chvicemhalisticum a phenomenon of the first magnitude and, in the context of recorded piano literature, the event of the decade … to be topped only by recordings of other Sorabji works, such as the Tantrik Symphony (in seven movements named after the chakras), the Sequentia Cyclica (27 movements based on the Dies irae), or the Opus Archimagicum (two enormous sections alluding, respectively, to the lesser and greater Arcana of the Tarot), each said to be as long or longer than the Opus Clavicembalisticum. Given that the latter plays for just under four hours, the prospect beggars description.”).
Wasn’t one Jerry Dubins enough for Fanfare? Well, okay, at least I know now to cross out the name John Bell Young from the list of Fanfare critics I take seriously. Still, I resent that Fanfare accepts that kind of expression from its reviewers, as if it were a gutter-press publication.”
I wonder what those attitudes reveal about contemporary America. Like, first, you get Dubins, then you get the Tea-Party, then you get Young, then you get Trump. There’s a line, there, and I resent it, all the way.
The letter wasn’t published either and I had no response from this John Bell Young. And just now, writing this, and looking for a possible website through which I could make sure he received it, I chance on his obituary, from July 12, 2017, written by Normal Lebrecht. It says it all:
“A student of John Bell Young has reported his death, in his apartment in Bratteleboro, Vermont, alone with his dog, Ben.
He had not been heard from since April.
Confirmation of his death has been issued by a US district court in New York, where Young was being sued for defamation by by the pianist Valentina Lisitsa.
Young’s sister, reporting his death, declared him to be insolvent and intestate. He had no spouse or children. The death certificate places date of death as ‘April 2017’ and confirms his cremation on April 20, in Middlebury, VT.
John Bell Young, who was 63, had been impaired for the past four years by the effects of a stroke.
A New Yorker of part-Cherokee origin, he supplemented a stuttering career as a pianist with writing reviews in music journals. He considered himself the ultimate authority on the music of Scriabin and attacked anyone who questioned his credentials. A combative, venomous character he issued death threats to imagined enemies and pursued online vendettas against dozens of musicians and media persons.
That was the public face of John Bell Young. His student has described him as a sympathetic teacher, capable of great kindness. May he rest in peace.”
No, I don’t think he should rest in peace.
Cases of incompetence
Another Fanfare critic I have a hard time with, not for tone but competence, is the equally controversial Lynn Renée Bailey. Again I want to be fair: I’ve seen good work by Bayley. I remember a review of a book on Toscanini – Christopher Dyment’s Toscanini in Brittain – that was pretty convincing, and seemed thoroughly informed. I think she can be a good critic when she works in her areas of true expertise.
But the piss she poured on herself, and on Fanfare in general, when she reviewed a certain version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations! I still can’t believe it, I have to conjecture that she outsourced the review to her high-school daughter or son or something! Here’s the letter I sent to Flegler about that:
“As a Fanfare subscriber of more than 30 years and a serious record collector and music listener for about that long, I am aware that I may be too demanding in my expectations of what Fanfare reviewers should do, and know. Still, I find that Lynn René Bayley has reached a new, and unacceptable low. The shamelessness with which she admits to her own incompetence, and even flaunts it at us as if she was unaware of the egg she is smearing over her face, leaves me baffled. Reviewing Fretwork’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and puzzled by “the extraordinary length of the performance”, she first steps into it by admitting to “not having access to a score”.
What???? Hey, we are not talking about Ligeti’s Etudes or Crumb’s Makrokosmos or any score of contemporary music that is both rare and expensive. Were are talking about one of the main building blocks of any burgeoning music score library, used copies sold for 4 dollars on Amazon. Mrs Bayley is naturally free to have no interest in purchasing the score, but then, why is she assigned a review of one of the essential works of the keyboard litterature in which she has had obviously so little interest that in all her years of music listening she didn’t even bother to invest in a score?
And if it is the four-buck investment that has deterred Mrs Bailey, I’d like to let her know, on whichever desert island she presently dwells and where essential information appears to reach her only once every 50 years, but where I suppose she has a computer and an internet connection or how would she write and submit those reviews for Fanfare, that if in need of consulting a score she can go to the International Music Score Library Project, imslp.org, where she can download for free thousands of out-of-copyright scores. And to make things really easy for her, here’s the link to the Goldberg Variations:
There, she will have the option of at least five different editions, including a fascinating fac-simile of Bach’s own copy, and a reproduction of the very first edition from circa 1741 (the latter without the aria).
Then Mrs Bayley goes on to tell us that she selected two recordings from her collection to try and establish “where the extra music came from” on the Fretwork disc. And what does she have in her collection to choose from? Wouldn’t you know: Gould 1955, Gould 1954 and Landowska “1930” (in fact it is 1933). I was not kidding when I surmised that Mrs Bayley harbored no great interest for the composition and its recordings. The extraordinary website devoted to the Goldbergs, http://www.a30a.com/, lists a total of 451 different recordings. And in all her years of listening and reviewing and collecting Mrs Bayley could do no better than Gould, Gould and Landowska, as if nothing had happened since 1955 – not even Gould 1982? I’m surprised she has Guillou (on organ!), presumably (she doesn’t say) on Dorian. Mrs. Bayley mentions Tureck in passing – but which version, of Tureck’s seven documented on disc, we are not told: the 1957 recording reissued on Philips Great Pianists of the Century, or the ultimate one from 1998 for DG? Or possibly the 1978 recording on Columbia/Sony and harpsichord? Anyway, Mrs Bayley likes to travel light and obviously hasn’t thought enough of whichever Tureck version she once heard to keep it in her collection, since she doesn’t use it for her comparisons. And it is unfortunate, really, as it would have obviously provided a far better point of comparison than the versions of Gould and Guillou.
For, indeed, here comes the worst, and it appears that the problem with Mrs Bayley and the Goldberg variations is far worse than just not having access to the score: she has no idea about the music. Without even needing to listen, anybody with just a modicum of knowledge on the Goldberg Variations will know (and can’t it be expected of reviewers in “The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors” to have a modicum of knowledge of what they are assigned to review, especially if it is not obscure contemporary music but once of the lynchpins of the keyboard repertoire?) that a version that runs “over 90 minutes” presents no particular mystery, but quite simply plays all the repeats. Tureck’s last recording for DG runs 91 minutes, not just because she is slow (she is), but also because she plays all those repeats. In his last recording for ECM, Andras Schiff is not slow, takes all the repeats and runs 71 minutes. But in none of his recordings did Gould play all the repeats, he did things as expected of Gould: freely and according to whim, sometimes (speaking from memory of his 1982 recording) repeating the first section, sometimes both, and sometimes even only the second section, and many times none at all (and if I recall he makes no repeats whatsover in his 1955 studio recording). And Guillou (a version I used to have, but I lent it once and it never came back) obviously follows that model. So it was particularly ill-suited to select these two for comparison of a version that puzzles Mrs Bayley, and Mrs Bayley alone, for running over 90 minutes.
But obviously, not shying of any ridicule, Mrs Bayley lets us clearly understand that she is not aware that there are repeats in the Goldberg Variations, systematic repeats, that the Aria and each variations are constructed in two parts, each of which can be repeated at the performer’s discretion (sorry Fanfare readers for stating the obvious, as one would do in a first year music appreciation class, but obviously Mrs Bayley hasn’t even reached that level, at least as far as the Goldberg Variations are concerned). There are no “middle” sections in the variations, as Mrs Bayley, further shaming herself, puts it commenting on Variation 2, and without even needing to hear I can tell that Fretwork does NOT “repeat some music”, they repeat all the music, they do not repeat “the first section” of variation 15, they repeat both sections of variation 15 and of all the others, and there is no “extra music” in their version, there is the music written by Bach, twice.
In fact I had the Fretwork disc already but hadn’t heard it yet. Hearing it, I can’t start pointing out all the ineptitudes of Mrs Bayley’s review, especially in her comments on tempi, ineptitudes clearly derived from her evident abysmal ignorance of the work, its compositional structure and processes, its recorded history. Clearly some of Fretwork’s tempi seem odd to her only because her sole yardstick is Gould 1954/1955, uniquely urgent and exuberant versions. But you can’t seriously take the exception for the normative yardstick, no more than you could seriously take Tureck as your norm and call all the others “too fast”.
Sure, you cannot expect a reviewer to be knowledgeable in all things. But you can and should expect a reviewer to be aware of his limitations, and refuse an assignment for which he is obviously incompetent. Mrs Bayley must have anticipated something like my incensed letter, when she wrote: “forgive me if I make any slips here”. But no, sorry, such level of ignorance and incompetence in a magazine which, I suppose (and hope), still aims at excellence and not just at filling pages and depleting forests, is unforgivable. It is unforgivable of Mrs Bayley not to be aware that her level of incompetence in the Goldberg Variations is such that she should have refused the assignment. It is unforgivable that she should be unaware that her comments display such ignorance as to be an embarrasment, for herself and, worse still, for the magazine. And ultimately, it is unforgivable of Fanfare’s editor that he should have accepted to publish the review that she submitted. If Fanfare wants to continue being “the magazine for serious record collectors” as its subtitle claims, it needs to staff serious reviewers, not people who know no more than music students in the early stages of learning their trade.
And I am not done yet with Mrs Bayley. Usually one first reads the reviews, not the reviewer’s signature; one jumps to the latter only if something particularly excellent, or particularly egregious, catches the attention. So I was reading the review of Levine’s Mahler Second from the Salzburg Festival on Orfeo, supposing that it was written by Fanfare’s usual and excellent Christopher Abbot, when something particularly egregious caught my attention: “there is no question that this is a very, very good Mahler Second, more emotionally involved and dramatic than Levine’s studio recording for RCA…” Wouldn’t you know: Lynn René Bayley again. And she’s unquestionably right: there is no question that this live Mahler Second is more everything she says than Levine’s studio recording of the same work for RCA, it is even infinitely more so, exactly like 1 is infinitely superior to 0. As anybody familiar with the Mahler discography will know, Levine’s RCA cycle was left incomplete, and the two symphonies he never recorded for RCA (other than Das Lied) were the 8th… and the 2nd! One wonders whose Mahler 2nd that was less “emotionally involved and dramatic than Levine’s” live recording Mrs Bayley was confusing with. But if her memory can’t even keep the name of the conductor right, how can she tell for sure that it was less involved than Levine’s live recording? Isn’t simple fact checking part of Fanfare reviewers’ assignment? Or does she just make up these things, dropping names and mentioning versions she’s never heard, just to give us naturally trusting readers the impression that she knows what she is talking about?
I’m sorry to be particularly harsh on Mrs Bayley, but these reviews of hers have particulary incensed me. I don’t recall ever having read in Fanfare reviewing of such pitiful level (and thank God I never did!), and as a reader and music-lover who has grown in music and knowledge of music with Fanfare, it is an embarrasment. As far as Mrs Bayley’s reviews of Bach’s keyboard music and Mahler are concerned, Fanfare would be more useful to me if it simply published an alphabetical list of new releases, the degree of useful information would be the same and I would lose less time reading it. It would be unfair to generalize on the basis of two reviews, but for me at least Mrs Bayley is now on the “not credible” list as a reviewer of Bach’s keyboard music or Mahler, and under “cautionary surveilllance with negative warning” for all the rest. ”
Well, another letter that Flegler didn’t publish. Not that I write all that often but I guess, at one point, Flegler decided that my subscriber’s money was okay but that my letters were banned. I don’t know if I should take it as a slight or as an honor. Too incendiary? Too damning? Or just too long? In fact, a few months later, Flegler came in a stark defence of Bayley, claiming to find her “exceptional”. Well, so much for my trust and confidence in Flegler’s judgment… and possible intellectual honesty. I don’t know if Flegler wrote that because he felt the need to protect Bayley “no matter what” (and good bye his intellectual honesty)… or because he really believes it (and good bye any trust in his judgment).
“La critique est aisée, mais l’art est difficile“, the French say: “it’s easy to criticize, it’s not so easy to do”. So here’s my own review of the Fretwork Goldberg’s, on Amazon.