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. Ill 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.