Lazy Critics Who Write for Major Publications

Look. I understand that "classical" concert reviewers are given precious little space and time to submit their material, even in the nation's most prestigious newspapers. Thusly, I am not attacking, specifically, this writer, but the lack of substance of the post, which is endemic of the problem at large. That is to say, I don't necessarily blame the writer. Well, maybe a little.

Here, New York Times reviewer Bernard Holland gives a brief account of a recent recital in Carnegie hall by distinguished pianist Radu Lupu.

Listeners could forget about thematic unity at Radu Lupu’s Carnegie Hall recital on Monday night.

Thank God! I am so sick of thematic unity in concert programs. Wait, what? Is this important? Why would you open your article with this sentiment? Because I totally usually go to the concert review section of the paper with a critical eye towards the thematic unity of the program. Did you see that time that that guy programmed Brahms with Palestrina? Total faux pas. What a rube.

A sold-out house heard Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D (D. 850) before intermission and Debussy’s first book of “Préludes” after it. The Schubert represents the composer’s strenuous efforts to be big-time in the manner of Beethoven. The Debussy is a series of scenes painted by a master.

Okay...different composers from different eras are...different? Also, since Beethoven is clearly infallible and the best composer ever gee whiz, Schubert's "strenuous" [read: failed] efforts are to be "big-time"? "Big-time"? Whoah, stop with your fancy words, there, wordsmith!

If much of Schubert’s best music drifts to the point of sleepwalking, the sonata’s first movement is wide awake, hammering out hard-headed little themes, then massaging them in orderly, Germanic fashion.

Germans love order! And Schubert's best music is totally boring. Soporific, even. However, I will grant kudos for the awesome alliteration of "hammering...hard-headed."

The human touch comes in the lovely echoes that trail after these sharp attacks.

Read those two passages again. Implication: Germans are not human!

The image of Schubert the cuddly tunesmith is deceptive.

Cuddly! Cuddly? Oh, right, he may have been gay! Also, citation needed? Whose image? Oh, the image.

After sufficient lubrication at his tavern of choice, he was not too shy to announce his big ambitions and his qualifications to achieve them.

And drunk! He liked beer. Beer, I tell you! And after drinking, had the courage to...compose? Or: to compose something other than songs? That cuddly tunesmith? Dude, the man wrote like 15 String Quartets, 18 Piano Sonatas, 9 Symphonies (in various states of Finished-ness), and a crapload of other piano, orchestral, and chamber music. Oh, but only when he was drunk. (I need a drink.) Not to mention that the Sonata for Piano in D, D. 850 was composed in 1825 by a mature composer near the end of his (tragically short) life (1797-1828). Oh, those song composers and their wacky aspirations to be Beethoven!

Now: to explicate the ways in which Schubert is not Debussy!

Debussy’s 12 pieces occupy a different world.

Wow! Tell me more, Mr. Expert! I mean, besides that they were composed 85 years apart (Schubert: 1825, Debussy: 1910) in completely different eras, with different tonal resources, by completely different composers.

People who find in them some sort of charming travelogue and little more

Citation needed?

would do well to remember the visual arts, in which mundane subjects are routinely raised beyond their ordinariness.

That is a fair point. In some eras. Certainly, the 19th, and sometimes 20th centuries saw many artists treat mundane subjects to great effect. However, 1910 saw things like this and this. I am not an expert in visual art.

You do not need sonata form to write great music.

And all this time I've been going around saying how Palestrina was an idiot.

Piano sound is a mysterious business, and Mr. Lupu manages to sit at one end of this sizable hall and fill it with color and clarity. There is no sense that he is trying hard to do so; it simply happens. If these two composers speak in different voices, they were unified here by Mr. Lupu’s tender respect for what the written score in each case was asking him to do.

Well put, sir. Also, I respect how you respect Mr. Lupu's respect for the score.

The end of the article is a description of the music using vague adjectives, the sort that my co-blogger Empiricus loves to deride. I won't bother right now. What? I should? Oh, okay, but just one thing.

The glory of the sonata is its slow movement: a long, nostalgic sigh, but one that thrives only if Schubert’s written admonition not to dawdle is observed. Its brief opening phrase occupies a harmonic world of vast and sudden change, offering modulations filled with delight and surprise.

That sounds great! I love the harmonic ambiguity of Romantic music. Delight and surprise are outstanding qualities of this kind of music.

Wait, what's that, Mr. Holland? You have a technical explanation? Outstanding! I love analysis. Are you going to describe how these surprising modulations are achieved? Oh, you'll probably only describe one of them in any detail; you wouldn't want to ostracize your less technically-minded readers. Okay, that's fair.

How Schubert arrives at one place from another with the flick of a raised or lowered tone can be analyzed, but no one else seems to have been able to do it.

Uh, I am pretty sure that's patently false. Oh, wait, you're a critic. Analysis tells us nothing! How dare those intellectual elites tell us how music works?! I just feel it, okay?! Analysis tells us nothing. NOTHING! [yelling, shakes fist at sky, looks vainly for god, head explodes]

To reiterate, in closing:

no one else seems to have been able to do it.

Citation needed?


Aaron said...

"Piano sound is a mysterious business, and Mr. Lupu manages to sit at one end of this sizable hall and fill it with color and clarity. There is no sense that he is trying hard to do so; it simply happens."

I'm probably too much of an ignoramus to quite get what he's saying, but I was under the impression that pianos make sounds when the player (such as Mr. Lupu) hits the keys.

I'm grateful to learn that Carnegie Hall is, in fact, "sizeable." Thank IFITS for professional critics (also, by the way, a professional writer!) who can uncover the hidden processes of their chosen field and help the layman (me) understand and better appreciate the acheivement of the professional (Mr. Lupu) artist. Now I know that Carnegie Hall is big, which makes all the difference, I'm sure.

Speaking of professional accomplishment, that first sentence I quoted from the review is ... bad. Is Mr. Lupu filling sound with color and clarity? That's an interesting, not to say psychedelic, accomplishment that I wish I'd witnessed myself. I think he means to say that Mr. Lupu filled the hall with color and clarity, but he's not saying it there. Not to mention, "filling the hall with clarity" doesn't make much sense.

As for the sense that Mr. Lupu isn't trying hard and that his filling sound/the hall/IFITS knows what with "color and clarity" "simply happens" - well, let's just say that Mr. Lupu is in fact a professional pianist, and apparently a very good one. Wouldn't it be more surprising to read that "Mr. Lupu made this piece look incredibly difficult to play, as though it tested the absolute outer limits of his abilities, and the audience held its collective breath throughout the performance, in much the same way the passenger in a car driven by a drunk prays that the driver will be able to keep the car on the road. Disaster - somehow miraculously averted - seemed to lurk nearby throughout the performance, and it was with exhausted relief that the audience (to say nothing of Mr. Lupu) applauded the end of the work." Not to mention that saying that a smoothly elegant performance of the kind Mr. Lupu apparently gave "simply happens" seems to, at best, show a certain lack of appreciation for how much work it must have taken to be able to perform that piece at that level.

In fact, here's a reworking of these two sentences that's slightly less stupid:

"Mr. Lupu's performance of the Debussy was elegant, utterly belying the difficulty of the work and, in combination with the earlier Schubert work, demonstrating Mr. Lupu's admirable range. Mr. Lupu's playing was both precise and expressive, leaving the audience entranced with Debussy's compositions."

That's not great, but (1) I wasn't there and (2) at least you can figure out what the hell I'm on about.

Sator Arepo said...


Wow, brother. You took apart the sentence I was most generous about. Well done, sir. And thanks for reading.

Also, further research indicates that I was far too kind; this NYT gentleman "professional writer" will be featured again in the near future.

Aaron said...

Between this guy, whom I've never had the dubious pleasure of reading before, and people like Maureen Dowd and Bill Kristol, I'm starting to wonder if being a bad writer who is also either shockingly ill-informed or incurious about the subject matter about which you're writing is a qualification for getting published by the Times.

Liberal media bias, my ass.

Aaron said...

To be fair, though, the last sentence in the section - the one I didn't quote - was OK.