6/10/08

Backwards in Branibor

Hooray! I’m learning to “pick and choose [my] way though the immense musical legacy that is our classical music culture.” In other words, whatever David Hurwitz says, I do the opposite.

Not because I inherently dismiss what he writes; I do give his reviews a fair chance (most of his baroque, classical or romantic reviews are stellar). And not because I dislike his grammar (apparently, I can’t conjugate verbs, too; so, there goes that). And not because I think he has a strong, dismissive hatred of “atonal” music, i.e., anything written after 1912 with, Gods forbid, a “system.” No. I do the opposite, because I’m not sure if I trust his ears.

But, that’s okay. He’s not asking me to trust him. He’s just asking me to listen to him. Only, after I listen, I immediately try to forget what he had to say. Most of the time, though, I dismiss his assessments, because he completely ignores Classicstoday.com’s review philosophy, which, I think, is very well-reasoned. Dogmatic adherence to the philosophy would greatly improve the quality and consistency of the reviews, in my opinion.

However, this is why today is special. I’m not taking apart one of his reviews of a newer-music recording and calling him on his disregard of the review philosophy. Rather, I’m going to David's home turf to quibble: Herr Bach.

But let me say this, first: David doesn’t write anything like, “the Brandenburg Concertos are terrible pieces”; that would be against the review philosophy (you’re not supposed to judge the quality of the music)—and, just guessing, but that would receive some terrible blog’s ill-conjugated snark. So, good start, right? Hell yes!

This ghastly set can be summed up very easily: fast and crude.

Sure. Fine. No problem. There’s lots of recordings of the Brandenburgs. Besides, it’s an opinion. However...

Tempos are frantic, precluding anything resembling stylish or expressive phrasing.

Ugh. David, apparently, is the arbiter of style and expression. I’ll just ignore that, because that’s a really stupid thing to assert. Besides, if he could justify that an unusually fast tempo actually, in real-lifes, seriously with all seriousness precludes style and expressive phrasing, then this whole spiel would be unnecessary. And besides, besides, as we’ll see the tempos aren’t terribly fast. Moving on.

The Polonaise from the First concerto sounds particularly ridiculous, but the strings-only Third and Sixth concertos are also, to put it kindly, a "hot mess". Solo instruments surface intermittently for a blaring note or two at the climax of a phrase like trained seals leaping for a fish, only to return once again to the blurry depths--consider the horns in the First concerto, or the trumpet in the Second. There's no need to go any further; competition in this music is far too fierce for there to be any need to give this release a moment's consideration.

And that’s it.

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Well, no. We’re hardly done! Check out his rating...

3 for Artistic Quality and 9 for Sound Quality.

1) We’ll talk about this some more, but David doesn’t mention the sound quality once. Not once! Yet it receives a score of 9. And this leads us to...

2) The artistic quality, which receives a score of 3. According to this review, the artistic quality is nearly absent. It’s too fast and crude. It’s frantic. It’s a “hot mess.” Solo instruments, humorously, are like seals leaping for fish. Thus, only a 3.

Sounds artfully awful. Doesn’t it?

Before we get going, however, I have to acknowledge that we wouldn’t exist without the inter-tube-net-webs; we’re a blog, after all. But the internet gives us a powerful perspective (probably the same as yourself, because you’re here, reading us, for better or worse). As web aficionados, we all understand that the world-wide-tubes is a valuable resource—information is everywhere. So when I Googled “Bach and Musica Flora (the performing group) and Supraphon (the record label),” I found this, a link to the reviewed recording and a bunch of sound clips. (It’s best if you open it now in a new window or tab, because I’m going to refer to it a lot.)

At the time I searched the recording, my only goal was to find some sound clips, not to find material for a snarky post. I took David at his word, but wanted to hear what he was talking about (or “about what he was talking,” if you prefer). And this is what I found:

Listening to the clips proved telling (Sorry for this sentence. I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to make fun of critics who say, “the performance was telling,” then don’t elaborate upon their assessment. What did the performance tell? Who knows? I, however, will show and tell what the clips tellingly told).

So click over to the link to the Supraphon website and the recoding in question. Also, make sure your speakers are cranked up or your headphones securely fastened.

The first thing you’ll notice reading the promo fluff is that Musica Florea is a Czech group that specializes in informed Baroque performance practice, which should give us some expectations about what we’re going to hear.

1) The tuning will be slightly lower.
2) The period instruments will sound a tad more fickle to play, they will be less predictable, thus balances will be more difficult to achieve.
3) The performance (i.e., the ornamentation, tempi, vibrato, etc.) will be based on a ton of research.

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Fun Facts! In the Czech Republic, Brandenburg translates to Branibor. And hudba means “music (by).”

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So, let’s listen to a clip of Musica Florea on order to acclimatize ourselves with Baroque performance practice. Go down to Branibor 2, movement 1, click it and listen to the trumpet in particular. Did you do it? Good.

Nothing seems out-of-kilter with our expectations. In fact, it sounds much like other informed Baroque ensembles, like this one. Indeed in fact, in fact, this other ensemble plays it faster. However, before we get ahead of ourselves, this is just one movement. Musica Florea really puts the pedal to the metal in Branibor 1, movement 3, sort of. (Listen) Now compare that to another ensemble, click here.

See? David is sort of right. Musica Florea’s performance is sort of unusually fast. But that’s where he loses me, because he says:

Solo instruments surface intermittently for a blaring note or two at the climax of a phrase like trained seals leaping for a fish, only to return once again to the blurry depths--consider the horns in the First concerto, or the trumpet in the Second.

Listen to the horns in Branbor 1, movement 1.

Sure the horns stick out; I’ll give David that point. But then again, we kind of expect it (see above Baroque-y things to expect). More than that, however (listen to Branibor 1, movement 1, once more), where are the lower strings (violas and cellos)? I can barely hear them even with the volume pumped up so loud that Mrs. Empiricus is threatening a long, drawn-out divorce. I would say that the lower strings are “muddy.” I mean, I can clearly hear the double bass and the violins. And certainly the horns. But...

Hmmm...

Where are the violas and cellos?

This seems particular to this set of Branibors. Now, take some time to really listen for the cellos and the violas in all of these: Branibor 1/movement 2, 1/4, 2/2, 2/3, 4/1, 4/2, 5/1, 5/2, and, finally, 5/3. For the most part, aside from the soloists, all I hear are the violins, harpsichord and the double bass (I know they’re doubling the cellos, but still, I mostly hear the DB). Aren’t you left Dionysianly longing for the lower strings? No worries. David to the rescue!

...the strings-only Third and Sixth concertos are also, to put it kindly, a "hot mess".

Listen to Branibor 6, movement 1, the all low-string Branibor. Was it difficult to distinguish between all the voices? I bet it was. Hmmm...

Could it be... that the sound quality is horribly F-ed up? Let’s consider our facts.

1) The solo instruments are blaringly loud.
2) The double bass, as well as the harpsichord is also quite loud.
3) The upper-strings are easy to distinguish.
4) The violas and cellos are almost inaudible.

I would say that these are indicative of poor microphone placement (during the recording) or poor mixing (post-recording microphone/track balance) or some combination of the two.

It’s easy to over-mix recordings. Take another listen to how much mixing actually went on, post-recording (e.g., Branibor 6, movement 1). Notice how the continuo part, the harpsichord, bass and cellos (the pedal figure), begins hard-panned on the left speaker. As the movement progresses it slowly makes its way to the center, and then back. Little things like that are abundant in our twelve little sound clips. Or notice how awkwardly heavy the bass is on Branibor 3, movement 2; it contributes to an overall muddiness. Or how distant the solo violin is in Branibor 2, movement 3; it’s barely audible!

In this recording’s case, I think it was clearly over-mixed and poorly recorded, which obfuscated the quality of the performance.

It is, thus, my opinion that David’s ears are confusing his ratings categories. Remember how David gave the recording a 3 for artistic quality? Well, if we look again at his critiques...

1) It’s too fast.
2) It’s crude, i.e., the string are a “hot mess” and the horns and trumpet are “blaring...like trained seals.”

It seems to me that only number one is a valid critique toward artistic quality. Whether or not being too fast is enough to merit the super-low score of 3... who knows? But, then again, who knows if its fastness really precluded style (I would argue the opposite) or expression (which is horribly subjective. I thought the clips were very expressive, particularly of a scholarly idea.)?

On the other hand, number two CAN be attributed to sound quality. And David gave the sound quality a 9!

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I lied. I said I wouldn’t talk about the review philosophy. Here’s how David mangled the review philosophy this time:

Nor do we believe that a superb modern performance should be penalized unduly because it is not self-evidently an "audiophile" product.

Which it is not, as I’ve hopefully established. But David let the sound quality interfere with the score for artistic quality—that is, if he wasn’t dumb enough to assert himself as the sole arbiter of style and expression, which I hope, for his sake, is the case. Even if my ears are failing me, that means that David flat-out dislikes aspects of period practice, those which we can expect, leading him to poorly score this period recording’s scholarly interpretation (artistic quality) out-of-hand, or without ears. So...

You should feel no compulsion to agree with our critics; in fact, disagreeing is equally important, because the ultimate purpose of ClassicsToday.com is to enable you to find the music and recordings that suit your personal taste. You do this by taking the advice of the critics you find sympathetic, and by ignoring the advice of the ones whose perspective leaves you cold.

Or I could just do my own research.

Either way, you learn how to pick and choose your way through the immense musical legacy that is our classical music culture.

I sure do.
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6 comments:

Sator Arepo said...

Wow.

While I don't have great speakers on my computer, the sound quality of the clips seems indeed to be dreadful.

(Spain 4-1 Russia, squee!)

Aaron said...

Wow. Nicely argued.

Or, as the kids say, "Pwn3d!!111"

Gustav said...

Fantastic post, Empiricus. I think you should add a new feature to the site, and permnament hall of shame with Hurwitz as your first inductee.

And as a side note, I have grown somewhat tired of the "period performance". I would like, just once, to have a performance of baroque music with modern instruments played by period players. Just once.

Gustav said...

"permanent". sorry for the extra post, that spelling error bothered me.

Kevin said...

I have a (to my taste) very enjoyable Musica Florea disc of music by Zelenka; I wonder if your audio problems might be due to the mp3s to which you're listening. Digital compression, following algorithms designed for pop music, removes midrange detail in favor of treble and, especially, bass.

I'll pick up this set (what will that be, my fifteenth Brandenburgs?) just out of curiosity. I like Mr. Hurwitz. He has his bugbears but they're easy to filter. Unlike most reviewers, he understands that the purpose of reviewing is to make a point about the recording in question, not just act like some classical-music booster.

Empiricus said...

@ Kevin:

1. Zelenka rules.

2. I generally like Musica Florea recordings, which is why I was surprised at the quality of the mp3s. I'm not sure if an upgraded quality can make up for some of the clips'deficiencies--I'm willing to concede that point, if that's the problem.

3. I like that aspect of David's criticism, too. It's just that sometimes he goes overboard with the "shoulds" and the "right ways" and adverbs like "obviously" and "indeed." Don't get me wrong, I think it's refreshing to have critics with strong opinions. However, it might be a disservice to one's readership, based on those strong opinions, to dismiss certain performance practices, aesthetics, or techniques out-of-hand.

Just the other day, he wrote this:

"Penderecki deserves a great deal of credit for turning his back on the avant-garde of the 1960s and '70s, recognizing much of it for the musical dead-end that it has turned out to be."

The review, though, was mostly positive (a complete protonic-reversal; a crossing of the streams, as it were), which begs the question: is he firm in his convictions? Or is he simply drumming up contentious prose for excitement? Or, worse, does he know what he's talking about? In the end, did he really have to dump on modernism?

I'm not sure I can answer those questions, and that's what irks me about his reviews: an idealist critic, whose knowledge of the subject matter might be wanting. That's dangerous if you ask me.

Anyway, check out ClassicsToday's review philosophy. Its mandate (written by David) suggests that the music is not under question. Their task is to appreciate the performance, and compare it to others. Then, the recording, with an emphasis toward the performance.

Ugh.

Sorry for the longish rant, but thanks for reading, Kevin. Be sure to let us know what you think of the Musica Florea recording if you do pick it up.