Sunday, May 30, 2010

Which reviews? (American edition)

The most immediately significant thing about American Record Guide and Fanfare is their ability to provoke a semantic argument with a child. As in:
Parent: Please stop climbing on my head, I'm trying to read my magazine.
Child: That's not a magazine! It's a book!
Parent retires to other room, completely pwned.
Does it say something about the US that it can't produce an indigenous glossy high-street magazine devoted to classical music? Maybe. But when you come across ARG and Fanfare on the shelves they look very much out of place, short, tubby, little things that only a serious record collector could love. Sizewise, the two are similar, and they both come out 6 times a year, and they each have roughly four hundred reviews per issue, but otherwise they're very different.
For a start, Fanfare has embraced the Internet, whereas the relationship between ARG and the web is something like the relationship between Sam Gamgee and Gollum. You can get a web-only subscription to Fanfare, and the print or web subscription comes with access to the Fanfare Archives, an eminently browsable resource that contains all the reviews going back to 1998 (so far). ARG will let you have a PDF of the current print issue if you're a subscriber. Hallmarks of different editors, I suppose; although you see little of Fanfare's founder/editor Joel Flegler, ARG's Donald Vroon is a palpable presence in his magazine. There's no editorial column in Fanfare, but Vroon treats us to "Critical Convictions" each issue. The last one began "It struck me recently that all those inane cell-phone "conversations" are really narcissistic monologs", pivoted to a reflection on why religious fundamentalists keep getting involved in sex scandals, and ended with a diatribe against current airport security practices. He's a grumpy oul bollix but it's all very entertaining.
Unfortunately this sort of grumpiness occasionally extends to reviews. I don't know why Vroon keeps reviewing Thomas Fey's series of Haydn symphonies, for instance, because he hates everything about it. ARG doesn't mince words if it doesn't like an album, unlike the more polite British reviewers; some might consider this a virtue but occasionally a review is so dismissively short as to be worthless (and if other reviewers elsewhere have praised the disc, you might feel inclined to just dismiss ARG's opinion altogether). Fanfare, at least, is thorough when being negative. Another problem I see occasionally with ARG is the "descriptive review" - we're told what the music is but sometimes the reviewer fails to mention whether he or she actually liked it. I find, too, with Fanfare that more of the reviewers' personalities shine through - there's more reference to their previous reviews or previously stated likes or prejudices, and even just a simple thing like the reviewer's full name rather than surname appearing at the end of the review reduces the gap between writer and reader; plus Fanfare has a (sometimes very pedantic) letters page in which the critics are very much kept on their toes, and a Critics' Corner where they get to have a go at each other.
When it comes down to it, I prefer Fanfare to ARG, but I'd say both are essential, or as essential as a review magazine can ever be. Their coverage of American music and labels is (obviously) better than the UK magazines; they manage to avoid the parochialism that can sometimes infect the Brits; and, best of all, they give plenty of space to smaller labels, less-well-known composers and repertoire, and newer music.

But Nereffid! I hear you whisper. I don't want to have to pay to read reviews!
Good grief. There may be another post in this series.

1 comment:

Jon said...

Are there any English language 'publications' (ie, print or online) that review the slew of recordings released in Japan? Even in passing, I mean, as I doubt there'd be anything that did just that.