Thursday, September 22, 2011

Speak for yourself

Another rule for critics to follow. There may be a manifesto in this, or at least a doctoral thesis.
Our naughty reviewer this time is Robert Levine in International Record Review, who takes on Claudio Abbado's new recording of Fidelio on Decca:
I fear I could be in the minority when I state that I find this performance almost clinical.
and, later,
As I said, I suspect some colleagues will adore this clean, unaffected, almost bel canto-like reading but I think that, at its core, it misreads Beethoven's intentions.
It's good for a critic to be aware of what others might think - and good for the reader, too, who may be able to judge which side they might be on. It's a well-written review in that sense, giving the reader plenty of information to make up their own mind rather than accept the review as divine writ. But Levine blots his copybook a bit with this:
The entire 'Er sterbe' sequence is, as mentioned above, unimpeachably delivered, but that's just what it does not need: this is a moment of mania, surprise, intensity and horror, and we find ourselves being amazed at its clarity and not at its emotional content.
Wait a minute, what's this "we" business? By switching from "I" to "we" he's pulling the reader over to his side. More than that, he's shifted from personal subjectivity to something closer to universal objectivity. Surely the "some colleagues" are not to be counted among the "we"?
And again:
the final scene is joyous and gloriously played and sung, but it doesn't drive the listener wild, as it should and invariably does.
(Let's be sufficiently pedantic to bring up his use of "invariably", but not belabour it any more than that) He means, obviously, "this particular listener". Doesn't he?
Trivial points, you might argue. And in fact in the case of this review, I'd agree, but it does illustrate how even the conscientious critic can slip into omniscient mode. Yes, it would waste rather a lot of ink for every "This is rubbish" to be replaced with "I think this is rubbish", but it would be nice if reviewers were in general more aware that, ultimately, this is just some guy's opinion.
Maybe I've been a scientist too long.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Public domain now less public

So the EU has extended copyright protection on recordings from 50 to 70 years. If this were a hundred years ago I would have a cartoon in which a young woman representing the public domain is ravished from behind by a leering Paul McCartney. You know the sort of thing.
Gramophone reports on the story with a typical rhetorical subtitle, "But is it good news for classical music fans?" Careful, Gramophone! Don't want to upset the majors! (But try asking this: was it bad news that the recordings of 1960 went out of copyright this year?)
It's pointless now to rehash all the many arguments against the new law, but it's nice to see the Guardian elaborate on a key point that the lawmakers seemed wholly blind to: the law's supposed to be of great benefit to musicians, but they're not usually the copyright holders.
Next question: now that for a 20-year period no recordings will enter the public domain, do you think illegal file-sharing will increase or decrease? Anyone?

Friday, September 2, 2011 is stupid

Let me quote you from
The design for ArkivMusic emphasizes the ability to quickly and intuitively find classical music recordings. The peculiarities of classical music do not always lend themselves to standard search tools used on the Web. Spelling inconsistencies, differing search syntax designs, and databases not specifically oriented to the parameters of classical music can often lead to very confusing results. At ArkivMusic, we take a lot of the guesswork out of finding music by letting you click down a logical and well-categorized path to the works and recordings that you want.
It's bloody wonderful, a marvellous resource that's of huge value when you want to examine the options for buying a particular work. My List Of Compositions That I Still Have To Get On Disc would have been impossible without it. I love it.
So now ArkivMusic launches in the EU and they have done a very good job of fucking it up. Yes, they still have the click-down system but the look of the site is just ugly. On the US site, if I click on, say, Handel, I'm immediately greeted by a (granted, unnecessary to me) portrait and biography, beneath which are 2 lists, one of Composition Types, the other of Most Popular Works; there's also links to New Releases, Recommended, and other such things. On the EU site, though, my first reaction is huh? because all I see is an ever-increasing list of recordings in no immediately apparent order. It took me a while to notice that there are also links to Composition Types, Conductors, and so forth. So I click on Composition Types, get a pop-up window listing those, I click on one - Keyboard Works - and ... well, nothing's happening actually. It's taking quite a while. Ah, there we go.
Now. On the US site, which goes at normal speed, it gives me a link saying "See all recordings available (185)" and I can see 20 works listed on my screen. In the EU I don't get that link, and I can see 12 works because for some reason they've put plenty of blank space between items in the list. And in the US it tells me how many recordings there are of each work, and in the EU it doesn't. All right, click on something: in the US I get another "See all recordings" and a list of Performers and a list of Labels, while in the EU I get a list of recordings in release-date order (newest first) plus a link for a pop-up of Performers or Labels (or irrelevant Conductors or Ensembles).
So basically the US site is a single-minded drill-down system that lets you instead look at "all recordings" at any point, whereas the EU site thinks you might prefer "all recordings" but gives you a cumbersome option of using the drill-down system. In other words ArkivMusic has decided to partially hide its USP in favour of something that looks much clunkier than most of its competitors.
And a quick comparison of with Presto reveals that if I were to buy the first two Handel items I saw, it would be about €7 cheaper via Presto - and Presto's not the cheapest site around, either.
So I can't see myself shopping at ArkivMusic, though I'll still be using the US site to help me plan my purchases elsewhere.

At last, Zumsteeg

I browse through the latest International Record Review, fresh in my postbox today, and I come across a review that makes me smile. Many years ago, when I first began to get properly interested in classical music (and had plenty of time on my hands) I built up a database of composers and their works, with dates of composition, thanks largely to the Collins Encyclopedia of Music. Ultimately there were close to 10,000 entries in it. This was before teh internets of course.
So I got a very warm and fuzzy feeling to discover that conductor Frieder Bernius has gone right to the alphabetical end of that list and given us a recording of Die Geisterinsel by Johann Rudolph Zumsteeg, a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest first performed in 1798. IRR's Mark Pullinger says "Zumsteeg's opera may not quite be 'such stuff that dreams are made on', but it passes a pleasant two hours, in an assured, lively performance".
And now I notice that the Collins Encyclopedia of Music called it Der Geisterinsel.