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Post-Review: The Morning After

This summer, for various reasons, I spent a lot of time with the Brahms d minor concerto. This fact will please those who remember the article I wrote about my ambivalence towards Brahms the composer (though that article, if you read it, is actually more about my exploring that ambivalence, and coming to terms with Brahms, than my simply "not liking" him).

After my intense immersion this summer, however, and a deluge of new insights (and you would have to be a nitwit if you could talk to Leon Fleisher in depth about the Brahms d minor and NOT end up with a more profound view of the piece), I have emerged with a sense of possessive intimacy about the d minor concerto, the feeling of tough respect that can attend on relationships that are hard-won, as opposed to the ease of those that come more naturally.
(read more after the jump)

So I looked forward to the NSO's performance of the piece last night with a disproportionate sense of anticipation. But that very fact, as well as my reaction to hearing it, made me question the value to a critic of such immersion. My ears conditioned by the Szell-Fleisher and Szell-Schnabel accounts, I reacted with a sense of near-outrage to Ludovic Morlot's gentler approach and the NSO's flabby playing to that thundering orchestral opening (though the timpani got it off to an excellent start). That's not how it goes! In short, I briefly risked violating the boundary between critical distance and outright fandom. I was too personally involved in the story.

Critical objectivity, of course, is a myth in that useful criticism is born of strong opinions; a completely objective critic would produce only flaccid, even-handed reports. But a critic does need to avoid the perils of partisanship. To wit: it is unfair to criticize Ludovic Morlot and the National Symphony Orchestra for not being George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. it is not even useful or interesting to observe that perhaps they do not play the piece quite as well as these forbears. A lack of objectivity, in such a case, means an inability to overlook the Szell accounts etched in one's heart, and consequently, an inability to hear what is actually happening on stage. I hope I wasn't actually guilty of that in my review. But it was helpful, to me, to be reminded of the distinction.

(For the record, I have managed to review Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, another Fleisher staple, with what I would venture to call even-handedness were the adjective not so inappropriate to the piece in question.)

By Anne Midgette  |  October 9, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Next: In Performance: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble


“But a critic does need to avoid the perils of partisanship.” (Anne Midgette)

Do you work for Boss Sounds LLC as well as for the Washington Post? You have linked to Boss Sounds LLC now repeatedly in your Washington Post supported blog.

Posted by: snaketime1 | October 9, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

The link is supposed to go to Leon Fleisher's page at Boss Sounds. On that page, it states that he and I are working on a book project.

Posted by: MidgetteA | October 9, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Indeed it does link to Mr. Fleisher's page at Boss Sounds, because, for some reason, he doesn't have a website of his own.

Posted by: azender | October 9, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

I was sorry to read that Anne, contrary to Clara Schumann, did not like Brahms and I am starting to worry when she is referred to as "the acclaimed Washington Post music critic." Not because she is undeserving of the acclaim; quite the contrary, for someone so sparing in meaningless adjectives and so consistently providing insight, she is not acclaimed enough. But clogging of the input channels is a professional hazard for teachers, critics, and the people who educate us and I pray that acclaim will not limit that openness to her readers that is her most wonderful characteristic. In any case, and for what it's worth, my favorite version of the no. 1 piano concerto is by Claudio Arrau, with Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Arrau is, of course, best known for his Chopin interpretations but, when he was sober, could play as well as anyone ever alive. And the Concertgebouw, aaah! So good!

Posted by: gauthier310 | October 10, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

Re: Brahms, I addressed some of the reasons I wrote that article in this post:
(scroll down).
While I stand the opinions I expressed in the original article, it saddens me to see it reduced to "Midgette doesn't like Brahms." I was really trying to explore questions of personal taste: why it was that Brahms didn't speak to me as much as some other composers, and whether I could overcome that. One of my goals was to point out that loving classical music doesn't have to mean blindly worshipping every composer in the canon.

As for "acclaimed critic" - don't believe everything you read. If you Google my name you will find lots of adjectives associated with it, most of them far less complimentary. But the only thing likely to block anyone's access to me in the next two months is the fact that I'm finishing writing a book while keeping up with my other duties.

Posted by: MidgetteA | October 12, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

It's interesting that some composers speak to some listeners and not to others. I got my classical music feet wet with Brahms, and he still speaks to me, 35 years later, more than any other composer, in all areas of his music. I never have been able to stomach most of Tchaikovsky's basic repertoire, try as I might. I finally came to a rapprochement with him through his stage music and chamber music, most of which I find wonderful. I'll listen to the concerti, not because I find the works compelling, but for what the soloists bring to the table. As for the symphonies and other orchestral works, well, let's say I'm still trying to come to grips with them.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | October 12, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I also felt it was regrettable that so many equated not having a composer "speak" to you is the same as not thinking the composer is a great composer. Most of Brahms speaks to me, but I find the second string quartet to be unutterably dull, despite the fact that I can tell that it's objectively good. Who knows how this stuff happens. It's good that we're all individuals, though, and that some of us (me) like Rimsky-Korsakov's second symphony better than Brahms' second string quartet, because otherwise the world would be awfully dull.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | October 13, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I had a dream in which Clara Schumann told me that it saddens her to see her relationship reduced to "Clara liked Brahms." I explained to her that, by evoking her name, I was attempting to recognize the complexity of the relationship we all have with music. "In any case," she said, shrugging her shoulders, her voice catching with a hint of sadness, "Hans is dead, and couldn't care less whether people like him or not." "We care, though" I attempted in order to get back into her good graces, but she just turned around and floated off. Women!

Posted by: gauthier310 | October 13, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

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