I have often been asked if I listen to music differently when reviewing or not reviewing. It’s an interesting question. There is, you could say, a heightened level of awareness when ‘in working mode’. One listens in finer detail and in my case the very action of taking notes (which I did copiously when writing for the Guardian and later the Independent and still do for Gramophone) somehow sharpened my responses. Which is not to say you ever lose your innate critical impulses when listening purely for pleasure. I’m sure I frequently irritate friends by assessing what I’ve just heard, and indeed there are occasions when said friends will gently rebuke me by asking if they should have enjoyed the performance or not. Fair play.
As I write this, though, my mind is flashing back to the bad old days debuting on the Guardian when every review was ‘overnight’ (meaning it had to be filed by 11pm for publication the following morning), when there was no internet or mobile phones, when the writing was done longhand and hurriedly in the corner of a bar somewhere and dictated from a public phone box to an irascible copy-taker.
The horrors that made it on to the page the following morning earned the Guardian its nickname the ‘Grauniad’ and my eternal embarrassment. I would open the paper the following morning and peep through my fingers (as one might a horror film) knowing instantly at first sight of the column inches how savagely and incomprehensibly it had been cut. Never mind the sense, feel the length. Classic copy-taker mis-hearings would be there for all to see (classical music was a foreign language for most subs).
There was a performance by the legendary Amadeus String Quartet where the line ‘with inner-tension strongly sustained’ came out as ‘with inattention strongly sustained’; there was Claudio Arrau’s ‘towering performance of the Liszt Dante Sonata’ which became a ‘cowering’ performance; there was (and this doesn’t even bear thinking about) ‘Rita Hunter floating effortlessly above the stave’ which had her ‘floating effortlessly above the stage’. How my reputation was built from this daily horror show I have no idea.
In the beginning the Independent had nobler ideals – no overnights, properly digested, thought-through, slept-on, grown-up reviews. But not all its arts editors were so enlightened and when a star like Placido Domingo came to town ‘overnights’ reared their ugly heads once more. I was asked to cover Tosca at the ROH – finish time 10.40, deadline 11pm. ‘Not possible’, I said. ‘Then you are no use to me as an opera critic’, came the reply. ‘Write during the intervals’. ‘I have a better idea’, I said – ‘why don’t I write the review before the performance.’
Conclusion: I was never really cut out to be a newspaper man. The luxury of penning thoughtful, detailed, durable (and hopefully entertaining) pieces for specialist publications like Gramophone is still what fires me.
And further to the question posed at the start of this column, I recently attended, purely for pleasure, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s recent London concert of Mozart’s last three symphonies – and the heady euphoria of the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ is still with me. Liberating, and then some. I guess that’s a review of sorts.