There has been some discussion recently about the role and value of classical music criticism. One salutary episode from a decade ago shed valuable light on this issue, yet seems to have been largely forgotten. It is the Joyce Hatto affair. Briefly, she was a British pianist, born in 1928, who had a modest career in the 1950’s and 1960’s, before developing cancer in 1970, whereupon she retired from the concert platform. She married a record producer, and apparently spent the next 30 years producing a vast legacy of over 100 CDs, despite her chronic debilitating illness. Her recordings were issued by her husband’s record label, Concert Artist, from about 2000 onwards, and earned consistently glowing reviews. At her death in 2006, The Guardian obituary stated that she ‘was one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced…. Her legacy is a discography that in quantity, musical range and consistent quality has been equalled by few pianists in history…Not one of her recordings, covering a spectrum from Scarlatti to Messiaen and with each composer stylistically defined, lacks some special insight even in the most familiar repertoire. Her musical imagination, unlike so many virtuosi, matched her awesome pianistic mechanism.’ These views were unanimously shared by the critical establishment, led by Gramophone magazine. In fact her huge recorded legacy was ‘pirated’ from other recordings on obscure labels, made by over 100 different pianists, many of whom were virtually unknown ! It beggars belief that this ‘hotch-potch’ collection of recordings from so many pianists could be accepted by knowledgeable piano critics as the work of a single, ‘great’ pianist – but it really happened. Further details on this remarkable story are on Wikipedia , and should be compulsory reading for all musicians and all critics.
This elaborate hoax is perhaps the most astonishing episode in recorded music history. Most attention was focussed on the motivation of Joyce Hatto and her husband – the driving force – which seems to have been to ‘cock a snook’ at the musical establishment. More importantly, it vividly demonstrated the fallacies and subjective nature of music criticism in general, and of piano performance criticism in particular. Some well-known critics had reviewed the original CDs in disparaging terms, and then enthused wildly about the same performances when apparently played by Joyce Hatto. It seems that they were unduly swayed by the stirring story of an ill woman ‘triumphing against the odds’, and that this influenced their critical faculties. It would be unfair to name the critics concerned, but it inevitably raises serious questions about their critical judgement.
We can all be guilty of similar lapses. I occasionally listen to Classic FM, and enjoy trying to identify the performers, before they are announced afterwards. Working with a ‘clean sheet’, without any preconceptions, I am often totally wrong, having either disliked a performance and then finding out that it is by a favourite musician, or vice versa. It seems that most people have the same experience. We all have our inbuilt powerful prejudices about the merits of particular musicians which are hard to dislodge, and which tend to outweigh any objectivity. The Hatto affair shows this natural tendency to perfection. In addition, all judgements on the merits of a piano performance depend on the particular tastes of the listener. A good illustration was provided last year by the publication of the mark sheets of the distinguished judges at the International Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw. It seems that some of them took an idiosyncratic dislike to individual performers which are difficult to explain. One can only speculate about the reasons, but clearly assessing piano performance is a very subjective art indeed.
So reviews need to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt, and liberal spoonfuls of humility and kindness. I enjoy reading the reviews of critics, particularly in their assessment of recordings in magazines such as Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine and International Piano. However, I am troubled by the tendency to cruelty and arrogance occasionally shown by some of them. All reviewers should always imagine the impact that critical remarks might have on their subject. As a courtesy to the musicians, they should only state in print what they would feel able to say directly to them. Virtually all musicians feel vulnerable to critical reviews. I used to socialize with a famous pianist, who ignored all the superlatives and praise heaped on his playing, and instead would focus solely on the ‘but’ or ‘although’ moment, detailing the few inevitable reservations. Few musicians are immune from these anxieties, regardless of their eminence. It is all too easy for critics, from the comfort of their seat in the stalls, to cast aspersions on the performances of musicians who have trained a lifetime, and been brave enough to perform in public, ‘putting their heads above the parapet’. It all seems rather one-sided and unfair. I sympathise with the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja who has decided to retaliate on her website . As it happens, I am not an admirer of her playing, but I do respect her decision to answer her critics directly.
Critics also need a large dose of humility. I suspect that some of them achieve their niche because of the quality of their writing rather than their erudition or sound opinions. There is a constant impression of arrogance in many reviews. A damning assessment of a performance might have a catastrophic impact on a young musician’s career, and I don’t see why they should be able to wield this power. As is constantly alleged, many are ‘failed musicians’, but at least this group will be aware of the supreme difficulties of public performance at first hand. Even worse are those who have never experienced these pressures first hand, and yet still feel able to pontificate in print.
So the musical world would benefit considerably from more kindness and humility from reviewers and critics. And we all need to recall the Hatto scandal on a regular basis, to realize the inherently flimsy foundations of much of what passes for erudite critical writing.