Music’s a matter of taste, so is it ever a good idea to take on the critics?

From Beethoven’s Ninth to Brahms' Requiem, no music is immune to a bad review

Music critics frequently misfire. History often puts these views into comical perspective, as works once ridiculed become revered. Take Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a well established if not always beloved part of the orchestral repertoire today, but declared by a contemporary to the composer to “put the patience of the audience thorough a severe trial”. Well, what artist cares about the comfort of the audience? John Ruskin took an unequally unflattering and broader view that “Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsettings of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.” Ouch.

Cham Gong Ming and Toh Chin Xian (as the Bull) and Richard Munday. Image: Tristram Kenton

Comments like these do not seem to have done Beethoven’s reputation any harm: practically every concert hall in the land will feature his music at multiple points during their seasons. Upcoming highlights include pianist Imogen Cooper’s Wigmore concert on June 26 (Beethoven’s Eleven new Bagatelles for piano, Op.119 and the ‘Diabelli Variations’, Op.120) and Prom 9, which includes the aforementioned Ninth (the ‘Choral’ symphony) on July 21 at the Royal Albert Hall. The trial awaits.

When presented thoughtfully, informed reviews act as a valuable form of peer review – but they are simply one person’s opinion

Understandably, at times musicians respond to critics. Replies are often direct (thanks, social media) or convoluted (thinly veiled questioning of a reviewer’s ability in interview responses or similar). However, the response doesn’t often take the form of a full-page advert in the publication that has appeared to wrong them, as Pamela Tan Nicholson did recently. In an open letter, the director of new stage show Trioperas – who also happens to be superstar violinist Vanessa Mae’s mother – lambasted Times critic Richard Morrison for his review of her company’s recent project, and questioned why he attended at all knowing full well it would not be his “dainty cup of tea”. (If true, this is a fair point: it does not do to review events or recordings that you suspect you’ll hate, it brings too much hidden bias into the writing.)

Sianna Bruce & Daniel Slade. Image: Tristram Kenton

Tan Nicholson disliked Morrison’s assertion that Trioperas’ reimagining of the genre in their recent production was for the “age of disco and gnat-sized attention spans”. Firstly, how thrilling to learn that we are living in the age of disco. Secondly, not everyone – particularly newcomers to opera – wants to sit through the Ring Cycle. Unfortunately, Tan Nicholson also accused Morrison of cultural elitism – while apparently missing the irony that her company had presumably paid a premium for this significant publicity. One assumes, given the rules surrounding the right to reply, that the publication would have published the correspondence in its letters section free of charge.

When presented thoughtfully, informed reviews act as a valuable form of peer review – but they are simply one person’s opinion. Personally, I agree with George Bernard Shaw, who declared Brahms’ Requiem “execrably and ponderously dull”; of course if I was to air that view in print I’d be derided.

Image: Lucy Aiston, Naoto Kaiho and Sara Hamilton – by Tristram Kenton