Magazine article Gramophone

The Shock of the New: Over the Decades, Gramophone's Critics Have Surveyed the Unfamiliar Terrain of New Music with a Receptive Ear-And Encouraged Readers to Do the Same. James McCarthy Goes Back to the Future

Magazine article Gramophone

The Shock of the New: Over the Decades, Gramophone's Critics Have Surveyed the Unfamiliar Terrain of New Music with a Receptive Ear-And Encouraged Readers to Do the Same. James McCarthy Goes Back to the Future

Article excerpt

Imagine the shock of the unsuspecting gramophonist in 1939 as their needle nestled into the grooves of the first recording of Webern's String Trio, Op 20. This was an alien landscape and Gramophone's Alec Robertson sought to provide a route map for adventurous souls: 'The reviews I have seen [so far] show a not unnatural disinclination to commit themselves, though the fact that posterity may make fun of what we write today does not seem to me to matter at all. On the other hand, it is not helpful for reviewers, however much they may dislike this work, to make fun of it and I am sorry to see a writer whose ability I respect comparing the effect of the music to "three chimpanzees of average simian intelligence endeavouring to revive memories of a visit to the Wigmore Hall". (The analogy is a poor one anyway!) The face that looks out at us from the score is not that of a chimpanzee, but of a serious musician: our approach to his work must also be serious ... it is constructive criticism we are concerned with here.

But not all new works present such a steep learning curve in music appreciation. The first recording of Benjamin Britten's music appeared in 1938 and Robertson was able to welcome this record with sincere enthusiasm: 'He says, like Sibelius, just as much as he feels he wants to say--and that with economy of effect -and then stops...Here we have an indication of what lies in Britten's power to achieve if he has the staying power and the creative ability. And, boy, did he!

As music moved further from the mainstream, it occasionally left some critics struggling to comprehend. This is WS Meadmore's amusing description of an early recording of experimental electronic music in 1959: 'But what is the music like? Telling in effect all the time, revealing almost never. Often you think of a French organist drooping one day at the reed pipes.

And yet it is a credit to Gramophone's reviewers that, more often than not, they are able to recognise the inherent qualities of a composition even if they dislike actually listening to it.

Meadmore demonstrates this beautifully as his 1959 review continues: 'In all these collections there are some disappointments and some tedious 10 minutes, but at the end you have learned something of the variety that makes up modern music in the land of Bach and Beethoven. …

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