I am providing this statement as a kind of introduction for you. I think it is important that you understand my perspective, whence I came by this knowledge, and perhaps any prejudices I have. This may give you a better understanding of what I am writing and why. It may also save you time if you find anything I say here contrary to your personal beliefs, so that you might know in advance if you think I have nothing to offer.
I am not a professional musician. In fact, I don't read music anymore. Many years ago I did and it is on my agenda to re-learn how to play the piano. Over the past summer (1996) I did make an attempt to "read" the score of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. At first I was excited that I was able to follow the score and listen…to see what I was hearing. Then I found I'd get lost in the music and forget about the score. More irritating was that in my mind's eye/ear I was seeing the score as I listened. This was aggravating. While this may change, I have no intention of reading the score of what I review. If that disqualifies me for reviewing music, you may now go on to something else.
It is my opinion that you do not have to read music to be able to appreciate it. Nor do you have to read it in order to review it. Let's face a couple facts. Most recordings today are by orchestras and conductors that can play the music. We are not likely to get recordings that are hopelessly wrong. Repeats may come or go, an occasional lapse may occur, but it is not like we are listening to some horribly incorrect interpretation. This frees us to listen to the music without fear that we are hearing a travesty. While I appreciate the insights offered by those writers who do read the scores, I sometimes find them unable to see the forest for the trees. They seem to get hung up on details at times. I do not mean to denigrate their insights at all, but I also do not believe that reading the score is a necessary condition for rendering a valid opinion.
My reviews are more like reports than analysis. I do consider alternative interpretations where there are some. I do try to indicate specifically what it is that I like or do not like about a recording. The bottom line, however, is that I am sharing my responses with the reader and trying to convey to you why I think you might want to invest in a recording…or save your money. With so much to choose from (and so little time) I hope I can assist you in making some choices.
I also have begun including discussion of insert notes when reviewing a record. I said a few paragraphs ago that I do value the comments a writer who has read the score can offer. This is particularly helpful if s/he can provide a movement-by-movement synopsis commentary about the music. It seems to me that this used to be the norm in liner notes on LPs. This kind of commentary can be particularly helpful to a novice to the music. Unfortunately the advent of the CD has reduced a lot of insert notes to a timing of the movements, the conductor and the orchestra. Even in cases where there is commentary, it is often of a biographical nature about the composer or some scholastic ax to grind.
My background is in English and philosophy. Or is it the other way around? I count as the non-musical influences in my life: Socrates, Whitman, Einstein, Thomas Dewey, Dylan Thomas and probably a few others. Musically I have been influenced by Bob Dylan and Leopold Stokowski more than any other musicians. My personal favorite composers (at the moment) are Martinů, Janáček, Bartók, Sibelius and whomever I am currently listening to.
When I review a piece of music there is a pattern I follow. If it is new to me, I start by immersing myself in the music. I play it in the background as I am doing dishes, cleaning house, grading papers. This goes on several times until I feel I am superficially in tune with the music. Then I can sit down, headphones on, and listen to the music. At this point I read the insert notes, particularly if they provide some synopsis of the music. If the notes do not, I will seek out other sources of information to help me follow what is going on and better explain where and what I hear. Usually during this process I start making notes on paper. These notes are in a brain-storm format. After a few listenings through the whole piece, I start selecting particular movements or parts to listen to out of the context of the totality. I focus on those moments where I would like to make comments for the reader, that offer examples of the concept I am trying to explain. At this point I start making more concrete, legible notes. I will sometimes go to the computer and start drafting. More listening and writing takes place. Then, if I have a comparative recording, I start A/B listening to isolated moments, usually those already selected. More writing. Sometimes I come across a previously written review and at this time I will probably read it to make some more comparative listenings and commentary.
Sometimes the music is not only new to me, it is just plain new. Such was the case when I listened recently to a CD of music by Richard Meale. Fortunately, the insert notes provided some very good commentary about the music. As I began writing, in this case, I tried to explain to the reader the reactions and thoughts that came to mind on a regular basis. Sometimes I might write something down on one occasion and when re-listening, wonder why I wrote that. Such comments usually do not make it to print. Always I am trying to give the listener a meaningful reference point to share with me. In cases like this the reader is probably wondering if s/he wants to spend the time and money to explore something "contemporary".
If the music is something that is fairly well known I will usually select some comparative reference recordings and offer those observations. I will still sit and listen closely to the whole piece, but I don't have to spend as much time surrounding myself with it initially. I know that in cases like this the reader is wondering if s/he wants to duplicate a recording. Is it worth the time and money to add this to his/er collection? Are they going to hear a better transfer or different insights to the music? These are the kinds of questions I attempt to answer as I write.
I got into this whole thing a bit oddly. I started listening to classical music in 1976, at the age of 29, while writing my Master's Thesis in philosophy. I had had a slight background to classical music as a child. My father owned a few classical LPs, the 1812, Beethoven's 5th coupled with Schubert's "Unfinished" with Bruno Walter conducting, Charles Munch doing Boléro. In addition to this usual stuff there were other discs, sometimes odd – like Bartók's Quartets. Anyway, I'd listen to these discs, sometimes when no one was home but me. My father also took me to see Fantasia when I was about 8 or 9. I didn't know who was conducting, but I loved the music. So, when I was writing the Master's this kind of music began to appeal to me again. One day I was in a local record shop, looking for a recording of Dvořák's "From the New World" Symphony #9 to add to my meager collection. Thumbing through the stack, I came across one set that contained the same piece recorded in 1927 and 1973 by the same conductor: Leopold Stokowski. This was the one I selected. Seven years later I helped found the Leopold Stokowski Society of America. That was when I started writing reviews, for the journal I published, Maestrino, of recordings by Leopold Stokowski. As time went by I learned more and more, began to appreciate more and more. I started writing my opinions of other recordings and pieces of music. Other people told me that they liked my writings. In short, it is a hobby that got out of hand.
So, there you are, dear reader. Now you have some idea if I might have something to share that you would be interested in. If you read a review, purchase a disc and are really disappointed, let me know. I am always interested in dialogue, befitting a student of Socrates. I invite you to write me.
Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II.