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Music criticism, between the hammer and the anvil

What is the role of music critics? Is criticism these days a promotional tool or a guide for the music lover?

Since the appearance of the Internet, there has been a radical change in the flow of information and the exchange of opinions, particularly on forums and social networks, where everyone can express their opinion without having to reveal their identity. Aggressiveness is sometimes present, provoking strong reactions. Some believe that websites and print media specializing in classical music should focus exclusively on promoting it. According to this reasoning, if a journalist does not like an execution, he should gloss over it, focusing only on what he finds commendable. Certainly, this logic is rational, especially since the recording of a disc requires a lot of effort and commitment on the part of the artists, whether for the interpretation itself or because of the financial cost that ‘it represents. A negative opinion expressed in the face of such an achievement can be discouraging or even destructive. In the online press, columns are infinitely more visible than paper articles, and can be read for years. In view of these considerations, critics must be particularly vigilant, argue their point and even weigh each word. On the other hand, it would not be either It is okay to seek to avoid expressing a negative opinion just so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings because by doing so readers might be misled about the actual quality of an interpretation. And we will all have experienced that we give more credit to a person who knows how to point out qualities and faults in a justly balanced way, than to someone who is in systematic imprecation or praise.

The purpose of music criticism is still mainly to guide readers (or listeners) music lovers through the proliferation of recordings, and to indicate the best choices, certainly in a subjective way. In recent years, there have been more publications than ever. Since 2016, the International Classical Music Awards (ICMA) have nominated more than three hundred recordings published by more than a hundred labels each year. From the point of view of sales, it is a paradox because these have fallen considerably since the crisis of the early 2000s. In 2018, for example, physical and digital sales taken together represented only 40% of turnover. of 2002 (1.4 billion euros according to Capital). Then came the year 2020, of course except in the context of the Covid. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in 2021 CD sales are on the rise again, however doubled by those of vinyl records while digital platforms are currently taking the lead. Nowadays, a record is often a business card for artists. Whereas for the best-known works, there are sometimes not dozens, but dozens and dozens of different recordings available of the same score in catalogs at record stores, whether for the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms or of Tchaikovsky and Mahler. On the one hand, the critic aims to discover young talents and to offer the references of the repertoire to those who wish to build a quality discotheque (see for example our ResMusica Keys). On the other hand, it must indicate that a disc is not good.

In their daily work, critics must be as honest and independent as possible, it is obvious. However, let us not forget that the opinion of a critic is not decisive, timeless or invariable. How many enthusiastic critics have greeted interpretations that today seem to us very stiff, parched or lacking in relief? Everyone has their own listening habits and personal tastes. This diversity of slightly or radically different opinions, including within the same editorial staff, seems almost infinite, and that’s good. It is therefore appropriate to relativize the scope of a criticism, which is never more than an all-too-human opinion, caught in an inextricable web of reason and passion!

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