Reviewing critical practice: an analysis of Gramophone's reviews of Beethoven's piano sonatas, 1923-2010

Alessandri, E. and Eiholzer, H. and Williamon, A. (2014) Reviewing critical practice: an analysis of Gramophone's reviews of Beethoven's piano sonatas, 1923-2010. Musicae Scientiae, 18 (2) pp. 131-149. ISSN 1029-8649 (print) 2045-4147 (online)


The study offers an overview of a large sample of music performance criticism in the British classical music market through the analysis of reviews of Beethoven’s piano sonata recordings (n=845) published in the magazine Gramophone between 1923 and 2010. Reviews were collected from the Gramophone archive, and descriptive and inferential statistics were used to explore the reviews’ metadata: issue, text length, repertoire, release status, pianists reviewed and critics. There were a large number of recordings (n=641) and pianists (n=216) considered during this period, with reviews provided by 52 critics. However, reviews were concentrated around only a small number of authors and performers. The most frequently published critics had long careers and a high level of familiarity with the repertoire and its interpretations. Comparisons between performances were found to be a characterizing trait of critical practice, and the most often reviewed pianists corresponded to those most frequently used for comparisons. Besides new recordings, there were many reviews of re-issues (n=2045), although this pattern decreased in later decades. The findings emphasize the importance of the comparative element for the evaluation of performances and the necessity to account for the peculiar nature of recorded versus live performance to understand the processes behind critical practice. Furthermore, taken together the results suggest that critics may have an important role as filters of choice in the musical market. In the Western classical tradition, music criticism is a well-established practice with origins in the late seventeenth century (Cowart, 1981). Much more recent, however, is the emergence of music performance criticism – that is, criticism of live or recorded performances in which the main object is the realization of the work being performed, not the work itself. This form of criticism developed during the course of the twentieth century, influenced by developments in recording technology, the decrease of in performances of new compositions and the establishment of a canon of classical music repertoire, and the consequent elevation of the performer from the status of executor to that of interpreter. Critics had suddenly a new challenge with which to cope: reviewing and comparing different interpretations of the same piece by different performers (Monelle, 2002). Performance criticism spread and entered newspapers as well as specialist magazines such as The Gramophone (now Gramophone), which was founded in 1923 and rose rapidly to become one of the most authoritative voices for criticism of classical music performance during the last century.

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