Evaluating recorded performance: an investigation of music criticism through Gramophone reviews of Beethoven piano sonata recordings

Alessandri, E. (2014) Evaluating recorded performance: an investigation of music criticism through Gramophone reviews of Beethoven piano sonata recordings. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


Critical review of performance is today one of the most common professional and commercial forms of music written response. Despite the availability of representative material and its impact on musicians’ careers, there has been little structured enquiry into the way music critics make sense of their experience of performances, and no studies have to date broached the key question of how music performance is reviewed by experts. Adopting an explorative, inductive approach and a novel combination of data reduction and thematic analysis techniques, this thesis presents a systematic investigation of a vast corpus of recorded performance critical reviews. First, reviews of Beethoven’s piano sonata recordings (N = 845) published in the Gramophone (1923-2010) were collected and metadata and word-stem patterns were analysed (Chapters 3 and 4) to offer insights on repertoire, pianists and critics involved and to produce a representative selection (n = 100) of reviews suitable for subsequent thematic analyses. Inductive thematic analyses, including a key-word-in-context analysis on ‘expression’ (Chapter 5), were then used to identify performance features (primary and supervenient) and extra-performance elements critics discuss, as well as reasons they use to support their value judgements. This led to a novel descriptive model of critical review of recorded performance (Chapters 6, 7, and 8). The model captures four critical activities – evaluation, descriptive judgement, factual information and meta-criticism – and seven basic evaluation criteria on the aesthetic and achievement-related value of performance reliably used by critics, plus two recording-specific criteria: live-performance impact and collectability. Critical review emerges as a highly dense form of writing, rich in information and open to diverse analytical approaches. Insights gained throughout the thesis inform current discourses in philosophy of art and open new perspectives for empirical music research. They emphasise the importance of the comparative element in performance evaluation, the complexity and potentially misleading nature of the notion of ‘expression’ in the musical discourse, and the role of critics as filters of choice in the recording market. Foremost, they further our understanding of the nature of music performance criticism as a form of reasoned evaluation that is complex, contextual and listener specific.

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