Thursday, May 11, 2006

La Triviata: The Decline and Fall of The Gramophone

"The world's unrivalled authority on classical music since 1923."

That's how the magazine bills itself on the cover. For many years, it was probably true. Back when it was true, though, English understatement would have kept it from making such a boast.

I used to read store copies of The Gramophone every month when I worked in a compact disc/hi-fi retail space in Santa Fe some 15 years ago, and have continued to read it from time to time. Since I discovered to my surprise that I could (often) tell differences among classical music recordings, I've enjoyed reviews. The Gramphone struck me as best-of-breed. Its writers were infinitely more knowledgeable than I was, and a lot of their finer points of interpretation were over my head, but their obvious expertise lent them credibility; even the myopia-inducing small type seemed like an emblem of seriousness and sophistication, and the old-fashioned name suggested sturdy traditionalism.

Since then, the "book" (as publishers illogically call magazines) has gone through a lot of changes. I'm not sure but I think the original company was bought out and it came under new ownership. The design and typography, and some of its regular departments, seemed to undergo a re-think every other issue. Despite some signs of floundering by the management, though, the quality of the reviewing remained high.

More recently it became apparent that the publisher was trying to re-brand The Gramophone into a new, "cool" mode. Well, they had to make some concessions to a new generation of readers, I told myself.

When I bought the April issue, I wasn't prepared for the changes it's gone through just in the last year or two. It's been turned into, more than anything else, a fan magazine, an outlet for record companies' publicity departments, full of hype — arty, but still hype.

Here are the cover teasers: "The most exciting age ever for string quartets." "THE PACIFICA Chamber music hotshots" (yes, the senseless capitalization exactly like that). "Exclusive interviews." "Rugby hero Brian 'Pitbull' Moore on the links between music and sport."

The editor writes:
Magazines don't usually put string quartets on the cover. It's still a corner of the classical music world that is thought to have an image of unapproachability.
Who says, besides him? Does he even know any classical listeners, or was he recruited from one of the publisher's other books, maybe Race Track Thrills?
Because quartets don't have the volume to bludgeon listeners' senses or the immediate character of a human voice, they are thought to be a hard sell. Perhaps that's because not enough people are selling them hard. As Richard Wigmore's cover story explains, a momentum has been building since the 1960s that is now at full pelt. The string quartet is one of the most exciting areas in music now, no question ... spread the word!
An editor of The Gramophone even 15 years ago would sooner have put his head inside the mouth of a tuba than write like that.

The literate reviewers that I thought would be around forever, like Richard Osborne, Robert Layton, Ivan March, and many others, seem to have vanished from the magazine's pages. Whether they were given the push for being too old, or they just left in disgust at the new editorial policy, I can't say. The current crop of reviewers know what they're on about, but their reviews are shorter and dull compared with those of their predecessors.

But why should The Gramophone's race to the bottom be surprising? It's just one more symptom of the dumbing down of Britain, a country that now thoroughly distrusts anything that can be associated with aristocracy, privilege, or taste, as it obsesses over "diversity" and multi-culturalism and worships celebrity.

All is not lost, though. This posting isn't just to rain on The Gramophone. There remains an alternative, and a very fine one. It's American Record Guide, which turns out six issues a year of excellent classical recording reviews. I've been reading it, too, intermittently for years, and ARG hasn't conceded an inch to cultural decay.

American record guide small
First choice:
American Record Guide
, which now smokes The Gramophone.

ARG has been edited for as long as I can remember by Donald Vroon, and he's thumping good at it. He doesn't allow any stuffiness, pretentiousness, or snobbery in his magazine's pages, and in his own writing shows that he cares most for music's ability to communicate emotionally. He likes old-fashioned romantic interpretations and detests the current fashion for "objective" performances. It doesn't appear, though, that he imposes his own tastes on his reviewers, most of whom are amateur or professional musicians.

I'm no expert, but I sure get the impression that ARG's reviewers know their subject every bit as well as The Gramophone mob. One and all, they're very gifted writers, or get exceptional editing, or both. The reviews have a personal touch without being self-centered, and they're not unduly impressed by Big Name performers. Little-known orchestras, groups, and soloists get a fair shake.

Most issues include an "overview" of the available recordings of a composer or category of music, and the comparisons are fascinating. The overviews include valuable introductions, some of which have been among the best pieces I've ever read about their subjects. I still have the Bruckner overview from 10 or 12 years ago, which gave me more insight into the man and his music than any other source I've run across.

Incredibly, somehow Vroon keeps American Record Guide going with few ads (mostly black-and-white half pages and quarter pages) and no equipment reviews to lure big advertising bucks. I don't see how he makes three cents on the dollar. But it's a class act, and a great read if you're interested in classical recordings.

Integrity still exists.

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