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PeterBale
02.01.2007, 20:00
The Review – why and how?

On tMP and in the banding press in recent days there has been considerable discussion regarding the various recordings currently available, and what would make a new recording attractive to potential purchasers in an increasingly crowded market. There have also been discussions concerning what is newsworthy in the banding world. This article will attempt to address some of these issues, but I must stress that this is just a personal viewpoint, reflecting my own preferences and way of operating.

Introduction:

It may be helpful to outline how I have come to my present situation as an occasional reviewer of both concerts and recordings, both for 4barsrest.com and also here on tMP. All my life I have been an active participant in various forms of music-making, from joining the local church choir at the age of seven, through various school-based musical activities, both vocal and instrumental, and a short spell as a professional musician in a military band. Since leaving the guards I have continued to participate in a number of groups, largely but not exclusively within the Salvation Army, as well as presenting the occasional solo item or programme.

Alongside this practical music-making has been a general interest in a wide range of music, occasionally fostered by attending live concerts, particularly when new or unusual works are being presented, but mainly by means of an extensive – my wife would say much too extensive – collection of recordings, initially on lp, and more recently on tape or cd. For a number of years I was an avid reader of Gramophone magazine, following the various reviews in the hope that they would guide me in my purchases, as well as listening to such Radio 3 broadcasts as “Building a Library”.

My introduction to the internet, occasioned by the need for email communication at work, came hand in hand with the discovery of various music and particularly band-related sites, including 4barsrest, where I read with interest reviews of both concerts and recordings. Having sent in a few reports of events that I had attended, I became aware that they had given advance notice of a number of cd reviews that had not actually appeared on the site. An email to Iwan Fox asking whether he would be interested in an offer to help out in this respect was followed by a request to ring him, and that was the start of what I trust has been a fruitful relationship, with him sending out recordings periodically, and me returning the reviews as when I have the time.

Why a review?

I have already touched on this in the introduction, when I said that I am guided in my own purchases by what other reviewers have to say. I should stress that this does not mean by any means that I will always buy something just because the particular reviewer has given it a glowing report, and equally I would not necessarily avoid a recording because the reviewer in question has given it the thumbs down. What I look for in a review is for the reviewer to put across his or her own reaction to the issue in question, and this should cover not just the music included, but also the standard of playing and the quality of the production and presentation.

Regarding the programme, it is good to give a little background to the music and/or the composer, particularly if it is a new piece, or one that is a little off the beaten track: if all you get is a list of pieces, you may as well be reading the track listing from the cover or an advertisement. If the potential purchaser has not heard the piece in question, a brief summary of the shape and make-up of the item can also be useful. Often, it is also appropriate to comment on the choice and sequence of items, as well as the amount of space between the tracks: the effect of an atmospheric ending to one piece can be lost completely if the band then launches straight into a march without a break.

As to the standard of performance, this may be tempered a little by who the performers are: with a “name” band, or prominent soloist, expectations may be particularly high, and any minor faults which do get through can be correspondingly more of a disappointment. I believe that a reviewer should as far as possible be honest in their assessment of a performance, but it should be possible to do so without causing undue offence. The occasional lapse in ensemble, dubious intonation or split note may not detract overmuch from the enjoyment of the recording as a whole, but I feel the reviewer should bring it to the reader’s attention, for them to make up their own mind. This is also an aspect that can be covered in a brief summation, either at the start or end of the review.

The presentation can also be a factor in whether or not to recommend a particular issue. Although the smaller size of the cd insert does not give the scope for cover artwork offered by the lp sleeve, there is still ample space for useful background to be given. Each individual will have their own view on what they would like to see, but I always like to find a track listing (preferably with timings), information on the individual pieces, background on the performers, and if possible a list of performers. Some manufacturers are better at this than others, and one or two of the publisher-driven releases fall down badly in this respect. Equally, a list of performers may be difficult if recording sessions have taken place over a period of time, although some bands are very good at this sort of listing, showing who played on which tracks where appropriate.

Whilst running time will never be the first consideration, I find I am reluctant to promote a recording containing less than one hour’s music, unless there are exceptional circumstances such as repertoire that is not otherwise available, or a recording such as one of Steven Mead’s multi-tracked albums that has involved extra studio time in editing etc. Good sleeve notes can enhance a recording considerably, providing they can be read by the purchaser: there are some releases where this can be difficult, either because of the small font size used (as with the recent Wingates Nyman disc) or due to the growing tendency to print on a coloured or, more particularly patterned, background. As to accuracy, I know from experience how easy it is for mistakes to slip through the proof-reading stage – two glaring errors in my notes for Foden’s Concert Classics release for example – and any such major slips should also be highlighted by the reviewer if discovered.

One last thing regarding my own approach to reviewing cds: I am not in any sense an audiophile, and know very little about the technical side of recording, acoustics and the like. I do not listen on top-grade equipment and I tend not to comment a great deal on the recorded sound, unless it seems to detract from the enjoyment of the performance. I always listen to recordings several times before making any notes at all, and I tend to favour a natural sound rather than a recording where individual instruments are spot-lit in a way that would not happen in live performance.

Concert Reviews

The above paragraphs have concentrated on reviewing recordings for potential purchasers, but much of it also applies when providing a write-up for a concert performance. There are certain differences, however, and this does affect the way a review should be approached. When reviewing a performance, one must bear in mind that you are there at the time, whereas the reader is not, so just as the newspaper reporter or radio journalist will include various information for their readers and listeners, so the reviewer should try to convey something of what is was like to be there. This can include such things as a description of the venue, anything distinctive about the performers, or the stage layout adopted. As I stated previously, all a reviewer can do is to document their own reaction to what they see and hear, and it is good to refer to the initial impact of a performance: this view may become tempered as the event goes by, but it can be a useful reference point to start from.

The reviewer may be helped by the concert programme, but should be aware that the programme may not be accurate, and both performers’ names and the pieces played may not match the printed descriptions. If at all possible, it is best to double-check if any names are to be given, particularly regarding spellings. I usually find most conductors and performers are quite willing to clarify such matters if they are approached at the interval, or following the performance.

If the programme includes items with which the reviewer is unfamiliar, it can be difficult to know how much detail to record, but it should be enough to give the reader an overall impression of the music, as well as the performance. There is also the danger, of course, in reporting on a well-known piece, that the reviewer can introduce a “false memory” into the proceedings, and end up reporting in effect on a previously heard version rather than the actual performance on the day. I prefer to take notes during a performance, whilst trying not to disturb fellow-listeners, but these notes should be written up as soon as possible, while the actual event is still fresh in the memory.

Although a review is intended to concentrate mainly on the music itself, there may be other aspects which contribute to event’s success or otherwise, such as banter between compere, soloists and band , particular responses from the audience, or comments made from the platform. The reviewer must then decide how much, if any, of this to include, bearing in mind that it can be difficult sometimes to convey clearly in words something that seems hilarious at the time. It may also be appropriate to close with some individual remarks, although putting forward ones own agenda may provoke a response or a challenge from other people.

Content and Programme

In an increasingly crowded market, anyone preparing to make a recording needs to be aware of what audience they are aiming at. There will be some who will be looking for what is basically a souvenir, to be sold at their own concerts, to what may be considered almost a captive market, with a certain number of almost guaranteed sales. In such instances, there is a sense in which the actual choice of items is not quite so important, as the prime selling point will be that it is “their” band, with what is likely to be a fairly easy-listening programme, with several old favourites included.

It is when one looks at the scope for sales in a wider field that one needs to consider the programme a little more carefully. If one is aiming at the wider audience, be it the band enthusiast or the general music-lover, it is probably best to avoid too much duplication with existing recordings. There are certain pieces which go through stages of being very popular, appearing in various programmes and also receiving a number of recordings, but someone with an already large collection may baulk at the possibility of adding yet another version of “Shine as the Light” or “Riverdance”, to name but two – not wishing to criticise either work, but when one already has half a dozen versions of each, it is good to give consideration to something different.

There are some bands which seem better than others at producing a varied programme, with new repertoire and a fresh approach. It may be a little unfair to single any out in this respect, but I would cite Sellers and Whitburn in particular, who have produced interesting programmes in recent years, as has the Harrogate Band, which has drawn on composers and music with a local connection. It is also good to see bands encouraging in-house talent, as United Co-op (Yorkshire) did with their recording “Futures”. This was particularly adventurous in that it includes a couple of items that are quite challenging for both band and listeners. This is an area where the continental bands often seem more ready to experiment, as are those from Scandinavia and Australasia, not to mention the ground-breaking work by Bram Tovey with the Hannaford Street Band in Canada. As Bob Blackburn pointed out in a recent article in British Bandsman, there are a number of major works that are still awaiting a definitive studio recording, despite considerable success on the contest stage.

Some bands may have a particular forte in playing a particular style of music, and this can be a good selling point, particularly if high calibre soloists can be attracted, as with the Reg Vardy Band’s “Cool” or, going back a few years, Rigid Containers Band’s “Freeh Way”. There may also be a market for the single composer disc, although the number of sales may be more limited, and it may call for careful programming to produce sufficient variety. Such discs may be produced at the behest of the production company, as they perceive a gap in their catalogue, and as such the intention may be to cover costs rather than to make a vast profit.

Summary

This article is intended both to outline my own personal approach and also to provoke further discussion. I hope, also, that it may encourage people to submit a write-up of a concert they have attended. Complaints are often voiced that one only hears about concerts given by “name” bands, but this could be remedied if more reports were sent in, and I am sure the various media would be glad to receive them, although one may find that reports sent to the press, rather than to web-sites, may either be edited or held back due to space restrictions. I am sure there is great interest among the banding community in general and within tMP in particular, in what other bands are doing, so let’s make full use of the opportunities we have to spread the word!