Saturday, August 17, 2013

allmusic subtle art of reviewing... Blair Sanderson unsolicited review of Svetlana’s CD live recording of her May 15, 2010 performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor with the Omsk Academic Symphony Orchestra was originally short, to the point and yet factually incorrect:
Svetlana Ponomarëva's performance of Sergey Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, with the Omsk Academic Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasiliev was recorded live on May 15, 2010, at the Omsk Filarmonia Concert Hall as part of Shebalin Music College's 90th anniversary concert. The youthful pianist demonstrates abundant energy and bravado in this perennially popular concerto, and the student orchestra rises to the occasion by giving her a strong accompaniment throughout. This recording is not divided into separate tracks per movement, but plays as one track.

Upon accidentally discovering the review in 2012, I quickly sought to correct and inform allmusic:
 Comment on Blair Sanderson's review: "This recording is not divided into separate tracks per movement, but plays as one track." Thank you for reviewing our recording. As the producer I must precise the reason for the one track and also correct the mistake suggesting that the OAS orchestra was a "student" orchestra (see below). Indeed, this recording plays as one track because it was a one time live performance and that in order to recreate the feeling and emotion, I chose to put the listener in the same situation than those who attended the concert. The Omsk Academic Symphony Orchestra is NOT a student orchestra. It is a celebrated professional orchestra conducted by a young yet experienced conductor. Here is their website:
Since then, our 2011 "Musique de France" CD appeared by itself, added to Svetlana’s allmusic roster, but without review. Recently, we discovered the Rachmaninov review was finally updated and seriously augmented. However, the tone of the review changed:
"Regrettably, the quality of the recording is mediocre, and whatever brilliance may have been in evidence in the concert hall is seriously muffled in the amateurishly handled audio. The position of the microphone seems crucial to this situation, for it not only seems well to the side of Ponomarëva but in a disadvantageous position to pick up the orchestra (possibly placed in the audience, if the applause and calls at the end give any indication). Assuming that the piano and orchestra were well-balanced from the audience's angle, with good acoustics, then Ponomarëva probably played with the right dynamics and the instruments were likely at appropriate levels. But the evidence on this recording suggests a bass-heavy piano sound and an orchestra that goes in and out of focus through much of the piece. Because of the thick, tubby sound, Ponomarëva's playing is hard to judge, and too much of the peformance (sic) has to be taken on faith. With superior recordings of this concerto available, the only reason to have this one is for the sake of documenting this artist early in her career."

I would have imagined that Blair Sanderson had time to visit Svetlana’s website and appreciate the circumstances under which the recording was made. In fact, I do believe he did and also has been reading some well known blog to boot in order to weave a legitimate technical point into a personal tirade on her musicianship. So I’ll be happy to answer Mr. Sanderson’s criticism and some more. The performance was recorded on a Roland Edirol R1 set at 24 bit 44.1 kHz and mastered on Wavelab 6 without any sound compression (the low input level required to avoid orchestra's fortissimos saturation explains the surface noise too). 

From where I sat, here is a photograph taken during the beginning of the finale. The Edirol was beside me about 2 ft higher on a tripod; so much for “well to the side of P...”
On this image, Mr. Sanderson will also notice the abundance of microphones placed among musicians and legitimately wonder about the reason that would have pushed us to choose the backup Edirol versus professional taping to issue our CD. Well, guess what Blair? Their equipment failed in mid concert, recording the first Mozart part but quitting in the middle of the Rachmaninov’s Moderato. They made a few attempts at restarting which created two loud  thumps audible in our recording.
We posted extracts here and here on YouTube, taken from a different angle by a professional videographer whose camera sound unfortunately was compressed yet showed the clarity and intensity Svetlana achieved during this performance as well as the moved audience's response. So you do not have to take it on faith.

Finally, I'll agree with you many other recordings do bring state of the art recording technology. So do I when I listen through professional grade JBL monitors and can deconstruct a carefully assembled supposedly “live” CD, that critics just like you took at their name faced value. Let me quote your own review of that one:
"In the concerto, Wang's delicate and refined playing might have been obscured by Rachmaninov's thick mid-range scoring, and a large orchestra would have made recording her extremely difficult, if not utterly pointless. But Wang is perfectly audible with scaled-down forces, so the concerto works brilliantly in this case. The Rhapsody is a more skillfully wrought composition, and it offers more transparent orchestral writing. Here, Wang's performance with the orchestra almost has the intimate feeling and clarity of chamber music, and everything sounds fantastic. Abbado certainly knows how to balance the sound of the orchestra to complement Wang, and the partnership between conductor and soloist works well to show the music to best advantage". 

Blaming Rachmaninov for thick textures because a full orchestra may cover their star pianist opens a fascinating new perspective in the subtle art of reviewing! 

At least, our effort was a true “live” recording despite its unfortunate technical shortcomings and Svetlana’s music making did not include one artificial or meaningless inflection; youthful indeed! Perhaps Mr Sanderson may be well inspired listening to the lesser publicized 1924 recording by the composer and tell us if its midrange nasal sound condemns his music making...

Dr. Marc Villéger

P.S.: As of 2016, it looks as if the original review has been posted back.

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