The people's judge

Music - John Suchet on the discord provoked by his place on the Gramophone Awards panel

Oh, what a cosy, snobby little place the world of classical music can be. Gramophone magazine, oldest and most venerable of the classical music mags, decides to put a sprinkling of non-musicians on the panel of its prestigious Record of the Year award, and what happens? The classical music critic of the Sunday Times, Hugh Canning, throws a tantrum, accuses the magazine of dumbing down, and resigns as a Gramophone critic. What a diva!

At the round table discussion to select the shortlisted recordings, I was the only judge not involved in the music world in some way. There were musicians, concert hall managers, recording executives, radio presenters, retailers - and, shock, a newscaster.

Well, a newscaster who has published a three-volume novel on the life of Beethoven, and who is on the governing body of the Royal Academy of Music. And equally importantly, someone who, when he wants to go to a concert or buy a CD, has to dig into his pocket.

So my criteria for judging were somewhat different from the criteria of the other judges. I was, if you like, the punter on the panel, or in modern parlance, the people's judge. There was a lot of talk about sound balance, purity of tone, quality of performance, tempi. All important, I agree, and the sort of thing critics are expected to know about. But I came at it from a different angle. When I leaf through the CD racks on the high street, which one would catch my eye? Which one would I spend my money on?

I made the point early on in the discussion that most of the sleeve notes accompanying the shortlisted CDs were inadequate and unnecessarily pompous. Here's a quote from one: " . . . instead of metrical and rhythmic comprehensibility [Schumann] emphasised - with a mind to fabricating a surprisingly ambiguous message - the displacement and subversion of temporal processes." Sorry?

Those same Schumann String Quartets came in a fussy cardboard case with a soft-focus photograph of a quarter moon between two fir trees. Why? Another bit of unnecessary packaging to throw away. Inside, photographs showed the players sitting in a highly unusual formation - left to right, first violin, viola, cello, second violin. There was no explanation of this in the text, and not a single word about any of the players.

Now the panel went into ecstasies over this recording, and it may even win Record of the Year. Musically, I won't argue with that. But it's up to the people's judge to point out that if you buy this disc, you'll be getting a very fine recording, but you won't be getting your money's worth.

I piped up at one point that I wanted more sleeve notes about the singers on a recording of a Handel cantata. The professional singer on the panel said: "Not necessary. People who buy discs like this know who the singers are." Well, I'm sorry, they don't. Ask an average music lover to name, say, five contraltos or baritones who specialise in Baroque singing - or even three (two?) - and I doubt they'd be able to do so.

The recording executive injected a note of non-artistic realism. He said booklets accompanying CDs had to be able to fit into the box. "Put too much information into them and they'll be too thick." And there's silly old me imagining manufacturers are producing the best possible product for the consumer. No they're not; they're just making sure it'll fit into a box that is too small in the first place.

When I buy a CD, I nearly always take it to the counter and ask for it to be removed from its cellophane security wrapper so that I can look at the sleeve notes. No sales assistant has ever refused to do so. If the notes are not good enough, I will not buy the disc. So here's a plea to record shops: why not have one empty box of each recording in the racks, with the booklet available? Book shops don't wrap up books, clothes shops don't wrap up clothes, so why are CDs always wrapped?

After two hours of lively discussion, we produced a shortlist of six: Vivaldi's La Stravaganza - Rachel Podger (Channel); Schumann String Quartets - Zehetmair Quartet (ECM); Hummel Masses - Richard Hickox (Chandos); Britten's The Turn of the Screw - Daniel Harding (Virgin Classics); Chopin Etudes - Murray Perahia (Sony Classical); and the only one consisting of an artist rather than composer, the pianist Sir Clifford Curzon (Decca). What, no Opera Babes, no Russell Watson, no Bond? Must've been the coffee we were on. In fact, the only disc which seemed to be cobbled together by a producer to appeal to the public - Anne Sofie von Otter singing Offenbach - was loathed by us all.

Back to Hugh Canning, and the age-old question: what is a critic? In my view, a critic is someone who is expressing an informed opinion about something. As a specialist in his subject, he may be more informed than me. But does that mean he is any more right?

Noel Coward had the right answer to critics. After one devastating review, he wrote to the critic in question: "Sir, I am seated in the smallest room in the house. Your review is before me. In a moment it will be behind me."

The trouble is artists do take notice of critics, and they have the scars to prove it. Punters take notice of them, too, looking for advice and guidance. Fine, but don't let that guidance put you off your instincts.

In his resignation note to Gramophone magazine, Canning wrote of me: "John Suchet may know more about Beethoven than I do, but what other music does he know about?" Wrong question. I am a classical music enthusiast and I go into shops and buy classical CDs. That is the point. I judge them by different criteria from yours. But if punters are to be given the full picture about what to buy, they need the critic's opinion and they need mine. That is why the changes Gramophone magazine has made this year are so important. By removing himself, Canning did classical music enthusiasts a disservice and satisfied only his own ego.

One final thing: in his resignation note, Canning confused me with my brother David, the actor. If you really do think I am that Belgian detective with the funny moustaches, Hugh, then you should get out more.

John Suchet's The Last Master: the life of Beethoven is available in a boxed set (Warner Books, £20). The Gramophone Awards 2003 are at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 on 12 October. For £5 tickets, call 020 7638 8891

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Who the hell are you?