A couple of days ago, Joshua picked up—for $1.00—“The Penguin Guide To Compact Discs And Cassettes: 1989 Yearbook” at a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge.
My father has twenty or twenty-five or thirty of the Penguin Guides, and my father probably owns the very volume Josh bought.
The Penguin Guides are useful compilations of recorded music, but the reader must overlook—if not outright ignore—the absurd British bias the authors exhibit.
In the 1989 Yearbook, Penguin’s top recommendation for a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is—amazingly—Richard Hickox’s recording with the Northern Sinfonia on the ASV label.
Hickox, now deceased, was nothing more than a provincial conductor of British repertory—and only British repertory. Hickox was not competent when he moved into Central European (or other) repertory.
The Newcastle/Gateshead-based Northern Sinfonia was and is nothing more than a provincial group. A comparable American ensemble would be the Phoenix Symphony.
Nevertheless, Penguin rates the Hickox recording of Beethoven’s Ninth superior to the efforts of, among others, Wilhelm Furtwangler, George Szell, Leopold Stokowski, Eugen Jochum and Leonard Bernstein.
According to Penguin:
In his pacing throughout the work, Hickox is unerring and conveys from first to last the tension of a genuine performance, in a way that his rivals among international stars do not manage.
Penguin fails to explain how Furtwangler was unable to convey “the tension of a genuine performance” in Furtwangler’s legendary—and live—1951 recording from Bayreuth, a performance discussed on the very same page as the Hickox.
Penguin’s top recommendation for a complete set of Beethoven symphonies is equally astonishing. The choice is Walter Weller and The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on the Chandos label, whose Beethoven cycle is deemed superior to the Beethoven cycles of, among others, Claudio Abbado, Bernstein, Riccardo Muti and Georg Solti.
Weller, too, was nothing more than a provincial conductor, and the Birmingham orchestra did not in 1989 and does not today approach the quality of an international-level ensemble.
Nevertheless, Penguin praises “the warm, refined, Viennese quality in the playing and interpretation” and, further, claims that “the ensemble matches and even outshines that of such orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic”. Penguin ends its assessment of the Weller recordings with a glowing endorsement:
Altogether an outstanding set, easily outshining the other recent Beethoven cycles from the international brigade.
It is not often that one encounters such sheer, unadulterated—even spectacular—provincialism.
The Penguin Beethoven assessments are camp.
As a people, the British do not understand and cannot “do” music, and there is simply no getting around that fact.
The same is true of art: as a people, the British do not understand and cannot “do” art. The British attitude toward art is a purely provincial one, similar to the British attitude toward music.
A prime example is Stanley Spencer. Non-British persons hoot over the paintings of Spencer, readily seen as examples of purest kitsch. There are only two Spencer paintings in public collections outside Britain; both paintings are in France, and neither painting is ever on display. Spencer’s work is simply not exportable.
However, for reasons non-British persons can never fathom, British persons respond to Spencer paintings. Spencer paintings are on display throughout the British Isles, and they are taken seriously by British art lovers—while persons of other internationality roll their eyes and mutter “Oh, dear” when encountering a Spencer painting.
I was reminded of the provincial British attitude toward art when I came across a dumbfounding assessment of the work of Paul Gauguin (subject of a current exhibition in London) posted on a British website this week. The author—who had no business writing about art (or anything else, for that matter)—found Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings to be inferior not only to Gauguin’s Breton paintings but to Gauguin’s religious paintings, of all things (the writer described Gauguin’s religious paintings as “premonitions of Stanley Spencer”):
The two Breton and Christian rooms see the painter at the height of his powers, both in vision and execution. Imagination is key.
Wow! To encounter ignorance and idiocy on such a striking level is rare indeed!
In case the reader had missed the writer’s earlier boneheaded and spectacularly wrong assessment of Gauguin’s development as an artist, the writer reiterated his fundamental lack of understanding of Gauguin in his closing paragraph:
As Tahitian woman follows Tahitian woman and muted colors fail to recapture the iridescence of the Breton images, I longed for [Gauguin] to return to France and recapture imagination . . . But the final rooms, dominated by the South Seas, come across as a murky waste.
Wow again! What a moron!
At least the reader is presented with a few hearty laughs!
And the reader, while acquiring a deeper understanding of the British incapacity to appreciate art, can enjoy the dangling modifier—of which there are others in the article, one of which was supremely laughable (“although a Gauguin skeptic, it was impossible not to be lured by the reviews”).
Camp is alive and well—if not positively thriving—in ever-provincial Britain.
Addendum of 11 January 2010:
My sister-in-law, born and reared in London and educated at Cambridge and a resident of the U.K. until age twenty-eight, tells me that my discussion of British attitudes toward art is too harsh.
First, she insists that I need to point out that Britain has always under-appreciated (and often misunderstood) the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and that this state of affairs is as true today as it was in 1875. This accounts for the fact that British museums have such conspicuously-weak collections of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism compared to museums in the United States, France, Germany and Russia and, further, explains why Britain has not produced any lasting scholarship in the fields of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. She tells me that it is totally unsurprising and totally unremarkable that British writers would misread and misinterpret the work of Paul Gauguin, even as late as 2011. The British have simply never grasped Impressionism and Post-Impressionism on the same level as the rest of the world.
Second, she insists that I need to point out that British art has always been outside the international mainstream going back to pre-Western art and, further, that most art-lovers in Britain realize that British art has always been insular. She insists that it is unfair to compare the art of Britain with the art of the Continent or the art of the United States, and that the British themselves realize, as a people, that they have no particular genius or flair for art.
Third, she insists that I note that many British art-lovers, too, realize that the paintings of Stanley Spencer are kitsch. She tells me that there are at least as many persons in Britain that sniff at Spencer’s work as there are persons that like his paintings. She also tells me that there are at least as many museum curators in Britain that want to remove Spencer paintings from museum walls as there are curators that want to keep Spencer paintings on display. In another fifty years, my sister-in-law insists, Spencer paintings currently hanging in Britain’s museums will be off-view and consigned permanently to storage.