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Fanfare Contributor Bio

Barnaby Rayfield

I was about 10 or 11 when my parents knew I wasn’t normal. I deliberately owned three recordings of Don Giovanni because, as I explained to them, I needed a different one for different moods. Mozart was still all I listened to, having been profoundly changed three years previously by the Don Giovanni statue scene in Amadeus. Unaware how corruptible his eight-year-old was, my father came home with a Deutsche Grammophon set of the whole opera, igniting in me an obsession with opera, Mozart, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

I credit my collecting of the prolific baritone’s recordings for my broad tastes. Like some virus, my artist-led curiosity crossed genres, leading me to the inevitable life-changing encounters with Mahler, Bach, and, more randomly, Poulenc. I have never found it hard to love or understand modern music, simply because I listened to it in exactly the same way I listened to, say, The Carnival of the Animals or a Schubert song. Whenever I hear yet another clinical, at-arms-length performance of a new, atonal work, I am always reminded of Erich Kleiber’s alleged entreaty to his orchestra at the premiere of Wozzeck: Just play it like a Haydn symphony. This open-eared lack of baggage got me quite far as an otherwise envious non-performer; instead of piano practice, I studied languages and went into opera direction.

I do have blind spots and I don’t believe anyone who says they don’t. Appallingly for a vocal geek, I do not get Maria Callas. Despite admiring the craftsmanship of Donizetti dramas close up, I still think bel canto is better for comedy than drama, and I also have that common deafness to Liszt and Berlioz. The more elaborate and densely they write, the more indifferent I become. It’s me in the wrong, I know.

As someone relatively young, I am all too aware of the classical industry’s desperate attempts to lure in others of my demographic. The saddest development in my lifetime has been the promotion of classical music as beautiful and relaxing: like a Mahler adagio, shorn of its outer movements. Yet so much seems also designed to shut out the casual newcomer. Take sound quality, for instance. Collectors, like me, always strived to listen on good quality equipment, but now serious classical recordings seem designed only for the likes of us, with discs being issued with preposterous dynamic ranges, suitable for use only in a soundproofed bunker. I now like to test a CD’s sound balance not just on my high-end system but also on a portable player, or ripped to a 128 kbps MP3 as it is more akin to how most of us have to consume our music.

I have been a critic since I was eight but have been only writing down my opinions in the last couple of years, for Web sites like Concertonet and magazines like Muso. Despite the recording crisis, great discs still get made. Nor, as a Londoner, am I unhappy with the current live scene. I cannot abide that cooler-than-thou critic stance of seen-it-all contrariness. The moment I lose that thrill of stumbling across a brilliant new talent or a rediscovered archive recording, the second I believe there are no more new ways to perform a work, please could Wolf and Mörike kick me down that staircase?


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