With an adept pen, a sing-song voice and considered judgement, Christian Merlin is well known in the sphere of music criticism. He has been at Le Figaro since 2000; he’s a columnist for France Musique and a regular contributor to Lionel Esparza’s critic’s club on the channel; he also reviews CDs and writes for specialist publications Diapason and L’Avant-Scène Opéra.

In this first part of a long interview published in two parts, Merlin talks about his experience of music criticism and the issues faced in this unusual profession.

TL: Do you remember your first concert review?

CM: The first was in no way intended for publication: it was in a notebook where I wrote down my impressions of concerts. I was in my first year after the baccalauréat, at the lycée Louis-le-Grand, and I would go out in the evenings: the Orchestre de Paris made cheap seats available two hours before the performance, so you could get into the front five rows at Salle Pleyel. Pretty early on, I started to feel the need to write down my impressions. The first time must have been in 1983 or 1984, a Mahler 5. I’d come to the concert because I liked the work a great deal and it was to be Rafael Kubelik conducting. I adored him, he was a great Mahlerian, but by then, he was an old man and often ill. He cancelled – and I remember being really upset! But then there was that first trumpet call… and from the first tutti, I was utterly captivated, bowled over! For a long time, previously, I had preferred listening to records than going to a concert hall, but that moment changed everything. I had never had this physical sensation of the waves of sound breaking over me in the hall. After that, I started writing my memories of the concert in the notebook – summarily and clumsily, no doubt – but soon, I found that memories weren’t enough. That’s when I started to develop them into a more structured form, taking inspiration from the reviews that I read in the newspapers.

Was it reading other reviews that impelled you to write?

Absolutely! We have to go back a bit: after an adolescence when I had moved away from classical music, I came back to it in the year after high school, because I had some friends who were real music lovers. That made me realise that I had missed out on something important and I wanted to make up for lost time. I started building a record library and to do this, I bought some record guides which contained reviews. That made me realise the importance of interpretation, which I found intriguing. I listened to programmes like the Tribune des critiques des disques, reading Pierre Petit’s reviews in Le Figaro, which my father brought home every day. I bought Diapason and Le Monde de la Musique and threw myself on the record reviews. It was reading those critics that gave me confidence in the idea that it was fascinating to try to put music – and particularly musical interpretation – into words. I wasn’t comparing only the different interpretations, but also the way that critics described them, and I was trying to put things into my own words, both spoken and written. In those student years, I was living in university accommodation, and when I was writing up my notes after coming back from a concert in the evening, my friends were usually awake. One day, one of them told me that “you know, your relationship with music is completely intellectual”, and I replied that he was completely wrong: “It’s the exact opposite.  My response to music is completely sensual, and it’s only later that I have the need to put things into words, to analyse, to understand what pleased me or moved me, what was special about its execution… but that’s the second stage, after a shock that is totally physical”. And that view has stayed with me to this day.

What do you think is the purpose of the concert review? Is it to put across this sensual experience to the reader?

Of course! The critic’s role is three-fold: to narrate, to analyse and to judge. To narrate, because a concert (or opera performance) is a one-off experience, an evening which is alike no other. In fact, therefore, one of the functions of a critical review is to make the readers part of that experience, to make them feel as if they were there. To analyse is absolutely essential. It’s the beginning of everything, since one has to try to understand what the artist was trying to accomplish and the specifics of what one has heard and seen. And finally, to judge, because analysis on its own is not enough. The critic should evaluate, assess, do justice to what they themselves have felt. I don’t believe that a fully objective and impartial review can exist. That may sound brutal, but one has to come off the fence, to pronounce, not to hesitate to say “clearly, the artist wanted to do xyz, he had such and such a concept of the work, but I didn’t buy it”. But one has to explain why, that’s the number one priority, not to treat a matter of taste as an absolute. That’s why judgement comes last, after narration and analysis: in my view, a review which is not properly argued is null and void.

Are your expectations the same for a concert review and a record review?

Not entirely. A record review is far more about the absolutes of interpretation. For a long time, the ambition of record critics was to determine a reference recording. Early on, I have questioned this idea – at least in the singular – I believe that any work can have more than one reference recording. Besides, tastes change, so one has to take care. It’s inevitable that any new record will take its place in a pre-existing discographic landscape which is often vast. So one starts to compare, to examine how this recording writes its name in the history book of interpretations. A concert review is more disconnected from all that, since it deals not with a manufactured object whose purpose is permanent, but with a transient moment, a moment which is unique and not reproducible. One can make a live recording, of course, but it becomes a different entity. Sergiu Celibidache had it right when he supported the idea that music happens in a given point in space and time and that a recording is nothing more than a pale copy which, at its fundamentals, betrays the here and now of the concert.

That doesn’t exclude the use of comparisons. For artists that one has seen several times, one’s going to be able to think “Well, today he was off form, he messed up such and such” or “he took things at faster tempi than usual”. Sometimes, one can be plagued by memories: I’ve had a problem with Fauré’s Requiem ever since I heard it was performed by Carlo Maria Giulini in 1985 or 1987. It was so magical! Even now, every time I go to hear the Requiem in concert, I tend to think “the trouble is, it’s not Giulini”. That’s a bad mistake! The concert review should live in the moment, the fleeting instant. That’s the beauty of the ephemeral and the attraction of the concert – but it’s also the stuff of criticism, which is to try to restore what has passed.

What is your view on how criticism in the press has evolved in recent years?

In the case of the printed press, it’s a concerned, uneasy view. I would make a strict differentiation between informative musical journalism (interviews, previews, reports) and music criticism which evaluates and presents a critical judgement. So I note that in print, the critic’s role has decreased in the face of an increasingly journalistic approach. That upsets me, because I believe that the critical review is essential, not least as a thing that informs taste. That doesn’t mean compelling people to agree with you, but to teach them to have criteria and to forge their own judgements. There are times when I’ve eulogised about some contemporary staging and regular readers have told me “I’ve read your review but I’m not going – I know I’ll hate it!” That’s great – it means I’ve done my job. So this reduction in the role of criticism is highly frustrating, not just for me but for the directors of concert halls and orchestras, and the performers who demand press criticism.

But just at this point where criticism is playing a reduced role in the established newspapers, it’s increasing on the Internet. The first criticism websites, twenty or so years ago, were generally characterised by an amateur approach, in the worst sense of the word. Reviews were badly written, often dense and lost in detail… or with a fanzine edge, a groupie attitude which excluded critical judgement. But steadily, music criticism has evolved. There’s even been an awkward tipping point where the people writing for the sites felt empowered to ask for review tickets from orchestras, festivals, theatres. For these organisations’ press people, that raised the question of how to treat them: should they be recognised as fully fledged critics? At the same time, that same question surfaces at the critics’ union, where I’ve been a committee member for a long time and where we were looking at the requirements for admission. What to make of the Internet? We tried to determine criteria, but it was difficult because, broadly speaking, none of the approaches worked. A press card? Even I’ve never had one. Remuneration? Most of the music criticism websites don’t pay their authors, so one might say that this isn’t a professional activity. The problem is that today, there are some really competent people writing on those sites. Some things have come out in the wash and the most serious and solid sites have come out in front, even if others are only moderately professional.

What disappoints me is that the daily newspapers haven’t really embraced the Internet, preferring to hang on to a fairly archaic way of working: broadly speaking, what gets published on the net are the articles from the print version. That kind of archaic behaviour is visible from the fact that after an opera, for example, Le Figaro’s reviews can’t be easily found online. The ones that show up first on the search engines are the ones on specialist websites – including those that aren’t necessarily all that serious.

Does that ballooning of the amount of criticism on the Internet reveal a crisis for the profession of criticism?

I wouldn’t use the word “crisis”: rather, it’s a development, a new status granted to the amateur – a word which can have two connotations. One of them is negative, pejorative, insulting. But the other is very positive: to be an amateur is a noble thing! It means that one loves something, one loves it sincerely. For a long time, the word of the critic was the only word of the Evangelist. I’m not sure that this was a healthy thing, particularly when there wasn’t all that much criticism around. None the less, I hold to the opinion that there is a professional judgement which isn’t just for anyone, and that a professional critic holds a status which is, in some way, the status of an educator who is not at the same level as his class, if I can dare to make this comparison. It doesn’t mean he’s right, because there is no absolute truth when it comes to interpretation. But he has tools that he knows to develop, a level of knowledge, of thought through criteria which grant him a certain legitimacy. It’s a central question, this business of legitimacy: am I empowered to write or to say what I do? Who am I to make such judgements?

Do you ever doubt your own legitimacy?

I’m going to sound arrogant, but in absolute terms, I’m going to say “no”. That’s because I feel that I do my work as seriously as I possibly can, with conviction, and with an amount of upfront work which means that I believe I have good tools to be able to justify what I’m saying. So do I doubt my legitimacy? No. But my opinions? Yes. Sometimes, I’m not sure, I’ve disliked an interpretation but I have a feeling that I’ve missed something. On other occasions, it’s been the opposite: I’ve been rhapsodic about something and then, later on, feel even that I’ve been a little bit conned. But that’s a case by case thing, whereas legitimacy is an absolute.

Also, in a daily newspaper, the critic is a generalist who has to deal with everything and of course, I’m not competent in all genres. On baroque music, I have to be careful. I don’t have the proper reflexes, sometimes not even the required knowledge. I’m not going to be the soul of perspicacity analysing a Monteverdi continuo. Of course, I’ve got enough reference points to write a review for a daily newspaper which is well argued and not absurd, but I wouldn’t do that for a specialist publication: I wouldn’t consider myself to have the legitimacy to deal with Monteverdi. Whereas if we’re on the great symphonic repertoire, I’m at home: I can understand sound balance or spot a handover between desks, I can tell the difference between a rotary valve trumpet and a piston trumpet. But that’s the business of a specialist, which is not what the reader expects from a review in a daily, which is by definition a generalist one.

Click here to read the second part of the interview, dedicated to the symphonic orchestra.

Translated from French by David Karlin