Time for a little interlude. I thought I'd jot down some thoughts about my listening and reviewing styles, and how this all got started, for anyone who might be interested.
I love Classical music. It is the very air I breathe. Along with that passion, there is the "hobby" side to it. And that is collecting Classical recordings. I currently own nearly 9,000 CDs and SACDs (95% of which are Classical), which I began collecting in 1986, shortly after CD was first introduced commercially. My very first CD purchase (which I still own) was Muti's Philadelphia Tchaikovsky Ballet Suites on EMI. And my jaw dropped with what I heard. I remember it like it was yesterday. The clarity! The dynamics! The drama! The complete silence in-between tracks! And the convenience of accessing individual tracks with just the push of a button on the remote! Never again would I return to the noise and distractions of scratched LPs or compressed, tape-hissy cassettes, or the cumbersome, infuriating inability to find different sections of a recording both formats excelled at.
But I soon realized that my cheap rack system from Sears (or was it Wards?) was not going to cut it. Thus in the early 90s, I reluctantly tip-toed into a real stereo store, fearful of what "the high end" was going to cost, and was blown away with the sound these systems produced. The majesty and presence of a symphony orchestra was laid out right there in front of me in the listening room. And there was no going back to a cheap sound system. And so began my endless quest to assemble a high-quality stereo component system which could reproduce this music in a realistic and musically satisfying way. (My first purchases included an entry level Marantz CD player and Rotel amplifier; and a couple years later, a pair of wonderful little Thiel speakers and MIT cables.) And during the ensuing years, I have foregone lavish trips and nice cars etc., as most of my expendable cash has gone toward music and stereo equipment. After a 30+ year stint in the workforce, I now have all the time in the world to listen to music. Retirement is good.
I typically buy CDs I'm interested in, not based upon reviews or any kind of marketing. I also usually avoid those from the major labels which push their latest hot "star" first and foremost above any musical merits said star might possess. More often than not, I buy discs which feature an ensemble, a soloist, or composer which I have found to be interesting, or has impressed me, in the past. One click leads to another and then to another, and before I know it my Amazon WishList is full of CDs! And I tend to favor those releases which are offered in the SACD format.
1. I usually listen to a new CD before reading the booklet. This allows me to make my own observations and form my own impressions of the playing and the music. This is especially important if I'm hearing new music. I don't want the composer's program notes or the label's booklet to "inform" my opinion of what I'm about to hear. Thus my written observations are entirely my own. Then I will read the booklet text and compare notes. Usually I am most interested in learning more about the composer, performers, and recording technical details, some of which I incorporate into a review.
2. If I don't like something, especially if it's new or unfamiliar music, I will wait a few days and listen again. Often times, a second hearing is more positive. I will rarely dismiss new music outright. I make every effort to give it a real chance of making an impression.
3. I almost always listen to a CD (or box set) straight through. If it's completely new music to me, I will often play a selection which I think might make the most positive impression - the easiest to enjoy - first, and then explore the remaining program. I rarely take notes (for use in a review) that first time through. Only those discs which move me - either in a positive way, or an annoying one - prompt me to begin taking notes.
4. I certainly listen for a level of proficiency and accomplishment from the musicians involved - as well as musical involvement. However, I can be forgiving of less than perfect playing if the music-making is committed and thoroughly engaging, or of musical importance (i.e. rare repertoire). I also tend to "go a little easier" on, say, a community orchestra or a local string quartet, as opposed to a big name outfit, from which perfection is assured, and indeed, expected.
5. However, I am not forgiving of mediocre recorded sound. My reviews will always take into account the sound quality as well as the performance. As I am an audiophile as well as a musician, the recorded sound - the realism of it - is just as important to me as the music-making itself. So if something sounds "off", it definitely affects my enjoyment and appreciation of the performance. With today's technology, and with 40 years of digital recording experience, record labels should be capable of producing a realistic, natural and enjoyable-sounding recording. Every time. So I am very critical when they fail to do so. Thus I am most often drawn toward the great smaller, independent Classical labels which value excellent recorded sound as well as excellent music-making.
My main stereo system (2-channel only) is very detailed and fully resolves the acoustic in which the music is recorded. As described above, I have assembled high-quality electronics, speakers and wires/cables which, combined, specifically achieve this very result. However, it is not ruthlessly revealing. It is voiced to be full-bodied, rich in color, and just slightly warm and pleasant - just as I hear a real orchestra sounding in a good hall. It produces sound which, to my ears, comes as close to the "real thing" as I can afford. Thus I trust what I hear played on it, and I'm confident the system gives every recording the best possible chance of sounding good. And I believe it is representative of what most people will hear on a respectable stereo system.
6. However, if a recording just doesn't sound right, I will take it upstairs to a second system and listen again before completely dismissing it. My upstairs system is minimalist, consisting of just a high-quality SACD/CD player (with a headphone jack) and a good-quality pair of PSB headphones. This allows me to evaluate the recording characteristics on two very different systems so I can weigh the results and qualify my comments accordingly, if warranted. Again, I give each recording every possible chance to sound good.
7. Finally, the most fun part of this hobby is comparing a new recording with others in my collection. With nearly 9,000 CDs, duplication is inevitable (almost guaranteed), and along with firmly established favorites of any given piece, I often "rediscover" great recordings from the past which have been sitting forgotten on my shelves. What's most exciting is hearing a new recording which sweeps away those which have come before it - as if hearing a piece for the very first time. That's what usually gets my fingers flying across the keyboard!
In closing, I am a musician, not a writer. So putting what I hear into words does not come easy to me - especially when trying to describe new or unfamiliar music. I tend to gush when I really like something and gripe when I don't. But in every case, I try to be as honest as I can. I praise whenever possible, but I can't withhold criticism when it is merited.