View Full Version : Customer reviews: a source of frustration or a great help?

May 1st, 2013, 07:46 AM
Many of us buy CDs and DVDs from Amazon or from some similar source in the net. Do you read the customer comments and do they affect your decision making? I tend to read them even if I already know what I am going to buy, out of curiosity. When choosing between different recordings that I am not familiar with they often even help me to decide. But is "help" le mot juste here? The expertise shown in the comments is variable to say the least! There are those that simply state: "Great record. Delivery on time. Go, buy!" and those that go on for several paragraphs, telling about the works at hand, the composer, the performers, the performance, analyzing in detail and making comparisons to other recordings - and everything in between.

I was recently faced with four seemingly earnest comments on a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri.

1) ** "Unfortunately, on this disc we quite simply don't have the right artists. Yuli Turovsky's conducting is quite decorous and there is no sense of dramatic movement or inevitability in the peformance. With uninvolved singing and little characterisation from both principals throughout, much of the psychological subtlety of the music passes by unnoticed - for instance, a climactic moment such as Salieri's second monologue (in which he resolves to poison Mozart) has the effect of a dainty rather than dramatic peroration to the first scene.

2) **** The orchestra play well and the singing is actually very good.

3) **** The performance here with Vladimir Bogachov as Mozart and Nikita Storojev as Salieri, backed by I Musici de Montreal, is a good one.

4) ***** This is an excellent recording of the opera who owes its fame more to the story it's based on than to the music itself... The opera is sung by two great voices - Salieri by bass Nikita Storojev, who is fantastic in this role. His predecessor at the premier in Moscow on 7 December 1898 was the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin.

Mozart is sung by tenor lirico-spinto Vladimir Bogachev, a former star of Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and since 1989 engaged into an international career with major opera houses throughout the world.

Recommended to all interested in Mozart, Salieri and Russian music and literature.

What should one think? Trust the majority? Just spend 9.29 and see for yourself? Buy the older alternative from the 1950's that gets the blessing of 1)? Buy both? Wait for a version that gets unequivocal praise? Peruse the archives of OperaLively for a possible review? Forget the whole thing?

May 1st, 2013, 12:59 PM
Well, rather than to seek help with this particular recording, I would like to raise discussion about amateur critics in general. Why not professionals, too? Their comments can be just as confusing and contradictory. I just cannot change the title of the thread any more. Have you got any personal favourite recordings that you like and to hell with what all the critics say!?

May 1st, 2013, 01:44 PM
I do scan the reviews at Amazon, but if there is a low number of reviews like under 4 can be very skewed in one direction. More accurate general impressions are given if you have 10+ reviews, the reviewers have wide range of experience and knowledge level so it all averages out with many reviews to get more accurate overall opinions.

I don't normally buy any CD on the advice of an expert reviewer other than to get ideas to further research

Most of my "reserach" for buying a CD is finding sound samples at various websites, especially extended samples at Youtube. Even the shorter samples at vendor websites are helpful in making a decision to buy or pass, I make the final buy decision after hearing samples.

I rarely regret a purchase if I hear samples, but there is always used CD market at Amazon to "recycle" any unwanted versions

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
May 1st, 2013, 02:20 PM
I think we've discussed professional critics in another thread.

Sometimes things get to be quite ridiculous. From one critic you read - "The Maestro practiced such fast tempi that we couldn't hear the nuances in the music" while another "professional" critic will say of the same performance "the tempi were so slow that I almost fell asleep."

Reliability among professionals can be quite dismal and is even worse when the person is in the business of appearing smart and original with a self-cult of personality rather than trying to objectively gauge a performance. If there is something I profoundly despise, is the "smart-aleck" kind of snide comments by critics who make it about themselves rather than about the work/performance.

So, this being the case, customer reviews are even less reliable. I've seen absolutely hilarious comments at time, down to saying "when Puccini composed this... etc." for an opera by Verdi, and so on. Even the seemingly experienced reviewers can say rather idiosyncratic things and one can't know if that person's tastes matches one's own.

This is why I generally pay little attention to the customer reviews, and prefer DA's method of seeking bits and pieces to listen to / watch on YouTube and vendor's sites, before making purchasing decisions. I do pay a lot of attention to Opera Lively reviews by our members, whom I came to trust given the long interaction and the ability to gauge whether a member's tastes matches one's own.

May 1st, 2013, 03:23 PM
The problem I have with critics and reviews is that, unless I am personally familiar with the critic in question, I cannot be sure that his tastes coincide with mine, as Alma says. One man's food is another's poison, as they say. Also, is the critic qualified to pass judgment on the recording? This question even arises with professional critics. When the EMI Die Frau ohne Schatten under Sawallisch was released in the late 1980's, I snapped it up immediately and quickly became acquainted with its quirks and idiosyncrasies. When the set was reviewed in Gramophone magazine, it was apparent that the reviewer had not even listened to the set and had probably written the review based on his personal biases and expectations. Of course, since I have been reviewing Traviata sets for OL, I have now laid myself open to such criticism of my own reviews, so I must be doubly cautious in what I write!

May 1st, 2013, 03:31 PM
Have you got any personal favourite recordings that you like and to hell with what all the critics say!?

In the 1980's Gramophone magazine seemed to have a vendetta against the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Nothing he did was right, according to the magazine's reviewers. It was obvious to me,though, that while Harnoncourt was certainly a controversial figure, his recordings of the standard repertoire were newly studied and performed with a fine sense of drama and expression. To read Gramophone, you would think the man was the devil incarnate. It was a simple case of the critical establishment being unwilling to listen with open ears and an open mind to new ways of playing music. Perhaps my favorite recording of NH is the 1979 set of Handel's Jephtha, which as I recall Gramophone compared unfavorably with the contemporaneous set by Neville Marriner, which was well-played and -sung, but had nowhere near the visceral and disturbing qualities of the Harnoncourt recording.

May 2nd, 2013, 09:08 AM
As always in life, there are good and bad examples of anything, reviewers in this case. In the end is for everyone to decide on who is good and who is bad, according to your personal criteria, and your education.

Personally, I think the best reviews are those that make me understand better a piece, or can give me some clues that I can then develop myself. I do appreciate factual information, of course, but this is just necessary stuff, not making the difference, except in few cases.