Obituary: Gerald Larner, newspaper music critic for renowned for brutal honesty and fairness

Music critic Gerald Larner has died at the age of 82. Picture: Macbeth Media
Music critic Gerald Larner has died at the age of 82. Picture: Macbeth Media
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Gerald Larner music critic. Born: 9 March 1936 in Leeds. Died: 18 December 2018, aged 82

Gerald Larner, whose most conspicuous influence on the world of classical music was as Manchester-based staff music critic of the Guardian from 1965-92, has died at the age of 82.

Those familiar with his informed and considered prose in that newspaper, then later in the Times, will have recognised a man of stern intellect and knowledgeable self-belief. He could be brutally honest, but he was always inscrutably fair.

Those who knew him personally – I first met him as a cub Daily Telegraph critic in the 1980s – will have instantly recognised these same qualities, coupled with a self-confessed and rather endearing curmudgeonliness. But they would also have appreciated and enjoyed the softer, warmer side to a sincere personality that emerged the more you got to know him.

The reality is, he was the consummate professional, passionately committed to the task, who knew how to separate business from pleasure without feeling the need at any time to compromise the former.

Larner was born in Leeds in 1936. At school he played the flute, but chose to study modern languages at Oxford. That decision had the inevitable effect of relegating his proficiency as a player, so the obvious way to pursue his love of music was to write about it. A few student reviews for Musical Times and Musical Opinion give him his first blood as a professional critic.

Academia was to win out initially in his professional life, and before long Larner found himself back up north as an assistant lecturer in German at Manchester University. But a letter to Brian Redhead at the Manchester Guardian in 1962 resulted in work as an occasional reviewer. Three years later, the paper’s editor Alistair Hetherington offered Larner a full-time position, initially as a sub-editor and reviewer of wider arts activity, but for the next 27 years his most recognisable role – one previously held by the legendary Neville Cardus – was as the Guardian’s chief northern music critic, responsible for scheduling all music coverage outside London, and personally reviewing concerts as far afield as Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh, often visiting them all in the space of a single week.

From his Manchester base, he formed a close link with the city’s Hallé Orchestra as a prolific programme note writer, appreciated for his crisp informative copy and shrewd insight. He was to replicate that skill with other orchestras, many key festivals including the Edinburgh International Festival, and in a long-standing relationship with London’s Wigmore Hall. After the death in 2011 of his second wife – the publicist, journalist and broadcaster Lynne Walker – this activity, generated from their home in Alderley Edge, was to dominate his working day.

Larner’s scholarship is writ large in his fascinating study on Maurice Ravel, published in 1996, and the first monograph to seriously get to grips with the troubled mind of the complex French composer and the bearing that had on his music. It was of enormous pride to Larner that the French government subsequently conferred on him the honour of Officier dans L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He maintained his fluency as a French speaker by regularly reading the Maigret novels in their original language.

He dabbled in stage writing, scripting theatrical productions on the lives of Tchaikovsky for Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, and Chabrier for the 1994 Edinburgh Festival. Larner had already written the libretto for a children’s opera by the composer John McCabe, which was performed in Manchester in 1969, but unfortunately ran up against copyright issues with the Disney Corporation. He even turned impresario in the early 1980s as director of the Bowden Festival, but was honest enough to realise it wasn’t a role he was naturally cut out for.

Back in the day job, Larner was famously harsh and formidable in his critical judgements, but with an honesty and balanced authority that commanded genuine respect. Brian Pidgeon, general manager of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and then the BBC Philharmonic during Larner’s Guardian tenure, referred to him in 1998 as “a totally impartial and objective reviewer, whose tough and occasional damning criticisms have kept musical organisations in the area constantly on their toes, resulting in much more interesting programming and innovative music making than might have been the case”.

He was equally committed to Scotland’s musical life, and considered regular coverage of its national orchestras, opera company and festivals both a joy and a duty. It was always a pleasure to encounter Larner in Edinburgh at the Queen’s Hall or Usher Hall, when he was invariably in the company of his close friend, the late Conrad Wilson, former staff music critic of the Scotsman. As Wilson’s widow, Sue, rightly observes: “There’s was a true meeting of minds. Whenever Gerald visited us they would talk for hours about their common passions for music, literature, food and wine.”

Larner also loved the visual arts. In 1979 he and his first wife, Celia, co-authored a book The Glasgow Style, fuelled by their own collection of art nouveau artefacts. He later had plans to write a study on Salomé, in preparation for which he and Lynne purchased John Bellany’s grisly depiction of the Head of St John the Baptist, which they hung on their dining room wall. It was so gruesome, dinner guests preferred to sit with their backs to the painting.

Art collecting became a consolation following Lynne’s death from cancer in 2011. So did work, and Larner continued to write copious prose until the onset of chronic pulmonary disease began to undermine his confidence in meeting deadlines. He decided to retire in May 2018.

Larner is survived by his daughters Alice and Melissa from his first marriage, and two grandchildren.

KEN WALTON