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Daft Awards We Embrace

Ask anyone who hasn’t been nominated: The Grammys for Classical Music are a joke. But a potentially important joke; the increase in sales based on inclusion on that list of winners is real, even if the rest is fake. [Edit: Anne Midgette wrote about this years' nominations and finds them more heartening.]

Similarly, the “Echo” in Germany—its ghettoized classical version touted as the classical music award—represents everything that is wrong with the industry and the perception of classical music by non-classical music lovers. That particular event is so staged, contrived, and a complete scam (it’s essentially run by the big music companies with just a pro forma nod to the yelping independent labels) that if you accidentally watched that travesty (broadcast on German state television), you might momentarily lose your mind and fall victim to Lebrechtian thinking. Anyone who actually shows up to receive their award in person (not many) is immediately beset by the whiff of desperation.

Instead of heaping more scorn on either of these ridiculous awards (if you can read German, all that needs to be said might well already have been published by Eleonore Büning in the FAZ), I’ve assembled a selective list of recordings that won (or in a few cases were nominated) to win either of these awards in 2010 and actually deserve the attention. Whether intended to be so, or sheer accident, they could be considered the fig-leafs of these events.


Best Classical Album:

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.8,
SFSO Media

Mahler’s 8th Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, SFSO, SFSO Media.

Really? That was the very best classical album of 2009? Not bad at all, of course (even as, much to my own surprise, I found the reverb-heavy 8th with Gergiev more interesting), but the best? But then the competitors included the newest recording of the Bernstein “Mass” (shudder) and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s recording of “L’Enfant et le sortileges” (Naxos). The ladder, if the Grammy meant to highlight how splendid an orchestra well out of the lime-light can perform, a worthy inclusion…

[for technical reasons the rest of this post has to be read after the 'jump'.]

Best Opera Recording:

available at Amazon
B.Britten, Billy Budd,
Hardin / LSO / Gunn, Bostridge et al.
Virgin Classics

Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd”, Daniel Harding, Ian Bostridge, Jonathan Lemalu, Nathan Gunn et al., LSO, Virgin Classics

I love the inclusion of Britten, of course, but then the choices for runners-up (perhaps for lack of choice among important new opera recordings) are pretty neat, too: Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise” (Metzmacher, The Hague, Opus Arte DVD) and the 2010 opera fad: Shostakovich’s “The Nose” (Gergiev, Mariinsky, Mariinsky Live). Virgin pushes all the pleasing-the-Anglo-market buttons with the release… but not having listened to it doesn’t allow me more than a general opinion of “Yay, Britten” and “Lemalu, huh!?”

Best Choral Recording:

Back to Tilson Thomas’ 8th… which is fair enough: if the vocal work weren’t enormous, how could it win “Best Classical Album”, and not this category, too. The lovingly-cared-for-rarirty-choice would have been Penderecki’s “Utrenja”, though, with Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra. (Naxos).

Best Concerto Recording (Soloist with Orchestra):

available at Amazon
S.Prokofiev, Piano Concertos 2 & 3,
Kissin / Ashkenazy / Philharmonia

Prokofiev, Piano Concertos 2 & 3, Philharmonia, Kissin, Ashkenazy, EMI

Chosen from the more interesting releases of the major labels, Kissin/Ashkenazy make for a calculatedly successful combination with a decided bombastic-fantastic approach to Prokofiev. At least the result is the most compelling Kissin recording in some time (admittedly that isn't saying much)… In any case, the Salonen Piano Concerto (DG) and Korngold with Philippe Quint and C.M.Prieto (Naxos) would have been worthy choices, too. The boxed (re-) release of the Bartók Concertos (and orchestral works) with Boulez (DG) is a bit of a cheat; only the Violin (No.1), Viola, and Two Piano/Percussion Concertos were released in 2009; the rest is as old as ten years.

Best Soloist (without Orchestra):

“Journey to the New World”, Sharon Isbin, Sony

A gift to Sony and the perennial big sellers of the industry, embodied here by Isbin arranging her way from Ye Olde English songs all the way to Joan Baez. Hmm… I look to the other nominations for consolation, namely the complete piano works by Elliot Carter with Ursula Oppens (Cedille). Now there’s a birthday present for Elliot. Also included: Yuja Wang (DG) and Maria-João Pires (DG) which I liked (review here) and which made the 2009 “Almost” list. Next year look out for Lang Lang’s “Grand Torismo 5” soundtrack. [Actually: In a way it’s perfectly awesome to have Liszt and Chopin on that game's soundtrack.]

Chamber Music:

available at Amazon
L.Janáček, String Quartets,
Emerson Quartet

Janáček’s String Quartets 1 & 2, Emerson Quartet, DG

The advantage of being the Emerson Quartet is that you just need to release something to get attention. They worked hard for that privilege, at one point, and I suppose in some sense they deserve it. The Janáček disc is pretty good, actually (much better than their recent Dvořák, I find); the competition perhaps better. Incidentally, I had thought the “Hungarian Album” (RCA) of the Guarneri was a re-issue, seeing how it came out amid a whole slew of Guarneri re-issues. The Dohnányi and Kodály are new, though, and excellent… a fine memorial to David Soyer (even though he obviously didn’t anymore participate in these recordings). The Ginastera String Quartets (Ensō Quartet, Naxos) rock hard.

Best Chamber Ensemble Performance:

available at Amazon
David Lang, The Little Matchgirl Passion,
Theatre of Voices
Harmonia Mundi

David Lang’s “The Little Matchgirl Passion”, Theatre of Voices, Harmonia Mundi

No question that this is absolutely deserving; the performance of Paul Hillier’s ensemble is terrific (unlike the Hillier-free “Hilliard Ensemble” which I’ve heard twice this year to absolutely ghastly results). The music by David Lang is simple and effective and benefits from the ensemble’s devotion. A fair inclusion is Monica Hugget’s “Ensemble Sonnerie” (Avie, a WETA CD Pick of the Week)…

I ignore the Vocal category (among the nominations this sadly dire disc), just as I do the Crossover category…

Best Contemporary Composition:

available at Amazon
J.MacMillan et al., The Confession of Isobel Gowdie et al.,
Alsop / LPO
LPO Live

MacMillan’s “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie”, Marin Alsop, LPO, LPO live

MacMillan is really always a good choice (the CD also contains Adès and the Higdon Percussion Concerto) and a good choice ahead of Pärt, Crumb, Wyner, and Sierra’s “Missa Latina”.

Best Orchestral Performance:

available at Amazon
M.Ravel, D&C,
Levine / BSO
BSO Live

Ravel’s “Daphnis & Chloé”, James Levine, BSO, BSO Live

A nod to James Levine, his Boston tenure, and the orchestra’s entry into the self-produced record label business. (About half of them available for download only, the rest exists on physical product, including this release.) Antoni Wit was beaten to the punch again; this time with his Szymanowski Symphonies 1 & 4 (Naxos). Rattle’s “Symphonie fantastique” (EMI), Gergiev’s Shostakovich (1 & 15, Mariinsky Live), and Zander’s Bruckner 5th (Telarc) were the other, none too inspired, choices.

Echo Klassik

There are so many awards handed out at the Echo Klassik, that one must ignore all the obvious industry shills, pass them without mention, and pick the quality-accidents. The recordings that are the pretense for the awards are completely unrelated to anything that might even remotely resemble “2010”… (Not mentioned, for example, are important categories such as “Bestseller of the Year”. ‘Quantity, not quality’… manifest in an award category. Nice.)

(Male) Singer of the Year:

available at Amazon
R.Schumann, "Melancholie",
Gerhaher, Huber
RCA / Sony

Christian Gerhaher. Richard Schumann, “Melancholie”, RCA

Ionarts' favorite baritone, if I had to pick one (apologies to Mr. Maltman), so no complaints here. A review of the CD for WETA is here... somewhere among these articles.)

Conductor of theYear:

available at Amazon
O.Messiaen, Orchestral Works,
Cambreling / SWR
Hänssler Classics

Sylvain Cambreling, SWR SO Baden-Baden/Freiburg. Olivier Messiaen, Complete Orchestral Works, Hänssler Classics

A nod to the most important German non-major label… much deserved in this case; among my “Best of 2008”.

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Mass in e & Motets,
Creed / SWR Vocalensemble
Hänssler Classics

Vocal Ensemble of the Year:

SWR Vocalensemble Stuttgart, Marcus Creed. Anton Bruckner, Mass in E minor, Motets, Hänssler Classics.

Another such nod, and if you go for fig-leaves, you might as well go for truly top notch performances such as this one.

available at Amazon
Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, "Without Words",
Mönkemeyer, Rimmer

Newcomer of the Year:

Niels Mönkemeyer (viola), “Ohne Worte”, Sony.

Very nice of Sony to buy their violist an Echo award in his first year with them. I’m pretty sure it would not have happened had it not been Sony, but in this case it is deserving.

To get to hand out more awards-for-purchase, the other categories (concertos, operas et al.) are split into centuries and (where applicable) instruments. Notable exceptions from the usual suspects are: Concerto Köln with Henri-Joseph Rigel Symphonies (Berlin Classics), John Elliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique with Brahms’s First (SDG), and Hermann Bäumer / SO Osnabruck with Josef Bohuslav Foerster Symphonies 1 & 2 (MDG). Also Dejan Lazic with his Rachmaninoff Second (Channel Classics), Ton Koopman with Buxtehude Organ Works (Challenge Records), the Auryn Quartet with Haydn op.1 (Tacet, review here), the Quatuor Ébène in Fauré, Ravel, Debussy (Virgin, review here), Ragna Schirmer in Handel Suites (Berlin Classics), Martin Helmchen in Schubert (Pentatone, review here)… "Best Opera, 21st Century" went to the same Billy Budd that won the Grammy.


Anonymous said...

You are right, these awards are a joke, the people in the juries are not necessarily experts in the field.
The awards are local events, and many artists receiving an award are not the best. The comments of Amazon customers often show more expertise regarding the products than the "experts".

JoshuaBavaro said...

It is a sad truth. Unfortunately, with the decline of the major record labels that could have pushed the best recordings, it is now down to the name on the cover. It is a sad reality, but who really cares? Any educated musician will know the difference. Does the award truly make a difference?

Anonymous said...

You are so right, I live in Germany and this whole ECHO thing IS a complete scam...have to agree with Gerhaher and Mönkemeyer though. This young violist is pretty big now and he does deserve any bit of it. Rather nice an ionstrument like the viola, normally so often under the shadow of the violin gets to be more well known because of people like him. At least one good decision from Sony.