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The Classical Grammys: Hope for the Future

Although classical CD sales slumped last year, the classical nominations for the 43rd Grammy awards remain fiercely competitive. The major labels did best, led by EMI with ten, DG with six, and Telarc and Sony with five apiece. Archiv and Teldec had three each; Naïve Astrée, Hyperion, Delos, Hänssler, Philips, Decca and RCA had two apiece; and Erato, Reference Recordings, Bridge, ECM, New World, Harmonia Mundi France, Chandos and Ondine had one nomination each (the complete list is online starting at http://www.grammy.com/awards/field25.html).

As usual with awards that attempt to be all things to all people, the nominations range promiscuously across time and space.

Four operas from the 20th century — Alban Berg’s Wozzeck conducted by Ingo Metzmacher (EMI), Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd conducted by Richard Hickox (Chandos), Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust conducted by Kent Nagano (Erato) and Sergei Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko conducted by Valery Gergiev (Philips) — compete against one from the 18th — Jean Philippe Rameau’s Dardanus conducted by Marc Minkowski (Archiv).

Four Johann Sebastian Bach CDs — Helmuth Rilling’s Christmas Oratorio (Hänssler), John Eliot Gardiner’s Easter Cantatas (Archiv), Martin Pearlman’s Mass in B Minor (Telarc) and Philippe Herreweghe’s St. Matthew Passion (Harmonia Mundi France) — compete in the Best Choral Performance category against one Krzysztof Penderecki CD, the Oregon Bach Festival’s recording of the Polish composer's 1998 Credo (Hänssler).

Marc-André Hamelin, Michael Collins, Leif Ove Andsnes, Joshua Bell and Arcadi Volodos cover an equally wide territory in their attempts to win Best Instrumental Soloist With Orchestra: Concertos by Busoni (Hyperion), Elliott Carter (DG), Haydn (EMI), Nicholas Maw (Sony) and Rachmaninoff (Sony).

In the case of Best Small Ensemble, Jordi Savall’s Spanish early music band Hespèrion XXI playing music of the Diaspora (AliaVox) is pitted against Members of the Berlin Philharmonic playing Hindemith (EMI), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra playing Stravinsky (DG), 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic playing South American lollipops (EMI) and the original-instrument Musica Antiqua Köln playing Telemann (Archiv).

Only the nominations for Best Classical Contemporary manage to remain within the confines of one century: George Crumb’s Star-Child (Bridge), Heiner Goebbels’ Surrogate Cities (ECM), Maw’s Violin Concerto (Sony), Ned Rorem’s Evidence of Things Not Seen (New World) and Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto Cantabile (EMI).

My personal favorites are:

Best Orchestral Performance

Daniel Barenboim’s commanding musical blueprint of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (Teldec) is brought to life by a stupendous recording and the superbly muscular yet sensitive Berliner Staatskapelle, who contribute moments of startling individual illumination. Although the orchestra’s hammering timpani, velvety deep strings and growling brass recall Barenboim’s idol Wilhelm Furtwängler, Barenboim’s decisive interpretations evoke the less incandescent but no less authoritative Otto Klemperer.

Best Opera Recording

Minkowski’s sublimely sexy, colorfully thrilling performance of Dardanus (Archiv) features a glorious international cast, superb orchestral playing and razor-sharp sound. The opera’s story line, with its mythological gods, sea monsters and dream grottos, may be devoid of much dramatic relevance to those not steeped in the classics, but it’s nectar to those who find the profound passions of Bach and the engaging operas of Handel tame. Only the spectacular Philips recording of Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko beats it as an unusual repertoire item.

Best Choral Performance

Philippe Herreweghe’s compelling performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (Harmonia Mundi France), featuring Ian Bostridge as a painfully beautiful Evangelist and Franz-Josef Selig as a deeply eloquent Jesus, has a uniquely swinging lyricism that almost makes Bach out to be a spiritual hedonist. The performance is accompanied by The Birth of the Saint Matthew Passion, an absorbing, interactive CD-ROM drilling down into Bach’s life and music that points ahead to the Web-based voyages that will eventually take over this branch of music appreciation.

Best Small Ensemble Performance

On the concept album Diáspora Sefardí, Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XXI and the incomparable soprano Montserrat Figueras bridge the centuries with a unique blend of scholarship and musical sorcery. Their 2-CD set captures the creative vitality and emotional impact of the Sephardic Diaspora after 1492, fusing Jewish, Christian, Moslem and other Mediterranean cultures in a dazzling musical display that Savall’s magnificent forces were meant to sing and play. An added plus: Paloma Díaz-Mas’s excellent liner notes are translated into French, English, Spanish, German, Italian and Hebrew from the original Catalan.

Best-Engineered Album

Benefiting noticeably from 24-bit HDCD technology, San Francisco-based Reference Recordings’ Minnesota Orchestra concert of orchestral showpieces is a staggering example of American symphonic virtuosity at its best. Conductor Eiji Oue’s Bolero does not drip with sexuality, but it builds a riveting crescendo of volume until the jarring final bars bring the CD to a close. On HDCD-equipped CD players, the sense of concert hall size, dynamic impact, spatial depth and instrumental detail is almost cosmic (luckily, it also sounds great on conventional CD players). The release further benefits from Richard Freed’s instructive, entertaining liner notes.

Producer of the Year

ECM’s Manfred Eicher has used his musical passion and business smarts to create a label with artistic credibility and influence from progressive jazz to New Age, from the hard edges of new classical music to the sophisticated corners of the mainstream. A prime example of Eicher’s ability to explore repertoire without compromising integrity is a program of viola vehicles on which Kim Kashkashian produces the definitive recording of Bartók’s Viola Concerto, visits magical spaces in Peter Eötvös’s Replica and finds late Beethoven in György Kurtág’s Movement. Eicher is also cited for tenor John Potter’s John Dowland recital, Heiner Goebbels’ Best Contemporary Composition nominee, intellectual Schubert from András Schiff and Yuuko Shiokawa and a program of music by the Estonian Veljo Tormis.

The winners will be announced on February 21.

In a recent New York Times editorial concerning jazz and classical sales, Nonesuch Records president Robert Hurwitz comments: “The battle between art and commerce has been part of the record business since it began. Some see the solution as marketing, trying to predict the public taste, trying to ease the audience into music. But in forms of music that are not dependent on widespread and instant public acceptance, there needs to be more trust in a public that has historically shown it will find its way.”

Hurwitz’s optimism may not be reflected in current sales of classical recordings. But clearly it is reflected in the quality and variety of this year’s nominations.

Laurence Vittes



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