Saturday, January 30, 2010

Awards Afterword

So, there you go, a year of classical recordings summarized in 70 albums. I've made it my business to hear all 14 of the winners, and in fact I've got about half of all of the albums, and as I said at the beginning, it's been a wonderful experience immersing myself in a world that previously I've only partly paid attention to. Can I come to any overall conclusions, profound or otherwise?

The first thing to reflect on is the change to my Awards since I moved from the eMusic-only perspective. Estimates from the last couple of years indicate that focusing only on that one site meant I was ignoring maybe two-thirds or even three-quarters of all releases (reissues included). So inevitably the quality of the final selection had to improve by widening the scope. But it's interesting that 7 of the 14 winners are on eMusic. As an extension of that fact, it's worth noting that 12 of the 14 winners are from the independent labels - Murray Perahia on Sony and Renée Fleming on Decca being the exceptions. In fact, only 12 of the 70 listed albums are from majors, and Opera Recital is the only category where the majors are in a majority. Harmonia Mundi made the most appearances overall, with 11 of the 70; Hyperion won 3 awards, and Harmonia Mundi and Naxos 2 each. Of course, we've known this for years - the majors may have most of the big-name stars and the attendant hype machines, but when it comes to great recordings, it's the independents who are doing the heavy lifting.

The other significant item I like to reflect on in the post-Awards glow is the general quality of the review sources. At some date soon I should post on my opinions of each of the publications, but for now it's worth considering their collective impact. It's easy to deride individual critics, or even individual publications, but the very fact that I can do these Awards things shows that, collectively, they know what they're talking about, and there can be such a thing as a general consensus. But sometimes not. Here come the statistics!
Number of albums on the long list (based on a minimum number of very good/excellent reviews): 252.
Number of these albums reviewed by all 7 sources: 39.
Number reviewed by 6 sources: 116.
Number reviewed by only 2 or 3 sources: 23.
This last figure means that about 9 percent of all albums that 2 or 3 sources said were excellent were simply not reviewed by any of the others. There may be various reasons for such neglect, but it does go to show that any given magazine or web site is pretty much guaranteed to ignore something you might love.
For each of the 7 sources, the number of long-list albums they reviewed (out of 252) was:
Gramophone 208; BBC Music 198; IRR 203; ARG 207; Fanfare 210; Classics Today 114; MusicWeb 181.
The 5 print magazines are very close together, aren't they? You can generalize this, I suppose, to state that if you rely solely on one review magazine, you'll miss out on roughly 20 percent of the good stuff. (But, looking further at the numbers, you can halve that figure if you're talking about the really good stuff).
That's quantity, what about quality? This will be a subject of another post in the near future. Suffice to say there were 11 albums that received the best possible review from one source and the worst possible review from another source. But for about two-thirds of the albums, there was a reasonable consensus on their merits.

Finally, what about the winners and losers themselves? I've spent a lot of time with these albums, listening to them, reading reviews of them, and gazing cross-eyed at their titles on a spreadsheet. Of course I have favourites, but I've done my best to keep my own opinions out of the results. Look, the whole process is subjective: the reviewers are subjective, my interpretations of the reviews are subjective, and although I use numbers and calculations to come to a final result, I'm no statistician. But, as I said, consensus can be reached a lot of the time. Furthermore, the one thing I really like about my system is that, unlike the awards in the real world, there's no jury selection to produce a short list that is then voted on. The votes here are "live", with no reviewer's hindsight and no comparing one album with another: each data point stands alone, and then they're all gathered together to produce a final result. The overall process is as close as I can get to simply summarizing my experience of all the reviews I've read over the year. If you were to do the exact same thing, you'd get a different result. But probably not very different.

Right. That's it, show's over for another year. I don't know who you are or what you want, but let me repeat my exhortation: buy these albums.
Thanks for your time and interest. Normal blog service will resume in a few days.

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