Sunday, January 30, 2011

This is what you like

With all my attention focused on the Moulus, Sainsburys, Rorems et al of the Nereffid's Guide Awards, I completely neglected the final arbiter of taste in classical music, Classic FM's Ultimate Hall of Fame. Wait a second, how can you present the ultimate Hall of Fame while at the same time announcing that voting is now open for the next one? Don't they know the derivation of "ultimate"? Oh well, I suppose not everyone understands Latin like me. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, as I always say.
So what they've done here is they've got the 15 annual Halls of Fame and melded them into a single one. I've actually been doing the same thing myself for years, scoring each year's chart from 300 to 1 and then adding up the year-on-year scores for each piece. I presume they did it the exact same way, because they've come up with essentially the same result as me (a few differences exist, I think because initially they allowed 2 parts of one work to appear separately, such as Holst's Mars and Jupiter, for example).
You will be bowled over to learn that Rachmaninov's Piano concerto no.2 is the favourite piece of music of Classic FM listeners, followed by Mozart's Clarinet concerto, Bruch's Violin concerto no.1, RVW's Lark, and Elgar's Cello concerto. The most popular living composer is, of course, Karl Jenkins; the most popular dead one is Mozart.
The polls are open: you have until February 11 to help contribute to a shock victory for Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet.

Aaarr Liszt lad!

In this week's listening queue is a Liszt recital by Lilya Zilberstein, first released by DG but purchased by me in its Australian Eloquence rerelease. Yes, this is Liszt year and I'm making an effort. But we're not here to talk about the music. What I want to know is, what on Earth was Chilu Tong, credited in the booklet with "art direction", thinking by having this image for the cover?

Is there a connection between Franz Liszt and pirates? I'm halfway through Alan Walker's 3-volume biography and I haven't come across one yet, though I suppose Liszt's piano playing style meant he shivered quite a few timbers in his day.
More worrying are the potential consequences of this picture for the music industry. I mean, if you like the disc, you'll subconsciously create positive associations between music and piracy. That's not what they want, is it?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Another word about review sources

When I was doing the thrilling statistical analysis of last year's Nereffid's Guide Awards I noticed that each of the 5 print publications I consult would review roughly 80 percent of all albums that overall the critics deemed "very good" or better. A pretty good record but it shows that the buyer who relies on any single magazine for their information about what's worth buying risks being unaware of a lot of good stuff.
This year I changed how I collate the information so such facts are not to hand. But just looking at the 70 albums that appeared in the Awards tells me this: Gramophone reviewed 66 of them, which was the best coverage. Or, to put it another way, Gramophone missed 4 of them. IRR missed 7, Fanfare missed 9, and BBC Music Magazine and ARG each missed 10. MusicWeb missed 18, and Classics Today missed 30.
Then again, there's another way to look at how useful each of the sources is. According to my rough tally, Gramophone awarded an Editor's Choice or a Gramophone Recommends, or very high praise without one of those accolades, to roughly 400 albums in the period covered (the October 2009 to January 2011 issues). BBC Music Magazine gave 5 for performance or a Choice accolade to about the same number. IRR gave high praise to about 570, ARG to roughly 1,000, and Fanfare to roughly 1,400. The numbers for Classics Today and MusicWeb were, respectively, about 400 and about 1,400. Part of those figures relates, of course, to how many albums each source reviews. But some also relates to whether the source operates some sort of ratings system - in the absence of ratings, my "grading" of any given review probably errs on the side of praise. And to my mind Fanfare and MusicWeb, the ones that appear to dish out the most praise, do come across as the two sources that in their language and editorial style radiate the most enthusiasm for recorded music.
Which I hope is something being generated by these here Awards, too.

8tracks mix: Awards 2010, part I

Here's the first of six planned mixes covering all the winners and runners-up from this year's Nereffid's Guide Awards. This one covers the Medieval/Renaissance, Baroque Instrumental, and Baroque Vocal categories. Your first listen, before it becomes randomized, follows the order of albums as they're listed in the blog entries below.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Swelling passion! Generalized haziness!

There wouldn't be a Nereffid's Guide Awards if there wasn't such a thing as a critical consensus, but sometimes a spanner gets thrown into the works.

For instance, successive pages of the May/June 2010 issue of Fanfare present rather contrasting viewpoints on one of the runner-up albums, Valery Gergiev's second recording of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. This is "a superlative performance", according to Christopher Abbott. Or, as Arthur Lintgen puts it, "there is almost nothing right about this recording". The thing is, "He seems to be totally lost in lengthy, lyrical passages like the Balcony Scene". Ah, but... "Gergiev handles the shift in emphasis from masculine to feminine with grace, humor, and finally, swooning, swelling passion". OK, so, that means...? "Believe it or not, this is mediocre, even dull, from beginning to end". I see. So what's the sound quality like? "The characteristically dry acoustic of the Barbican doesn’t interfere with the sumptuousness of Prokofiev’s orchestration; that same dryness aids the more acerbic nature of some of the scoring as well as providing clarity to the instrumental detailing; there is also no lack of atmosphere and depth in the sound". No - wait - "The sonics are best described as being soft-centered. There is a generalized haziness with a conspicuous lack of presence in the high frequencies. Sharp transients sound diffuse and seriously suppressed. This totally negates the effect of Prokofiev’s outstanding scoring for percussion. The overall softness of the sound seriously mitigates the music’s many dynamic contrasts".

Argh! Now I'm confused. Think I'll listen to some Rachmaninov instead, such as this recording of the Symphonic Dances, Isle of the Dead, and The Rock from Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO. After all, Classics Today gave it 10/10 ("you'd be hard pressed to find demonstrably superior versions of any of these pieces gathered together on a single disc.") and MusicWeb named it a Recording of the Month ("
Buy this one – now! I doubt you’ll regret it and I hope it will excite you as much as it has excited me."). But wait, who's this leaping up and down waving a red flag? It's Fanfare's Richard A. Kaplan! "perhaps I must ask, as Charles Ives famously did, "Are my ears on wrong?" This CD displays a conductor who thinks it is his privilege to disregard, if not rewrite, practically every performance direction in the score... I don’t know whether young pianists and conductors are being taught these days that interpretive arbitrariness and self-indulgence are musical virtues... but I’m certainly not about to encourage them here".

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nereffid's Guide Awards 2010: Classical Albums of the Year

Welcome to the 4th annual Nereffid's Guide Awards, revealing the best-reviewed classical albums of the year. Yay!

These Awards first came to life as a by-product of my efforts to keep track of all the classical CD reviews I'd been reading. For the first 2 years they were focused on albums that were available on eMusic, but last year I expanded the process to cover all labels. The Awards reflect not my opinion but the general consensus from several review sources: the print publications Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, International Record Review, American Record Guide, and Fanfare and the web sites Classics Today and MusicWeb International. This year, additional reviews come from 3 other sites: Classics Today France, Klassik Heute, and Audiophile Audition. Over the past year I've been noting all the albums that have received high praise from one or more of these sources, then I've collated all the findings and compared them using a magic formula that may or may not have some sort of statistical validity.

The result: 1 winner and 4 runners-up in each of 14 categories. Scroll down the page to see each award in turn, or click on these links to jump to the relevant post:
Medieval & Renaissance
Baroque - Instrumental
Baroque - Vocal
Solo Instrumental
Solo Vocal
Opera Recital
Living Composer - Instrumental
Living Composer - Vocal

In the near future I'll post some sort of rambling gibberish in which I try to make sense of what the results mean for the future of humanity, plus a bunch of 8tracks mixes. At the moment all I shall do is applaud again the musicians, record labels, and composers who have given such great listening pleasure over the past year, and exhort all you good people out there to go buy as many of these albums as you can.

Awards 2010: Medieval & Renaissance

Moulu: Missa Missus est Gabriel angelus; Missa Alma redemptoris mater
Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice


Let's give the first critical words of these Awards to Classics Today's David Vernier, who notes "It's not easy to find the name Pierre Moulu mentioned in the music history books--and indeed this new recording claims to be the first devoted to his works". These are "sensitively balanced, tonally ravishing performances" of music whose "long melodic lines, perfectly integrated with magnificently constructed delayed-resolution harmonic progressions, and the clearly defined textures recall not only Gombert but later contemporary English composer Robert Parsons--but no matter the associations, the music is prodigiously affecting and extraordinarily well-made". In International Record Review, Ivan Moody remarks "The Brabant Ensemble's vibrant sound is ideal for this music. Rice is careful never to allow the upper voices to dominate, with the result that the polyphonic workings of all these pieces are clearly audible, something rather rarer than one might think".
The Brabant Ensemble wins ahead of two releases from The Cardinall's Musick, including the final volume of their Byrd series, as well as another of Jordi Savall's music/history productions and a disc from last year's award winners Stile Antico.

Guerrero: Missa Congratulamini mihi, etc. The Cardinall's Musick/Andrew Carwood [Hyperion]
Byrd: "Infelix ego". The Cardinall's Musick/Andrew Carwood [Hyperion]
"The Forgotten Kingdom: The Albigensian Crusade". Hespérion XXI; La Capella Reial de Catalunya/Jordi Savall [Alia Vox]
Sheppard: "Media vita". Stile Antico [Harmonia Mundi]

Awards 2010: Baroque - Instrumental

Handel: Concerti Grossi op.6
Avison Ensemble/Pavlo Beznosiuk

There have been a few recordings of this music in recent years, but Fanfare's Ron Salemi unequivocally states "These discs go to the top of my list of recommended recordings of these essential works", remarking that "Pavlo Beznosiuk’s performances have a vitality and vigor that set them apart from the others... Some, maybe all, of these works may be overfamiliar to devoted Handelians, but Beznosiuk will make even the most jaded listener hear these works with renewed interest". David Vernier on Classics Today was even more enthusiastic: "We can cite individual players for their impressive effort, but when virtually everyone is performing at such a high level it doesn't seem appropriate--this is definitely a triumph of ensemble performance, where everyone is a master of the medium and the material, all of which is beautifully realized by the stunningly realistic, resoundingly vibrant sound engineering. By now you've got the picture: Essential!"
As it happens, another recording by The Avison Ensemble - of harpsichord sonatas by Charles Avison - almost made it to the list of runners-up. Instead we see more Handel, from last year's Award winners; Andreas Staier playing Bach; trios attributed to one or other of the Graun brothers; and violin concertos by little-known Italian composers on the cusp of the Classical period.

Handel: Trio sonatas op.2 & 5. Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr [Harmonia Mundi]
Bach: Goldberg variations. Andreas Staier [Harmonia Mundi]
JG & CH Graun: Trios for 2 violins & basso. Les Amis de Phillippe [CPO]
"Concerto Italiano". Giuliano Carmignola; Venice Baroque Orchestra/Andrea Marcon [Archiv]

Awards 2010: Baroque - Vocal

"Rosso - Italian baroque arias"
Patricia Petibon; Venice Baroque Orchestra/Andrea Marcon

Brian Wilson on MusicWeb remarks "If I have to find one thing to criticise, it must be the title and the spatter of 'blood' on the back of the booklet and on the insert". Well, Brian, you don't have to find something to criticise, so let's instead focus on the opening words of your Recording of the Month review: "This could have been a very short review, indeed, could even have taken less time to type than the contents listing: everything here - repertoire, singing, orchestral support, direction, presentation, generous playing time and recording quality - is a thorough delight". Meanwhile in American Record Guide, John W Barker describes Patricia Petibon as "a singer of extraordinary artistry. Her voice is attractive, with a wide range that is clear and utterly controlled at all levels. Above all, she has remarkable temperament, turning each of her 14 selections into dramatic and emotional events, full of unashamed expression. She can bend phrases and calculate inflections with great imagination. And there are some unusually good embellishments... Marcon leads his ensemble into the cauldron with the singer, matching her in intense support". Oh... wait... "The reason for calling this program "Rosso" (red or blush?) is not made clear". For goodness' sake people! It's not like she called the album "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy".
Patricia Petibon saw off competition from 2 other operatic spectaculars - Cecilia Bartoli's exploration of the castrato repertoire and Simone Kermes's perfectly explicably titled "Lava", as well as a Bach disc from Masaaki Suzuki that doesn't have cantatas on it and some obscure repertoire from Prague.

Bach: Motets. Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki [BIS]
"Sacrificium". Cecilia Bartoli; Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini [Decca]
"Lava: Opera arias from 18th century Napoli". Simone Kermes; Le Musiche Nove/Claudio Osele [Deutsche Harmonia Mundi]
Jacob: Missa Dei Filii & other choral works, plus music by Rathgeber. Capella Regia Praha/Robert Hugo [Supraphon]

Awards 2010: Solo Instrumental

"Transformation" - music by Stravinsky, D Scarlatti, Brahms, Ravel
Yuja Wang

"Altogether one of the most stimulating recitals I've heard this year", according to Calum MacDonald in BBC Music Magazine, who notes "keen, speculative intelligence... in many aspects of her playing, complemented by a fairly staggering technique". "Time was", Bryce Morrison reminisces in Gramophone, "when many celebrated pianists quailed before certain works... Yuja Wang makes light of even the fiercest complexity... This entire recital leaves you in no doubt that at 23 Yuja Wang is already among the most brilliantly gifted of today's pianists". Jeremy Siepmann in International Record Review goes perhaps a bit further: "she is already a great artist - a perfectly stunning virtuoso, a poet (both lyric and epic), a dramatist, a painter, an acoustical lighting engineer of astonishing skill and imagination - and self-evidently a thinker... this is one of the most remarkable and illuminating piano recordings ever to come my way".
The runners-up in this category include last year's Concerto Award winner, Danny Driver, with another York Bowen disc, as well as the final installment of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's Debussy series (which has also featured among the runners-up in 2009 and 2008), a volume of Imogen Cooper's Schubert, and - proving that the piano is not the only instrument - James Ehnes's second recording of the Paganini Caprices.

Schubert: "Live, volume 2". Imogen Cooper [Avie]
Bowen: Piano sonatas. Danny Driver [Hyperion]
Debussy: Piano music volume 5. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet [Chandos]
Paganini: 24 Caprices. James Ehnes [Onyx]

Awards 2010: Chamber

"Salzburg" - music for 2 pianos by Brahms, Rachmaninov, Schubert & Ravel
Martha Argerich; Nelson Freire

Superlatives abound! Fanfare's Patrick Rucker: "splendid... commanding... exquisite... luxurious... kaleidoscopic... dynamic, extroverted, and occasionally explosive". He concludes with "Music-making by two pianists simply doesn't get better than this". American Record Guide's James Harrington calls it "a must have for music lovers everywhere", while for Jed Distler on Classics Today "This release defines piano heaven on earth". You need further persuading? Nigel Simeone in International Record Review says "quite frankly, this is one of the most thrilling piano records I've heard for quite a while".
Actually the runners-up turned out to be pretty good too, with performances from the well-established Emerson and Takács Quartets and next-big-things the Pavel Haas Quartet as well as the first installment of a Beethoven sonata set from 2 more up-and-coming artists.

Beethoven: Violin sonatas volume 1. Alina Ibragimova; Cédric Tiberghien [Wigmore Hall Live]
Dvorák: "Old World, New World". Emerson Quartet [DG]
Prokofiev: String quartets. Pavel Haas Quartet [Supraphon]
Schumann: String quartet no.3; Piano quintet. Marc-André Hamelin; Takács Quartet [Hyperion]

Awards 2010: Concerto

Sainsbury: Violin concerto / Haydn Wood: Violin concerto
Lorraine McAslan; BBC Concert Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth, Gavin Sutherland

One of the great things about these awards is that occasionally the spotlight will fall on an album that's not especially high profile - in this case, two little-known composers, artists that don't appear on front covers, and indeed a label that while respected does occupy something of a niche. Perhaps there were other more likely winners, but this was the one that, on balance, garnered the most praise. Rob Barnett on MusicWeb called Sainsbury's 1989 concerto "a treasurable and magnificent work which loses nothing by being written in an idiom listeners will quickly recognise", while Haydn Wood's concerto is "delightful". In American Record Guide, Mark L Lehman goes all poetic: "This is music to sink into, music that will make you breathe deeper and remember with fond regret the misspent days of your long-ago youth. Looking back never goes out of fashion. It's built into the shape of our lives; we are creatures of memory and longing, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"". (Let me Google that for you: it's from The Great Gatsby).
From a compiler's point of view, this was an intriguing category, as several potential winners were hobbled by one negative vote from somewhere. Some of them may well feature in a future edition of "Did you even listen to the same CD?"

Beethoven, Britten: Violin concertos. Janine Jansen; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, London Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi [Decca]
Tchaikovsky: Piano concertos nos.1-3. Stephen Hough; Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä [Hyperion]
Prokofiev: Piano concertos nos.2, 3. Freddy Kempf; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton [BIS]
Martinu: Piano concertos nos.2, 4. Robert Kolinsky; Sinfonieorchester Basel/Vladimir Ashkenazy [Ondine]

Awards 2010: Symphony

Mahler: Symphony no.2, 'Resurrection'
Yvonne Kenny; Jard van Nes; London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus/Klaus Tennstedt

A somewhat tricky category, this one, as sometimes there may be a distinction between "a symphony disc" and "a disc with a symphony on it". I give myself sleepless nights. The basic rule is that the album should have a symphony as its "featured item", even if half the album is dedicated to other music. And you may argue that a recording made in 1989 shouldn't be included in what is ostensibly a celebration of new albums. Ah well - this is the recording's first release and it's not old enough to be called "historic", is it? John Quinn on MusicWeb says "On CD the performance is thrilling but it must have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those in the hall. If you want a "safe" library choice for Mahler's Second Symphony you should look elsewhere, for this is highly personal". IRR's Ian Julier describes it as "Another Tennstedt miracle... he inspires a cosmic reading that takes the listener on a compelling journey of ever-increasing shock, awe and revelation". Julier too notes that "He will not be to everyone's tastes", though it must be said that the reviews were very much on the positive side. "In the last five minutes of this recording", Brian Buerkle opines in American Record Guide, "Tennstedt aims at transcendence and gets it".
Vasily Petrenko won the Symphony Award last year for a pair of Shostakovich works, and he shows up among the runners-up this year, along with the 2008 winner, Stéphane Denève, who brings us more Roussel. Two English symphonists - Kenneth Leighton and Stanley Bate - round out the list, a clean sweep for U.K. orchestras in fact.

Shostakovich: Symphony no.8. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko [Naxos]
Leighton: Symphony no.1; Piano concerto no.3. BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins [Chandos]
Bate: Symphony no.3 / Music by Arnell & Chisholm. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates [Dutton]
Roussel: Symphony no.1, etc. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève [Naxos]

Awards 2010: Orchestral

Gershwin: "Gershwin by Grofé - Original orchestrations & arrangements"
Lincoln Mayorga; Al Gallodoro; Harmonie Ensemble New York/Steven Richman
Harmonia Mundi

David Hurwitz on Classics Today calls our winner "a wonderful disc in every respect", while John Quinn on MusicWeb says "I think we have something rather special here", not least because of the presence of clarinettist/saxophonist Al Gallodoro, who started playing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1936 - and indeed his opening solo on Rhapsody in Blue comes partly from a 1938 recording! Ronald E Grames in Fanfare describes the album as "an absolutely terrific program, one that does full justice to a repertoire too often abused... [Lincoln Mayorga] certainly knows how to swing, something others who assay this literature may talk about, but few come close to achieving". Brian Reinhart, in a second review on MusicWeb, says "It has been my favorite Gershwin album since I heard the first five minutes... It is one of that tiny handful of records which actually makes life seem sunnier, which actually makes me a happier person".
Several of the tracks on this album are "songs without words", whereas a couple of our runners-up have in fact got significant vocal contributions - Sandrine Piau takes on Britten's Les Illuminations and the Villa-Lobos disc features both a choir and a soloist. Nothin' but orchestra, though, for Prokofiev and the less-well-known Uuno Klami.

Britten: "Unknown Britten". various soloists; Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair [NMC]
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet. London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev [LSO Live]
Klami: Northern Lights; Cheremissian Fantasy; Kalevala Suite. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgards [Ondine]
Villa-Lobos: Forest of the Amazon. Anna Korondi; Saõ Paulo Symphony Orchestra & Choir/John Neschling [BIS]

Awards 2010: Solo Vocal

Mahler: Lieder
Christian Gerhaher; Gerold Huber

In Mahler year, a second win for a Mahler album. "Mahler song recitals with piano, especially those featuring two of the sets better known in their orchestral clothing, are rare enough", says Hugh Canning in International Record Review, "but Christian Gerhaher's new recording strikes me as one of the finest ever committed to disc... I have to say that I - an almost unqualified admirer of F-D in Lieder - prefer Gerhaher... What really sets this collection apart from most Lieder recordings today is the empathetic partnership between Gerhaher and his regular Liederabend partner Gerold Huber, a pianist of the first order, who almost makes one forget Mahler's rich orchestrations". (F-D, for those of you not familiar with famous-baritone shorthand, is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). Robert A Moore in American Record Guide warns "Don't be put off by the unkempt, snarling, scruffy physiognomy you see as Gerhaher's visual persona". OK... "The sheer sound of his voice alone is intoxicating; it is round, warm, and limpd. His pitch control is spot-on, and his elegant legato phrasing is supported by astonishing breath control. There is nothing not to like about his voice".
Two more baritones appear among the runners-up - Gerald Finley and Matthias Goerne - along with tenor Yann Beuron; female voices get a look-in in the form of 2 of the 4 vocal contributors to Harmonia Mundi's Schumann album.

Schubert: "Heliopolis". Matthias Goerne; Ingo Metzmacher [Harmonia Mundi]
Fauré: Mélodies. Yann Beuron; Billy Eidi [Timpani]
Schumann: Spanische Liebeslieder, etc. Marlis Petersen; Anke Vondung; Werner Güra; Konrad Jarnot; Christoph Berner & Camillo Radicke [Harmonia Mundi]
Britten: Songs & Proverbs of William Blake, etc. Gerald Finley; Julius Drake [Hyperion]

Awards 2010: Choral

Martin: Golgotha
soloists; Cappella Amsterdam; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Reuss
Harmonia Mundi

For some reason Choral proved to be one of the weaker categories this year, not so much because of the quality of the contenders but simply because these albums didn't end up with many of the usual top accolades. A look at just the final scores might suggest that no recording quite caught the critics' imagination in the same way as in other categories, but that said, there was plenty of appreciation for the winner, a recording of a work that Gramophone's Malcolm Riley called "one of the most important choral works of the 20th century". Describing this as "A revelatory recording", Riley predicts that it "will many new devotees" to the work. Meanwhile in American Record Guide, Lindsay Koob reveals "A long-standing wish of mine has come true: I now have the chance to cover a truly outstanding recording of Frank Martin's towering oratorio", going on to say that "You simply can't imagine how utterly holy this music is until you've heard it. And if you haven't heard it, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better, more utterly profound or convincing account of this music than this".
Perhaps unusually, the runners-up include an explicitly Christmassy disc - fare that tends to be glossed over in seasonal round-ups. The rest of the albums come from such disparate figures as Herbert Howells, Kurt Weill, and Rued Langgaard.

Howells: "St John's Magnificat". Choir of St John's College, Cambridge/Andrew Netsingha [Chandos]
"Das Berliner Requiem" - music of Weill, Hindemith, Stravinsky & Milhaud. I Solisti del Vento; Flemish Radio Choir/Paul Hillier [Glossa]
Langgaard: Music of the Spheres, etc. Danish National Symphony Orchestra & choirs/Thomas Dausgaard [Dacapo]
"In terra pax". City of London Choir; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton [Naxos]

Awards 2010: Opera

Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Katarina Dalayman, et al; choirs; Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder


As usual my worries that in the Opera category we might not have 5 contenders proved unfounded. Plenty of praise indeed for the winner: In BBC Music Magazine, Michael Scott Rohan described it as "a beautifully paced performance - measured, poetic but dynamic. The orchestra responds superbly... This rendition might please both Solti and Furtwängler admirers, and provides a keen alternative to either". "Right from the start", Colin Clarke said in Fanfare, "Mark Elder’s shaping of the Introduction sets the standard. The Hallé’s strings glow, painting a radiant yet primordial world. The recording itself is spacious yet detailed. The Hallé plays magnificently, easily the equal of its more illustrious rivals... This is a magnificent achievement, the jewel in the crown of the Hallé’s own record label". On Classics Today, Jed Distler said this performance "easily stands among the work's three or four finest on disc".
I suppose the fact that this and the other Wagner recording on the list are both live performances says something about the current state of opera recordings, as does the considerable obscurity of the other contenders (OK, Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos isn't that obscure, but this one's in English).

Wagner: Parsifal. Gary Lehman, et al; Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev [Mariinsky]
Sullivan: Ivanhoe. Toby Spence, et al; BBC National Orchestra of Wales/David Lloyd-Jones [Chandos]
Strauss: Ariadne on Naxos. Christine Brewer, et al; Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Richard Armstrong [Chandos]
Leoncavallo: I Medici. Plácido Domingo, et al;
Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Alberto Veronesi [DG]

Awards 2010: Opera Recital

Rossini: "Colbran, the Muse"
Joyce DiDonato; Orchestra dell' Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma/Edoardo Muller

Joyce DiDonato's turn in Rossini's Barber at Covent Garden has of course added new meaning to the term "original cast", but this is her tribute to Isabella Colbran, for whom Rossini wrote many parts. (and eventually married). "Joyce DiDonato becomes more interesting and more of a complete artist with each performance and recording", according to Robert Levine on Classics Today. "Even though we are living in a time of great coloratura mezzos (Bartoli, Genaux), DiDonato still stands out... Just to get it out of the way, let me say that DiDonato's technique is flawless, her runs impeccable, the tone always even, her control over dynamics ideal". On MusicWeb, Robert J Farr says "I sense [this recital] is one of those rare ones which will be looked back on in years to come as setting standards in this repertoire", while in BBC Music Magazine Christopher Cook remarks "Every generation yearns for its own Rossini heroine and Joyce DiDonato seems an answer to our prayers".
Gerald Finley makes his second appearance in this year's runners-up with his Opera in English showcase; as in the Opera category, Christine Brewer offers some Strauss; Elīna Garanča goes Hispanic; and Manfred Huss and the Haydn Sinfonietta Wien - last year's Orchestral winners - give us more Haydn in the form of some arias.

"Great operatic arias". Gerald Finley; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner [Chandos]
Haydn: Opera at Esterháza. Bernard Richter, et al; Haydn Sinfonietta Wien/Manfred Huss [BIS]
"Habanera". Elīna Garanča; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI/Karel Mark Chichon [DG]
Strauss: Great scenes. Christine Brewer; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles [Telarc]

Awards 2010: Living composer - Instrumental

Hamelin: Études & other piano works
Marc-André Hamelin


And this is the Recording of the Year. In Gramophone, Jed Distler jokingly laments "all of us composer/ pianists have no choice but to go out of business". It's "A cause for celebration", according to Peter J Rabinowitz in IRR: "Hamelin the composer has the same kind of tact and imagination that Hamelin the pianist does... there's so much harmonic and contrapuntal interest in these works, so much sheer joie de vivre, such evident love for the instrument and its history, and such consistent wit... that even music lovers who disdain virtuoso excess are likely to be seduced". On MusicWeb, Dan Morgan remarks "In an age dominated by self-aggrandising performers it’s always a pleasure to hear artists who wear their virtuosity so lightly. There is much to savour, so many strands woven into works of skill and substance. Marry that with lucid, self-deprecating liner-notes and top-notch sound and you have one of the finest piano records of the year". James Harrington in American Record Guide says "All told, this disc and its score would be my first choice to take back in time and give to Liszt to show him how far piano technique advanced in the 150 years or so since his time. I cannot imagine that the old master would not initially be dumbfounded, and after closer review, smile and nod with an all-knowing look that conveyed he fully understood the magnitude of Hamelin's accomplishment".
Hamelin is, at 49, the youngest of the 5 composers featured here: Henri Dutilleux was born in 1916, Einojuhani Rautavaara in 1928, Aulis Sallinen in 1935, and Christopher Rouse in 1949. Which means nothing much except that "Living composer" can cover quite a broad range; after all, Dutilleux wrote his Piano sonata before either Rouse or Hamelin were born.

Rouse: Symphony no.2; Flute concerto. Sharon Bezaly; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert [BIS]
Dutilleux: "D'ombre et de silence" - piano music. Robert Levin [ECM New Series]
Sallinen: Symphony no.6; Cello concerto. Jan-Erik Gustafsson; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Ari Rasilainen [CPO]
Rautavaara: Before the Icons; A Tapestry of Life. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam [Ondine]

Awards 2010: Living composer - Vocal

Rorem: "On an echoing road"
The Prince Consort

Ned Rorem, we are informed by Raymond S Tuttle in International Record Review, "has composed more than 600 songs over more than six decades... His taste in poets is excellent... [his] songs sound just as natural as the poems sound when they are simply spoken - in both senses of 'simply'! There are never too many notes; the music fits the texts like a second skin". This collection "is one of the most elegant releases of recent memory", says Philip Greenfield in American Record Guide. "Musical elements are delectably in balance every step of the way; youthful, attractive voices, and poetic but superbly controlled piano accompaniments at the service of an art-song composer whose melodic phrases talk through the words of a poem with Astaire-like balance and control... the sound places you in the middle of a salon with singers surrounding you with songs they truly love. How do you turn that down?"
Here we have solo voices plus piano, while our runners-up comprise two choral collections and a pair of operas - one conducted by the conductor of last year's Recording of the Year, Marin Alsop.

MacMillan: The Sacrifice. Christopher Purves, et al; Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Anthony Negus [Chandos]
Briggs: Mass for Notre Dame & other choral works. Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Stephen Layton [Hyperion]
Adams: Nixon in China. Robert Orth, et al; Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop [Naxos]
Rautavaara: Choral works. Schola Cantorum of Oxford/James Burton [Hyperion]