Somewhere in the house I still have a little lapel button bearing the words BRAVO SOLTI. It's a treasured souvenir from the great conductor's 80th birthday party, hosted by Decca at a Knightsbridge hotel in 1992, at which the company that had hosted his whole recording career presented him with the gift of a mountain bike. It was the only time I ever met him, and then only for the briefest of handshakes. More enduring is the memory of his music-making, notably the greatest Mahler 5 I've ever heard.
A couple of months ago I went up to St John's Wood to see Lady Solti and interviewed her in her husband's studio, surrounded by Grammys, Hungarian souvenirs and an array of memorabilia from his many decades at the top of the musical tree.
Here's the first part of the results: a major article in this week's JC, offering a taste of the celebratory events that are currently swinging into action and also, I hope, giving an intimate portrait of Sir Georg, his motivation and the way his philosophy of life was underpinned by his sense of his Hungarian Jewish identity. Read the whole thing here.
Solti was principal conductor of my OH's orchestra for several years and was received by its players with widely varying degrees of devotion, of lack of it. OH, being from a whole family of outsize central European personalities, adored him - Solti reminded him of his grandmother. Others didn't know how to cope with him. Some players nicknamed him "the screaming skull". And years later, one cellist persistently threatened to run over our cat (who, as you know, is named in Sir Georg's honour).
In the article Charles Kaye, Solti's right-hand man for around 20 years, talks about how Solti would wake up every morning wanting to be better at what he did and how he could inspire an entire orchestra to follow suit. OH encountered this in one form or another many times. During one rehearsal, he says, Solti turned on the first violins and shook the nearest music stand at them. "You must play this better!" he shouted, in that famous Hungarian accent. "I pay you money if you play it better!" OH put up his hand and said: "How much?" Solti was joking, of course - but it turned out that he liked being joked at in return.
UPDATE: And by special request, here is a personal tribute:
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Much looking forward to hearing the OAE's first "Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers" concert this evening: it stars the incomparable Anna Caterina Antonacci (right) singing Gluck, Cherubini and Berlioz, with Sir Roger Norrington conducting (Royal Festival Hall, kick-off at 7pm). It got me wondering why, when Christoph Willibald von Gluck's music had such a long-range influence, we rarely hear much of it today. So I did some swotting and dropped Sir Roger a line...
Gluck’s surname means ‘Joy’ – and so does his music. Or some of it. Hear Kathleen Ferrier’s recording of the aria ‘Che faro senza Euridice’ (‘What is life to me without thee’) from Orfeo ed Euridice and the directness and depth of the music is unmistakeable: it’s pure aural gold.
Gluck was a pivotal figure in opera’s development, switching its emphasis away from the virtuosity of its singers to the core of the drama they were supposed to express. His works prepared the ground not only for the operas of Mozart, but also – many decades later – Berlioz and Wagner, who revered him. His biography was written by Alfred Einstein. Strange, then, that it is rare to hear much of his work today, beyond a few “greatest hits”.
Without Gluck (who was born in the Upper Palatinate in 1714 and died in Vienna in 1787) the history of opera would have been unrecognisable. Berlioz summed him up, writing: “He innovated in almost every field... he was gifted with an extraordinary feeling for expression and a rare understanding of the human heart, and his sole aim was to give passions a true, profound and powerful language.”
Gluck developed an antipathy to traditional baroque Italian opera seria – perhaps because he was not especially good at writing them. He enjoyed some early successes in the genre, but an attempt to establish himself in London came to a rapid and ignominious end, drawing harsh words from Handel, who famously declared that Gluck “knows no more counterpoint than my cook”.
Counterpoint was not what interested Gluck. Literature inspired him, poetry, drama and character; when an opera libretto was underpowered, so, arguably, were his results. But at his finest, Gluck reached the cutting edge of Enlightenment composition well ahead of anybody else.
Einstein made an intriguing accusation, however, suggesting that just after the success of Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, Gluck reverted to the old opera seria style he disliked for an opera entitled Ezio – possibly for the sake of a good fee. Perhaps he did. But perhaps it didn’t matter: according to Sir Roger Norrington, Gluck’s significance is deeper than just his attempts at musical revolution.
“Gluck’s influence arose from his melodic genius as much as from his reforming zeal,” he comments. “The touching honesty of his arias gives them tremendous power. I admire the way Gluck risks great simplicity in his musical methods, at a time when elaboration and show were taken to such lengths – Gluck is basically a very serious composer, but he touches the heart with the strength of his feeling.”
Gluck reached the zenith of fame via a tremendous controversy, stirred up as only Parisian high society knew how. He was the favourite composer of Marie Antoinette, who had once been his pupil in Vienna. With her help, he secured some operatic commissions in Paris in the 1770s and moved to live there. Madame du Barry, mistress of King Louis XV and no friend to his grandson’s queen-to-be, set up a direct opponent, championing a leading Italian composer of opera seria, Niccolo Piccini, and having him summoned to the French capital. Amid these musical dangerous liaisons, the city divided into passionate Gluckists and Piccini-ists, their fans even fighting duels to establish the superiority of their favourite.
Ultimately the composers fought a musical duel, both writing operas on the same subject, Iphigénie en Tauride. The result? Gluck’s quality shone through for all to hear.
Now it has a chance to do so again.
The OAE, Royal Festival Hall, 30 September, 7pm. Box office: 0844 875 0073
Saturday, September 29, 2012
Viktor Ullmann's opera The Emperor of Atlantis, written in 1943 in Terezin, is a centrepiece of English Touring Opera's new season and opens at the ROH Linbury Studio on Friday. Here's a slightly longer version of the piece I've written about it for today's Independent. Before the first performance some early evening events will include a short interview that I will give with Anita Lasker Wallfisch, cellist and survivor of Auschwitz, where Ullmann, his librettist and most others involved with the creation of this opera met their deaths.
Also, do see ETO's video about the opera:
Also, do see ETO's video about the opera:
In 1944 the Nazis released a propaganda film entitled The Führer Gives the Jews a City. Terezin, in north-west Bohemia, was the place in question: it had been turned into, supposedly, a show-camp, a smokescreen to blind the world to what was really going on in the other concentration camps. The film – an elaborate hoax – showed artistic individuals within Terezin engaging in creative activities, giving concerts and even putting on their own operas. It did not disclose the grimmer reality that more than 50,000 people were crammed into living quarters designed for 7000, where thousands were dying from starvation and disease.
Much of Prague’s Jewish population was deported to Terezin, including a number of brilliant musicians and intellectuals; and, perhaps in a terrible irony, they were indeed able to pursue their creativity with what facilities were available. But after their deaths – many of them in the gas chambers of Auschwitz – the musical achievements of Terezin’s inmates, including the composers Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa, lay forgotten for decades, until in the 1970s efforts began to be made to rediscover them.
This autumn English Touring Opera is taking up the cause of one of the most substantial works forged in these extraordinary circumstances: Ullmann’s hour-long opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis). In a new production by ETO’s artistic director and chief executive James Conway, and paired unusually with a staged Bach cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, it will be seen at the Royal Opera House for the first time (in the Linbury Studio), and will then enjoy its first-ever UK nationwide tour.
Over the past 15-20 years the composers of Terezin have started to be widely recognised, though usually their works appear in programmes themed around Terezin itself. Now Ullmann’s opera will be required to stand as a mainstream work in its own right.
The libretto is by a gifted young poet Peter Kien, who was also imprisoned in Terezin. It is a black comedy poking fun at a dictator who faces a predicament when Death goes on strike (the original title was Death Abdicates). No prizes for guessing which dictator it satirised. That makes it all the more remarkable that the work reached its dress rehearsal in 1943 before the authorities spotted the nature of its content. Once they did, the performance was cancelled, the opera was banned and those involved were put on the next transport to Auschwitz. Ullmann and Kien met their deaths there in 1944.
Before Ullmann was forced into his last train journey, he gave the opera’s manuscript to a friend, a former philosophy professor, for safekeeping. Its survival seems miraculous. Yet it was only in 1975 that it was performed for the first time, in Amsterdam. The first British production was at Morley College in 1981.
Ullmann more than deserves wider recognition. Born in 1898 in Teschen, Silesia, he was from a family of Jewish background that had converted to Catholicism; both he and his father served in World War I, and the young composer’s experiences in the conflict between Austria and Italy fed into The Emperor of Atlantis.
He became a composition student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna and later of Alexander von Zemlinsky in Prague; his repute as a conductor soon grew as well, though he was dismissed from his post at a theatre in Aussig an der Elbe for selecting repertoire that was too adventurous. Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, he established himself in Prague as writer, critic, teacher and lecturer until he was deported to Terezin in 1942. His output includes many excellent art songs and chamber music, as well as an earlier opera, Fall of the Antichrist.
James Conway of ETO first directed The Emperor of Atlantis some years ago in Ireland; he felt it produced a powerful impact. “Ullmann was a fantastic composer,” he declares, “and I think Peter Kien was a beautiful and poetic writer. The opportunities to perform operas that have a truly poetic script are few – usually in opera, the words have to serve music and narrative. Here narrative is less important, while a visionary quality is more significant, involving political, social and spiritual discussion about life and death. It’s a brilliant depiction – perhaps of aspects of Terezin, but, even more, of a state of being.”
The music is a fragmented and eclectic mix of cutting-edge contemporary style, jazz influence and pastiche: “It literally goes from Schoenberg to vaudeville in the space of two bars,” says the conductor Peter Selwyn, who is at the helm for the tour. “It has moments of extraordinary lyrical beauty. And suddenly the drums come in and you’re whisked away into a showpiece number.”
The Bach Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, has been specially orchestrated for almost the same forces that the Ullmann employs – including the saxophone, but minus the banjo – to unify the two soundworlds. “The Ullmann finishes with a chorale, so the evening will end with a mirror of the way it began,” Selwyn points out. “The Bach cantata concerns the triumph of the spirit and of humanity in the face of death and despair. And the triumph of life over death is the message of the chorale at the end of the Ullmann. That’s the message that we would like the Ullmann to have, bearing in mind the circumstances of its creation.”
“I want the evening to have a consonance about it,” says Conway. “There’s something about dying that declares the richness and integrity of life, and that declares we do not go nameless to death. That effort to take away names and histories we will resist. This opera is a beautiful testimony to the artistic lives of people at Terezin. Even though I insist that the piece has a life independent of the Terezin context, one can’t ignore it. And at the end of the piece I wish there could be applause for Ullmann, Kien and the performers who were taken and murdered before there could be a premiere.”
The Emperor of Atlantis, English Touring Opera, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, from 5 October 2012, then on national tour until 17 November. Full tour details at http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/tour-dates/autumn-2012
Friday, September 28, 2012
First of all, it was Benjamin's big day [left]. Since the BBC has moved many of its TV operations, including the Breakfast news programme, to Salford - about 200 miles away from most of the action, eg. the government, a daft decision if ever there was one - he was up north at crack of dawn to appear there. Then whisked all the way back to London just in time to be catapulted onto live Radio 4, for which The World at One was able to cover the awards since the news of them was out early. Next, into the ballroom to accept two prizes, make a couple of speeches and play two party pieces [below], and receive the goodwill of the music industry, which was his by by bucketload.
Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß', over which our host quipped "I bet they do"... Live music too from the mesmerising violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, playing the Bartok Romanian Dances in authentic Romanian Gypsy style; and Granados from Leif Ove Andsnes, who was in town to play at the RFH and came in to collect the chamber music prize, awarded to him and Christian and Tanya Tetzlaff for their glorious recording of Schumann trios. [Above, he collects his award from Danni.]
There were touching moments aplenty. Think of the filmed interview with Murray Perahia, who scooped the new Piano Prize, proving yet again why genuine musicianship cannot be trumped by anything, ever; or the turbo-charged voice of Joseph Calleja, scooping Artist of the Year. Most moving of all, though, Vaclav Talich's granddaughter came in to accept the historical recording award on his behalf: his Smetana Ma Vlast, given in concert in 1939 two months after the Wehrmacht marched into Prague and featuring a moment in which the audience spontaneously broke into singing the national anthem. There's no other moment like it on disc, said Rob Cowan.
Priceless, too, was the announcement of Record of the Year, which went to the Baroque Vocal category for Schütz's Musikalische Exequien - from the Belgian choir Vox Luminis and its director Lionel Meunier. A towering figure (literally) with a blend of charm and modesty that captured everyone's hearts as he stood, overwhelmed, by the microphone [left], Lionel explained that the whole recording was organised in his kitchen and he could hardly believe he was going to go back to his choir the next day and say "We f***ing got Record of the Year!"
Plenty of time for chat, gossip and networking in between, natch: a chance to clink glasses with some and say "Better times ahead?" and others to say "Bravi", and others still to reflect on the growing parallels between two of our greatest tenors now, Calleja and Kaufmann (who pre-recorded a thank-you speech for the Fidelio recording with Abbado and Nina Stemme that took the opera prize) and, respectively, force-of-nature Pavarotti and deep-thinking, dark-toned Domingo.
Among my most interesting encounters was a discussion with a critic who'd come in from the pop culture world to see what it was all about. He was furious. Why? Because, he says, there's all this incredible music, yet it's somehow been sectioned off and the world at large never gets to hear it! The decision-makers in the British media don't include it as part of culture in general, and they should. It's been ghettoised. And not through any fault of its own - millions of people love it when they have the chance. Why keep it out of the mainstream with some cack-handed inverted snobbery that says the general public isn't capable of appreciating it?
One more Gramophone needle: here's the line-up of winners for the final group photo.
That's right, they're all blokes.
Violinist Isabelle Faust won the concerto category, to be fair-ish; Tanya Tetzlaff features in the chamber music, and Nina Stemme in Fidelio, but the latter scarcely got a mention while everyone was drooling over Jonas's speech and adulating Claudio Abbado who won the Lifetime Achievement award. The two women who collected awards did so on others' behalf: Talich's granddaughter and Perahia's wife.
Of course, there's a strong feeling that these awards are for musical achievement alone and gender balance shouldn't matter. In an ideal world, yes, fine. But this isn't one. Given the number of world-class female musicians on the circuit at present, how is it possible that only one-and-two-bits were among the winners of so many major awards?
I still have the feeling that to be fully recognised as a woman musician, you must work five times as hard as the men and look perfect as well. There's an unfortunate double-bind in the music industry: those charged with selling the artists via image doll up the women as sex symbols, only for a fair number of critics to succumb at once, consciously or otherwise, to the prejudice that "they're being sold on their looks, so they can't be any good". This isn't the way it ought to be.
I begrudge none of these marvellous male musicians their prizes: each and every one was fully deserved. Yet is it now time to introduce an alternative industry award, like the erstwhile-Orange Prize for Fiction, to boost the wider recognition of female classical musicians on the strength of their artistry, not their looks? Sad to say, but the answer is yes.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Off to the RealLifePoshPlace (as opposed to the JDCMB Cyberposhplace) for a day of celebration and suspense as the Gramophone Awards are announced...oh wait... No suspense, except for Record of the Year. A press release has just plopped into the in-box telling us all the others. Which you'd think kind of defeats the purpose of having the entire UK music business sit in the Dorchester all day...
But there's some really wonderful news: Benjamin Grosvenor has won both Young Artist of the Year and Instrumental, in the latter category pipping to the post no lesser personages than Stephen Hough and Paul Lewis. That definitely requires something bubbly.
Right now I'm busy putting on a smart dress and a bit o' slap, so I'm going to post the press release. Stand by for the full inside report on the goings-on after the event and follow on Twitter at #GramoAwards. I may tweet now and then if I have any reception on the fruityphone.
GRAMOPHONE AWARDS 2012 - THE “OSCARS OF CLASSICAL MUSIC”
· Benjamin Grosvenor becomes youngest artist to achieve double-Award win
· Joseph Calleja voted ‘Artist of the Year’
· Claudio Abbado honoured with ‘Lifetime Achievement’ Award
· Murray Perahia wins new ‘Piano Award’
· Naïve crowned ‘Label of the Year’
· ‘Recording of the Year’ to be revealed later today
The Gramophone Awards – the world’s most influential classical music prizes – are announced today at London’s Dorchester Hotel in a ceremony co-hosted by two of classical music’s hottest properties: composer and conductor – and professional model – Eric Whitacre, and Danielle de Niese, described by The New York Times as “opera’s coolest soprano”.
James Jolly, Editor-in-Chief of Gramophone said:
“With more than 750 new recordings of phenomenal range and quality under consideration for the 2012 Gramophone Awards, coming up with the shortlists and winners has been challenging, but extremely enjoyable. This is an extremely exciting and vibrant time for classical music and the winners announced today represent the best of the best, where the best is a very rich feast indeed.”
The Gramophone Awards 2012, now in their 35th year, are presented in association with Steinway & Sons and EFG International.
The most coveted prize, ‘Recording of the Year’, will be revealed during today’s ceremony and announced this afternoon.
Crowning a magnificent year that saw him become both the youngest soloist to open the BBC Proms and the youngest pianist ever to be signed by Decca, Benjamin Grosvenor now becomes Gramophone’s youngest double-Award winner. He is named Young Artist of the Year and wins the Best Instrumental category for his debut disc of music by Ravel, Chopin and Liszt on Decca. The 20-year-old from Southend-on-Sea has been highly praised for his poetic expression and virtuosity, and this double accolade from Gramophone is another noteworthy badge of honour in his rise to international acclaim.
Joseph Calleja is named Gramophone’s Artist of the Year in the only Award decided by public vote. It rounds off an incredible year for the Maltese tenor, described by Gramophone as “a tenor of uncommon distinction, whose elegance and sense of style are second to none on the operatic stage today.” From performing at the Last Night of the Proms to reaching No. 1 in the Danish pop charts Calleja is now established as a regular at all the leading opera houses in the world, including the Royal Opera House and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Joseph reaches out to a wide public who respond as much to his open and charming personality as his voice. His latest album ‘Be My Love,’ a tribute to Mario Lanza, became an instant best-seller.
“His vision has left an imprint on every orchestra in Europe” says fellow conductor Daniel Harding, of this year’s Lifetime Achievement winner, Claudio Abbado. Abbado conducts the best orchestras, yet devotes much of his time to nurturing young talent, as founder and music director of the Youth Orchestra of the European Union and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, as well as artistic director of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and founder and principal conductor of both the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Italy’s Orchestra Mozart. He has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon since 1967, amassing a discography that includes the entire symphonic works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Ravel and more than 20 complete opera recordings.
A new prize for 2012, The Piano Award, goes to one of today’s most respected musicians, Murray Perahia. Gramophone has long celebrated Perahia’s exceptional sensibility, lyricism and naturalness, but in the year that Perahia celebrates 40 years of recording for Sony Classical and its forerunner CBS Masterworks, Gramophone pays special tribute to this exceptional pianist. In addition to the Award, Gramophone has produced a digital magazine that gathers together every Perahia review it has ever published.
Superbly produced, gorgeously packaged recordings of artistic vision and integrity from musicians of the highest calibre, symbolises naïve - Gramophone’s 2012 Label of the Year. Naïve’s artist roster is rich and impressive, from Jordi Savall, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Marc Minkowski with his Musiciens du Louvre, to Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Bertrand Chamayou and Francesco Piemontesi. The label looks set to leave a legacy with its ground-breaking Vivaldi Edition, one of the most ambitious recording projects ever undertaken. Now in its twelfth year, the unprecedented Vivaldi Edition captures on record the entire collection of autograph manuscripts by the composer preserved in Turin’s Biblioteca Nazionale, making up some 450 works and unearthing never-before-heard works along the way.
A special Historic Reissue Award honours an extraordinary 1939 live recording of Smetana’s Má vlast by the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Talich. The extraordinary recording, issued by Supraphon, captures a spontaneous outburst of the Czech national anthem by the audience, symbolising the burning presence of Czech patriotism in a German-occupied Prague.
Winners were also announced across the 15 album categories (see below).
Gramophone has been producing a series of podcasts supporting the Awards at www.gramophone.co.uk and during the month of August, nearly 50,000 were downloaded. Gramophone has also formed retail partnerships with Amazon, i-Tunes and many of the UK’s specialist retailers. iTunes is offering a free sampler featuring Award-winning recordings at www.itunes.com/gramawards.
Gramophone’s Awards issue is published on Friday 28 September with full information about the Awards and winners.
The Baroque Instrumental category acknowledges the remarkable level of musicianship that has built on decades of scholarship to create one of the most dynamic areas of the current music scene. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is one of the most thrilling ensembles around today, and wins a Gramophone Award for the second year in a row. Gramophone says: “It’s hard to imagine an eminent Baroque ensemble more temperamentally suited to the esprit of Bach’s four orchestral essays than the Freiburgers.”
Along with its Instrumental sister category, Baroque Vocal is one of the most dynamic areas of music-making today and this winner is impeccably performed, recorded and presented. Lionel Meunier and Vox Luminis’s release of Schütz’s Musicalische Exequien “embodies everything a Recording of the Year should be,” according to Gramophone. Schütz’s Baroque masterpiece, which inspired Brahms for his German Requiem, is performed by a vocal ensemble “over-endowed with impressive individual turns.”
Making music with friends is one of the most rewarding pursuits anyone – amateur or professional – can do, and this category allows music lovers to glimpse musicians – most decidedly professional and at the top of their game – getting together and performing in intimate surroundings. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes – no stranger to the Gramophone Awards – teams up with his regular musical partners Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff in Schumann's music for piano to create what Gramophone describes as “a remarkable achievement.”
Stephen Layton – nominated twice in this category this year – is one of the few choirmasters to work both within the Oxbridge choir tradition (as music director at Trinity College, Cambridge) and outside it (as the director of Polyphony and a much-sought-after guest by many top-league choirs). With his Cambridge choir, he here celebrates one of English music's most appealing composers, Herbert Howells, in a recording described by Gramophone as “a perfect disc of its kind.”
Isabelle Faust, a former Gramophone Young Artist of the Year, returns to the Awards in some very distinguished company, Orchestra Mozart and Claudio Abbado. Here Beethoven is intriguingly coupled with Berg in concerto performances described by Gramophone as “models of artistic and human discipline, meticulously probing Berg’s and Beethoven’s intentions but conveying also a sense that such peaks of human achievement are something you assume from within, not take by force from without.”
Rautavaara’s magnificent, highly contrasting percussion and cello concertos make for a sensational release. Performed with “coruscating virtuosity” by percussionist Colin Currie and with cellist Truls Mørk “caressing out the subtleties” in the cello concerto, Ondine vividly sets the seal on this superb Contemporary Award-winner. The soloists are supported by John Storgårds – going from strength to strength on the podium – and the excellent Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
'Music makes a City', a film made by Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler, tells the scarcely believable, but inspiring, story of the Louisville Orchestra from Kentucky and its belief that new music was the answer to creating wealth and power for the city following the Great Depression and crippling floods there in 1937. The list of composers who were commissioned by the Orchestra reads like a roll-call of 20th-century greats and the film includes interviews with the senior generation of American musicians, from the centenarian Elliott Carter to the near-nonagenarian Ned Rorem. A compelling and beautiful documentary.
Honouring great musical performance on film, the winning performance “takes a special, even unique, band of musicians and friends who (we can see) love what they do, making chamber music on the grandest scale.” Claudio Abbado revitalised the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, bringing back to life an ensemble that had first performed in 1938 under Toscanini's baton. Though a part-time group, the orchestra is comprised of some of the finest musicians in Europe, many of them soloists, gathered around a 'core' of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. They are now one of the world's finest orchestras and performances of Bruckner don't get much more compelling than this.
The Early Music category has become a showcase of the glorious polyphonic choral music written before 1600, which has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Tomás Luis de Victoria was celebrated in 2011, the 400th anniversary of his birth, and this 10-disc set of around 90 works emerged as a truly stunning tribute to this Renaissance Spanish master. “It is just deeply human and emotional music that [Ensemble Plus Ultra and Michael Noone] perform not only with great tenderness but so simply that one is struck every time – as if for the first time – by its crystalline, uncomplicated beauty.”
The Historic category, reserved for recordings making their first appearance as a commercial release, has put the spotlight on extraordinary treasures and this previously unissued recording of Chopin’s Etudes by Maurizio Pollini is no exception. It was made shortly after the teenage Pollini won the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1960, but became the first in a long line of recordings not to be sanctioned by the notoriously highly strung pianist. As the pianist turned 70 his early thoughts on these works was warmly welcomed by Gramophone, which said: “It is surely astonishing that Pollini could reject his early superfine brilliance, his aristocratic musicianship, his patrician ideal in the Chopin Etudes.”
Gramophone’s Young Artist of the Year also scoops the Award for Best Instrumental with his album of Chopin, Liszt and Ravel. Full of “coltish exuberance” and a “subtle brand of bravura,” according to reviewer Rob Cowan, Grosvenor’s virtuosity and dexterity are clear, but it is in Liszt’s En rêve that his artistry paints the most beautifully subtle canvas. Grosvenor’s debut disc on Decca topped the specialist classical charts for several weeks.
Claudio Abbado's Fidelio, caught live with his superb Lucerne Festival Orchestra in the pit in 2010, also finds two of today's finest dramatic singers in the central roles: Nina Stemme, today's leading Isolde, and Jonas Kaufmann, today's most accomplished dramatic tenor. Gramophone says: “If Fidelio speaks as no other opera does of the miraculous resilience of the human spirit, Claudio Abbado’s late re-creation of it serves only to compound that miracle.”
In what is traditionally one of the most hotly contested categories and sparring ground of today's major conductors and orchestras, Jiři Bělohlávek triumphs with this superb set of the Martinů symphonies recorded live at the Barbican in 2009/10 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Gramophone critic Mike Ashman firmly dismisses talk of “the grace and elegance of Bělohlávek’s conducting” in these colourfully scored wartime works – though that is clearly there – and highlights “the pain and stress” they often depict which is “superbly realised here”.
A superb collection of 18th-century arias written for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni from leading British countertenor Iestyn Davies. Reputedly a “wild and careless singer” when he first came to London, Guadagni’s untapped potential was soon identified and nurtured by Handel, who went on to write some of his finest arias for him. He was so famous that Horace Walpole named a racehorse after him and he was Gluck’s first Orfeo, but it has taken surprisingly long for someone to produce an intelligently chosen and stylishly performed recital exploring his career and Iestyn Davies has done just that.
Reactions to this disc’s concept and programme – as well as the sepia soldier on the cover – can be predicted: Simon Keenlyside is more often nominated for the Awards for opera productions, but here he debuts in the Solo Vocal category – a cleverly compiled collection of war songs (predominantly British with a few American additions). “A peak achievement for both, Malcolm Martineau plays superbly and Keenlyside brings a huge dramatic range to these powerful songs by Butterworth, Finzi, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Kurt Weill and others by pointing out that war celebrates life as well as confronting death.”
The annual Gramophone Awards, the world’s most influential classical music prizes, given this year in association with Steinway & sons and EFG International, were launched in 1977 by Gramophone magazine (founded in 1923 by Sir Compton Mackenzie). Available internationally, Gramophone publishes bespoke editions of the magazine for the United States of America, Russia and Brazil. The Gramophone Player, available at gramophone.co.uk, will feature excerpts from all of this year’s prize-winning albums. The media player - the first from a classical music magazine - features full-length recordings, podcasts, an extensive editor’s choice section and a selection of new recordings each month. Subscribers are free to stream as much music as they wish.
Gramophone has been producing a series of podcasts supporting the Awards at www.gramophone.co.uk and during the month of August nearly 50,000 were downloaded.
Gramophone has also formed retail partnerships with Amazon, iTunes and many of the UK’s specialist retailers. iTunes is offering a free sampler featuring Award-winning recordings at www.itunes.com/gramawards.
Gramophone’s Awards issue is published on Friday 28 September with full information about the Awards and Award winners.