Rewarding a great recording isn’t the same as rewarding a great performance, which is why the Gramophone Awards exist
You may already know which recordings will be applauded at the 40th Gramophone Awards next week, and if you don’t there’s a full list here. The process that produced those winners is long but actually quite simple. Gramophone’s reviewers get a free vote across two rounds: the first a filtering of all the best-reviewed recordings of the year (including discs reviewers might have nominated as wildcards); the second a ranking of six discs in each category, the top three of which are named winner and runners-up.
Getting full access to the top six recordings in our chosen voting categories (it is possible to opt in and out according to preference) is a privilege and a pleasure. It’s also a responsibility, and one in which – as in any journalistic process – the purpose of the exercise must be to some extent override personal taste. A Wagner nut may well enjoy listening to a ‘decent enough’ recording of Tristan more than he or she will enjoy listening to an ‘outstanding’ recording of Vivaldi recorder concertos. The ability to recognise that the Vivaldi recording is potentially a more worthy winner (in that hypothetical scenario) is at the heart of the process.
But for me, the real fascination in that process is linked to Gramophone’s entire raison d'être as a magazine: namely, what makes a truly worthy recording? I don’t necessarily mean a ‘Great Recording’ as in Du Pré’s Elgar Cello Concerto or Solti’s Ring Cycle, because the distinction is somewhat different. Yes, everyone at Gramophone subscribes to the central truth that each epoch delivers new views of the greatest masterpieces and that sometimes, one of those views is strong enough to be captured with adequate skill to yield a truly significant and satisfying recording. But as the classical corner of the record industry reacts to the state of cultural and technological flux in which we find ourselves, it’s increasingly apparent that an Award-worthy recording doesn’t necessarily have to come from an artist with visionary things to say about Bach or Mozart (although, in 2017, both Murray Perahia and Isabelle Faust did).
Take, for example, one of Faust’s fellow nominees in the Concerto category – one I placed higher than Faust in my personal ranking. Danny Driver, Rebecca Miller and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s recording of piano concertos by Beach, Chaminade and Howell was in many respects the more fascinating candidate even though it didn’t actually win. We got unfamiliar, complementary, high-quality repertoire played with skill and commitment while the whole was excellently recorded. Does that make it more worthy enterprise than Faust’s Mozart concertos recording? No individual can answer that question definitively, hence the vote. I trust my colleagues enough to accept that, in this case, Faust’s ‘looking beyond the notes’ (David Threasher’s original review) deserved the gong and rejoice in the fact that Driver and Miller’s disc lies proudly alongside it. The verdict also sent me straight back to listen to Faust.
One vote in which I appear to have been in accord with the majority was in the Chamber category. Here we find perhaps the best example of the idea that the finest performance doesn’t automatically make for the most worthy recording. I reviewed the nomination from the Danish String Quartet when it was originally issued and can say, hands down, that in 20th- and 21st-century repertoire this ensemble is superlative whether you’re looking for thrills or technique (its not bad in Haydn either). But the winning recording, the complete string quartets of Grażyna Bacewicz, gave many of us a chance to hear wonderful music (‘essential listening’, for Richard Bratby) that we had never heard before, and in performances that were clearly a labour of love. It was, in that sense, more of a gift to the record shelves than any other disc in its category, despite the fact that the Danish String Quartet’s performances are, to my ears, more ‘impressive’.
Finally, let’s consider what happened last year in the Contemporary category. The winner was not Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle let me tell you – it was a recording of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you. The difference, of course, is in that particular performance from Barbara Hannigan and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons – its capturing or ‘bottling’. And in the fact that the recorded product was judged against other contemporary-themed albums released that year (in compositional terms alone, Abrahamsen’s score won just about every prize going anyway).
That point is reinforced by this year’s winner in the Contemporary category: a potpourri of Ligeti, Murail and Benjamin united by Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s fingers, George Benjamin’s baton and a lot more besides. For me, it was the journey of this disc rather than any individual piece that made it the winner. That journey is something a well-curated CD or album can still conjure up, as does Renaud Capuçon’s assembly of three contemporary violin concertos that was a runner-up in the same category. In that disc, Capuçon made an illuminating album out of three very different contemporary scores. That can tell us at least as much about the art of recording as his performances can.