The discussion of the nominees for the 58th GRAMMY awards on this site could probably be approached as a textbook example of the almost-lost art of damning with faint praise. (The art has pretty much been lost because Google cannot recognize when irony is being applied.) Perhaps even the GRAMMY folks realized that this was a weak year, since their home page lacks any direct link to the results page, which is actually just the Web page for the nominees updated with an icon of the award next to the winner.
Still, if the tone of the examination of the nominees was basically “it’s not all bad,” the reaction to the winners reflects greater disappointment. Yes, it was nice to see Judith Sherman get recognition as Classical Producer Of The Year (category 73), since she was responsible for the wonderfully imaginative album by pianist Anthony de Mare, Liaisons – Re-Imagining Sondheim From The Piano, as well as Ursula Oppens’ recording of Frederick Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” Nevertheless, her overall track record of the year pales in comparison to the breadth and depth of the recordings that Manfred Eicher produced for his ECM New Series. When it comes to providing stimulating experiences for serious listeners, Eicher is still leader of the pack.
The only other point of agreement with the GRAMMY judges was also one of faint praise. To object to the Best Classical Solo Vocal Album (category 79) going to Joyce & Tony – Live From Wigmore Hall might be seen by some as the moral equivalent of kicking a puppy; but, to push that metaphor a bit further, the repertoire for this live recital recording goes way beyond the “cute puppy” genre. Joyce DiDonato is a class act in the senses of both of those nouns in that she always seems to find just the right dramatic stance to take in any selection she performs and her stance always seems to rise above the ordinary. The performance itself may have been planned as an “entertainment” in the midst of a busy concert season; but that qualification never diminished the quality of performance.
Nevertheless, personal opinion still holds that the harmonia mundi recording of tenor Mark Padmore accompanied by Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano was probably the most substantive nominee in the competition. This was bold programming on the part of the performers. They took the three “icons” of the “First Viennese School,” Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven, and presented what is probably the least known portion of their respective catalogs.
This is also an album in which the contribution of the accompanist provides as much interest as that of the vocalist. (This should not be a surprise considering the comfort zones of the respective composers.) Perhaps the GRAMMY judges feel that category 79 should be “all about the vocalist;” but the repertoire for unaccompanied vocalist is very sparse. Vocal music is all about partnership, and the partnership of Padmore and Bezuidenhout made a strong case that lack of familiarity with their selections deserved to be remedied.
Of course it is unclear to what extent GRAMMY decisions are based on listening, at least as it is practiced by those who take attending the performance of music seriously. As those who read yesterday’s article on this site about future Music Directors for the Ojai Music Festival probably observed, GRAMMY credentials may not count for very much in the domains of classical and jazz. Far more credible acknowledgement comes from the British publication Gramophone. Curiously the 2015 awards did not receive the same attention they garnered in previous years, which may be a disappointing sign for giving credit where credit is due.