Christmas came early last month! In the space of ten days, I got four back issues of Gramophone: August, October, November, Awards! (Somehow the September issue managed to arrive in mid-October.) Pandemic postal priorities, presumably.
I’ve enjoyed reading Gramophone for years, but this year the annual Awards issue brought particular delight, because I hadn’t kept up with their customary half-year crescendo up to the actual Awards announcement. Nor had I checked out monthly Editor’s Choices. That made it more fun to discover just where my exultant thumbs-ups had synced — as they occasionally do — with the Gramophone jury’s.
Their 2020 Solo Vocal Award went to Nicky Spence and Julius Drake for a stunning take on Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared (Hyperion). It swept me off my feet late in 2019, so I wrote about it in Copper 101.
Contemporary Award winner Thomas Adès’s one-two punch for DG, Adès Conducts Adès, also resonated with me. The album features Kirill Gerstein’s two-fisted approach to a piano concerto written especially for him. It’s a bonny, brawny brawl, especially with the Boston Symphony backing him up; I wrote about it in Copper 126.
And . . . actually, that’s all, folks. Although maybe I should get two cheers for at least having Gramophone’s Recording of the Year (and Orchestral Award winner) Weinberg: Symphonies 2 & 21 (DG), on my Qobuz playlist for months; I also bought the download. These astonishingly beautiful, heartfelt performances bookend the life of a 20th-century composer still not so well-known as he should be. The City of Birmingham Symphony and, in No. 21, violinist Gidon Kremer give these works a reading unlikely to be bettered for years to come. Bravo everyone, with special kudos to new CBSO music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
And speaking of new music directors: Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been in Philadelphia since 2012, so, not that new. But in those eight years he has restored the Philadelphians to a position of highest honor in the musical world. Gramophone made them the Orchestra of the Year, including a recommendation for Philly’s most recent Rachmaninov concerto set with Daniil Trifonov. Good choice, considering the composer’s historic relationship with this orchestra. Rounding out the Rachmaninoff canon, I can also easily recommend this team’s earlier albums.
To get personal again: Orchestra of the Year is the only award Gramophone opens to its worldwide readership for consideration; our votes determine the winner. Early this year I attended an International Conductors Guild meeting in Montréal, allowing me to observe Nézet-Séguin in action with the Orchestre Métropolitain, an orchestra he has led for twenty years. Via rehearsals, informal discussions, and a sterling performance of the Mozart C-Minor Mass, he showed us how it’s done, connecting quickly, directly, and deeply with musicians and audience alike. What I saw in the frozen north made my Gramophone vote a no-brainer — I chose Philadelphia and Nézet-Séguin.
Let’s now move a few paces further from the Gramophone Awards. I wasn’t especially taken with their choice for Instrumental; others will strongly disagree with me. With respect, I’d rather plug a less-encyclopedic album that nevertheless gave me reliable, continuing pleasure this year, Vikingur Olafsson’s Debussy – Rameau for DG; I reviewed it in Copper 112. Another recital disc, with quite different music, has lately nourished me: French pianist Alexandre Kantorow’s Brahms, Bartók, Liszt (BIS).
This collection of three rhapsodies is fortified (not leavened!) by Brahms’ F-sharp-minor Sonata Op. 2, making a four-course meal of heaven-storming Romantic masterworks. Yet Kantorow’s intensity and technical command allow you to simply relax and enjoy the journey heavenward. I was particularly struck by his talent for creating multiple timbres — an entire landscape, really — placing these keyboard dramas in space as well as time. Listen to a couple of tracks and you’ll see what I’m getting at.
In 2019, at the age of 22, Kantorow became the first French pianist to win the Grand Prix of the Tchaikovsky Competition. This is his first recording since then.
The fact that Kantorow chose to record for BIS at this point in his career speaks volumes about label founder and CEO Robert von Bahr, who received a Gramophone Special Achievement Award for the unprecedented contribution he’s made since 1973. My love of BIS is quite simple: von Bahr maintains an extremely high batting average when it comes to producing music you can listen to more than once. He attracts those who want to create such recordings. I’m thinking of people like Christian Lindberg, Osmo Vänskä, Carolyn Sampson, Masaaki Suzuki, and many others. There are always BIS recordings waiting for me on my review pile (yes, I do get the physical discs, because they’re SACDs, dammit).
Speaking of Suzuki, his new recording of the St. Matthew Passion easily took the Choral Award this year. To usher in the 2021 Lenten season in February, I will survey recordings of Bach’s two great Passion settings (there is a third, sort of); for now I’ll hold off saying much about Suzuki’s contributions (he only just released a second — and extraordinary — St. John late this summer). Here and now, may I simply remind readers of Paul Moravec’s wonderful Sanctuary Road, reviewed in Copper 107 and now nominated for a 2021 Grammy? Thanks.
Moving on to the Recital Award, I’m going to throw the rulebook away and cast a renegade vote for an album released four long years ago: mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes’ remarkable Rossini collection (Aparté). Nothing against Gramophone’s choice in this category: I happen to own Sandrine Piau’s lovely collection of 19th-century French orchestral songs, part of an impressively focused catalog in this subgenre that Alpha Classics has been building. And I love Joyce DiDonato’s triumphant Agrippina, which took the Opera Award: right before NYC’s March lockdown, I wedged myself into a nosebleed seat at the Met to see Agrippina in Sir David McVicar’s production. Masterful! (Alongside Princess Joyce, they fielded a different but very strong supporting cast: see the roster at Met Opera on Demand.)
Deshayes will warm your innards on these cold winter nights to come; her passionate yet delicate way with Rossini will lighten your load, make you forget some of those mac-and-cheese-with-too-much-red-wine meals you’ve put away during quarantine. Her album includes music from La Donna del lago, Semiramide, Cenerentola, and Otello, including a marvelous scena with the "Willow Song." Oh, and Il barbiere, of course!
Finally, here's an attempt to make long-overdue amends: this December I have been playing the heck out of a 2006 recording of Handel’s Messiah in its original 1742 Dublin version. I no longer remember why I ignored it fourteen years ago — maybe I played a track or two, filed it mentally (absent-mentally-mindedly?) under okay, yet another Messiah — and stuck it on the shelf.
Except that was no “yet another”! That was phenomenal Bach scholar and organist John Butt, his A-list Dunedin Consort & Players, plus soloists every bit their equal. It won the Gramophone Choral Award in 2007. Only fitting to admit my boo-boo and celebrate them here once and for all. Happy holidays, my friends.
Header image: Itzhak Perlman won the 2020 Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award.