The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column
The 2022 Gramophone Awards
5th October 2022
5th October 2022
As with similar awards systems in other fields, the commercial aspect is undeniable: category winners, including the coveted ‘Record of the Year’ award, are guaranteed to boost sales of the relevant titles, often lifting releases that might otherwise have slipped under the radar to huge prominence. When in 1981 a group of early music specialists recorded ecclesiastical sequences by a 12th-century German abbess for the recently launched Hyperion label, few classical devotees would have noticed. Yet Gothic Voices’ spellbinding ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’, featuring texts and music by Hildegard of Bingen, scooped the Early Music (Medieval) Gramophone Award for 1982/83. It went on to register huge sales while simultaneously raising the profile of composer, performers (including soprano Emma Kirkby) and label, the latter now respected as one of the leading independent UK classical imprints.
The Gramophone Awards’ early years were dominated by opera: the top slot went to, among others, Karajan’s recording of Wagner’s Parsifal (1981), two instalments of Mackerras’s Janáček opera cycle on Decca – Káťa Kabanová (1977) and From the House of the Dead (1980) – and Abbado’s star-studded account of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims (1986). All these are now regarded as classic recordings, reflecting the fact – did audiences realise it at the time? – that music was witnessing a kind of late ‘golden age’ of opera performances, with all three of those conductors having learned their craft in the orchestra pit.
Over time, more of a balance between categories has been achieved (with the occasional emergence of new categories, as well as special awards such as Lifetime Achievement, Label of the Year). British music has featured prominently, though not to the extent of parochialism, and a nicely judged equilibrium has been found between familiar and more obscure, often neglected repertoire, between the popular and the challenging. This in turn has undoubtedly led many labels to back projects that might otherwise have escaped the microphone, like Davitt Moroney's engrossing recording of the complete keyboard works of William Byrd (2000).
There have, undoubtedly, been industry favourites over the years – Alfred Brendel in the 1980s, for instance, Murray Perahia in the 1990s and 2000s, not to mention Krystian Zimerman and Stephen Hough. But many other artists have come to prominence in part thanks to their acclaimed efforts in the studio, including such now-established artists as the Pavel Haas Quartet, Vox Luminis, the Dunedin Consort and soprano Fatma Said, all of them Gramophone Award recipients.
This year’s Gramophone Awards, just announced, maintain the same fine balancing act between core repertoire and more adventurous fare, between recording veterans (in terms of experience, we stress, not age!) and relative newcomers, between big multi-national imprints, independents and new labels. Thus, a new account of Beethoven’s staggering Diabelli Variations from Mitsuko Uchida on Decca (winner in the Piano category) rubs shoulders with Eugène Ysaÿe’s unaccompanied violin sonatas (enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years) performed by James Ehnes on the Onyx label (Instrumental). The French Erato label (part of the Warner group) continues to excel at themed albums: ‘’round midnight’ from the Quatuor Ébène features music by Dutilleux, Schoenberg and the group’s own violist Raphaël Merlin, winning the Chamber award, while Michael Spyres’s album ‘BariTenor’ covers an array of tenor, baritone and in-between arias (French, German, Italian…) ranging from Mozart, Méhul and Spontini to Ravel and Orff (Voice & Ensemble).
Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, who blew us away recently in the title role of Janáček’s Jenůfa, further demonstrates her peerless stature in the Slavic repertoire with ‘Dissonance’, a disc of Rachmaninov songs with pianist Lukas Geniušas for the Alpha label and a worthy winner in the Song category. It’s good to see Raphaël Pichon’s recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion with his Pygmalion ensemble – which we praised on its release for its ‘careful shaping of lines, a fine sense of balance and proportion, care over dynamics and articulation, and judicious employment of rhetorical gestures’ – win the Choral award. Last year was a big anniversary for Josquin Desprez: the quincentenary of his death. Among the many recordings honouring him, Gramophone have singled ‘Baisiez moy’, out a marvellous selection of songs and motets from the Thélème ensemble under Jean-Christophe Groffe (with judicious and enticing addition of ondes Martenot, Fender Rhodes and Buchla synthesiser!) on the Aparte label as their Early Music winner.
The most striking feature of the Gramophone Awards this year, however, is the presence of no fewer than three titles (out of just four released so far!) from the newly-launched Bayerische Staatsoper own label. This is something of a coup, and speaks volumes for the high artistic and production values of the team at the Bavarian State Opera and Staatsorchester. Hans Abrahamsen’s The Snow Queen (his first opera) wins the Contemporary spot, with a cast including Barbara Hannigan, Rachael Wilson and Katarina Dalayman under the baton of Cornelius Meister (DVD and Blu-ray). Mahler’s Seventh Symphony from the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Kirill Petrenko – in our view ‘one of the most urgently involving recent additions to the Mahler discography’ – deservedly won in the Orchestral category; it’s an especially impressive feat given the Seventh’s reputation as the composer’s most elusive and problematic symphony.
Back in January we picked Erich Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt, with a Bavarian State Opera cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen, again under the baton of Kirill Petrenko, as Europadisc’s 2021 Disc of the Year. It impressed us not just for the sheer quality of the glorious singing, playing and conducting, but for director Simon Stone’s challenging yet sensitive updating of the action, embracing a variety of cultural references in a quest to bring Korngold’s disturbing questions to bear on modern audiences. Now, this handsome production (available in both DVD and Blu-ray formats) has been announced not just as the winner of Gramophone’s Opera category, but as its overall Recording of the Year. It’s a spectacular triumph for one of Europe’s most venerable opera houses and its superb artistic team, but also for the latest addition to the growing number of in-house labels. And for Korngold’s opera itself, with its heady late-Romantic score and probing Symbolist questions refashioned for a fragile post-World War I society, it’s a huge accolade, likely to enhance its classic status. Our congratulations (once again) to all involved!
For full details of all the 2022 Gramophone Award winners, visit our dedicated page:
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