An Honor Just to Be Nominated

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Like many of my fellow music writers, I’m not a fan of the Grammys, especially when it comes to classical music.

For a ridiculous number of awards categories, there are still a bizarre amount of oversights, and the recent cuts to the classical genre (such as the elimination of the Best Classical Album category) are about as nonsensical as the rest of the awards process. In spite of some head-scratching changes, this first year with the award’s truncated classical category is still disappointingly predictable in many ways, with jarring omissions despite many worthy inclusions.

The cut-off date for this year’s qualification was Sept. 30, 2011, meaning that a disc like René Pape’s Wagner recital will have to wait for the 2013 Grammys, but Measha Brueggergosman’s Night and Dreams, released last October, would have qualified had it not been snubbed.

Chief among the opera-related laurels is the still-surviving Best Opera Recording category, this year featuring three DVDs among the five nominees—the Met’s Doctor Atomic, Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd and the Royal Opera House’s La Traviata. It’s a coup for contemporary opera, particularly as Einojuhani Rautavaara’s early work, Kaivos (winningly recorded by Ondine) is also one of the five. In fact, this coupled with the fifth nominee—an insightful performance of Vivaldi’s Ercole Sul Termondonte featuring a star-studded cast for Virgin Classics—is what the opera Grammys should be about more than anything else: Works that are new, or made new, to the listener's ears.

If the nonclassical Grammy nominations all contain new music never before heard, why do so many of the classical nominations feature works that have been nominated year after year? I love Traviata as much as the next guy, and the Opus Arte DVD features some fine work from Thomas Hampson and Joseph Calleja. But how precisely does one measure the worth of this oft-recorded warhorse against a world premiere recording (Kaivos) or a comparative rarity like Billy Budd (which brings into the spotlight one of my favorite contemporary tenors, Jacques Imbrailo)? It's especially perplexing when you consider that many of the singers on this DVD have recorded the opera in whole or in part for other recent recordings.

And what of the other qualifying opera recordings of 2011, from the Met’s vibrant Don Pasquale with Anna Netrebko and John Del Carlo to Decca’s striking Fidelio to the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin's Der Fliegende Holländer for Pentatone? And, not that I’m complaining about my beloved Rautavaara garnering Grammy attention, but could we have looked at Ondine’s spellbinding DVD of his more recent Aleksis Kivi over Kaivos? For that matter, do DVDs hold any special edge over their CD counterparts, accounting for the spontaneity of live performance and full visual effect?

Far more exciting this year is the Classical Vocal Solo category, headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato’s sumptuous Diva Divo recital album that cunningly paired trouser and skirt roles for mezzo from operas on similar themes: Siébel from Gounod’s Faust, for example, is paired with the mezzo role of Marguerite from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. Scandinavia gets further support in Marianne Beate Kielland’s Veslemøy synsk, juxtaposing works by Grieg with those by Olav Anton Thommsessen. Tenor Ian Bostridge showed off his vocal prowess and intellectual rigor on The Three Baroque Tenors, a recital disc that burned on all cylinders.

It’s hard to qualify (or quantify) a year’s worth of recordings. We live in over-saturated times, as my ever-expanding iTunes library will attest. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Independent labels like New Amsterdam Records have been picking up where the titans of the industry fall short, presenting an increasingly well-rounded portrait of the music currently being made. What’s more, it’s fantastic to see these discs nominated alongside their Decca-caliber counterparts. But, in looking at the lists of nominated albums each year, I can’t help but wonder how it all looks to a newcomer to the genre. And, if indeed a recording like Natalie Dessay’s Cleopatra is expected now to hold its own against Adele for best album of the year, is that ultimately helping or hurting our team? 

Do you buy recordings based off of Grammy nominations? Leave your thoughts on the award in the comments below.