It happens every year in numerous classical and jazz magazines: the End-of-Year picks for Best In Show. Best Performance by a Chamber Group from a Balkan Country. Best Recording by a Pianist Playing With a Zither. Best Opera Recording (is the award for the opera or the performance? or both?). Best Jazz Performance by a Group Larger Than a Trio Yet Smaller Than a Breadbox. Best Jazz Vocal Recording. Blah, blah, blah. In some publications, each reviewer is asked to whip up a list of recordings they would desperately want if they didn’t already have them or choose which ones from the year they’d take to a desert island.
But the Art Music Lounge holds its head up high. No phony-baloney awards, recommendations, desert island lists or best-in-show selections here. Why?
Several reasons, really. First of all, everyone’s taste is different. If I happen to think, for instance, that a vocal recital by a singer doing modern and avant-garde music is better than one by a singer performing standard repertoire, how is that going to sit with you? If you have a proclivity towards out-of-center material, probably pretty well; but if you don’t, you’re going to be ticked off, the same way I am when Gramophone or BBC Classics picks a new recording of the Beethoven 7th or Puccini’s Tosca as a top recording of the year. I like the Beethoven 7th, but for crying out loud, what’s in this new recording that makes it so special? Does it top every Beethoven 7th recorded since Felix Weingartner first laid it down on wax in 1923? Somehow I doubt it.
Second of all, and probably more importantly, such awards—and the recordings that receive them—are ephemeral. How many of you can remember, without Googling it, what the Grammy-winning jazz or classical recording from 1983 was? Or 1991? Or five years ago? Yeah, that’s what I thought. And if you do remember, did you buy that recording because it won a Grammy? And if you bought it, do you still have it in your collection? I think you see where this is headed.
I look back on the voluminous pile of reviews I’ve written over the decades and see quite a few for recordings that, at the time of listening, really tickled my fancy. I gave them rave reviews. But then I look through my catalog of records I own and see that I didn’t even keep half of them. And those were my OWN recommendations of things I liked! And in their place are—are you ready for this?—recordings I discovered on my own, without being sent a copy for review. Things I heard on Freegal, YouTube, Spotify or the Naxos Music Library. Recordings or composers I didn’t even know existed at the time I raved about so-and-so. There were also a lot of recordings of new material that I absolutely loved at the time I auditioned them, like the music of Jane Cornish, which when I went back and listened to it made little or no impression on me. There were also older composers, like Johann Joseph Fux, whose stuff I thought was the bee’s knees that I now scratch my head and ask myself, What on earth was I thinking of?
A third reason for not giving out awards is that I am aware that many of them handed out by the slick magazines are politically or financially motivated. The artist received the award because he or she was old and getting up in years, had never gotten an award before, so it was their turn. Sometimes the decision is gender or race-influenced, which to me is worse. And in many cases, the awards are governed by which artists made the most money over the year, clicked with the general public, and/or spent the most on advertising in that magazine.
So we will not set a precedent on this blog by awarding anyone anything. Just read through all of my reviews for the year and make your own decision based on what your tastes are. I would, however, like to mention in passing that I personally think the recordings of Claude Debussy’s Edgar Allan Poe operas, completed by Robert Orledge, are of surpassing and lasting interest because 1) Debussy was a major composer, 2) Orledge knows his style better than anyone else now living, and 3) the performances are first-rate. But that is just my opinion, and I won’t use that to proclaim it a Record of the Year. It’s just a recording of works I find fascinating and extremely well-written, representing the music of a composer I greatly admire, and unlikely to be re-recorded any time soon.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley