Occasionally I have taken this space to reply to questions that have been asked publicly and, sometimes, privately. Today I'm going to address one that, strangely, has never been asked - namely, "Why don't you pay more attention to the Grammys?"
I suppose the short answer is that perhaps I'd take them more seriously if they took the classics more seriously. But it goes deeper than that, and as far back as my very first exposure to the Grammy Awards, in 1960.As I remember, that was the contest's second year, and given some of the recordings that had been released since the last awards ceremony - things like the Solti "Das Rheingold" (Wagner) and the Beecham "Salomon" Symphonies (Haydn) - I was looking forward to the nominations. Would you believe every one of them were RCA recordings released within a few months of each other? And that the winner, announced on TV by Van Cliburn (could that possibly explain the RCA connection?), was Charles Munch's "Images pour Orchestre," which even Munch fanatics do not regard as one of the high points in his discography?
Things have gotten a little better since then. The classical awards are still accorded distinctly secondary status, but at least the nominations are a little more imaginative, last year's list being one of the most diverse ever. But with few exceptions the winners tend to be about as unexpected as a Thanksgiving turkey.
Consider this year's victors. Leonard Bernstein, arguably mightier in death than he had been in life, pulled down three trophies, one for his recording of the Ives Second Symphony (Best Classical Album), another for his Shostakovich First and Seventh (Best Orchestral Performance) and yet another, for Best Contemporary Composition, for his "Arias and Barcarolles." I'm not sure how the Best Orchestral Performance loses out to yet another orchestral performance as Best Classical Album, but at least the laurels were divided.
Best Solo Instrumental Performance ended up going to another posthumous winner, "Vladimir Horowitz - The Last Recording." Even if it hadn't been the last, chances are Horowitz would still have emerged victorious, as he has every year he has been up for the award since 1987, 1990 again being the lone exception.
Actually, in 1989 the Horowitz Grammy went to his recording of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, his first concerto recording in years, opening the way for Alicia de Larrocha to take the unaccompanied honors. His absence from the concerto category this year similarly opened the door to Itzhak Perlman, who also came away with the chamber-music award. Previously he had won - again twice - in 1988. One wonders why other performers even bother to compete.
Ditto the world of opera, where the triumvirate of "Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti in Concert" swept the academy off its collective feet. (Usually Luciano has to do this on his own, as he did in 1989.) Similarly, Best Opera Recording went to James Levine's "Das Rheingold," the latest installment in his "Ring" cycle. The first installment, his "Die Walkuere," had won the preceding year. Looking ahead, do you suppose his "Siegfried" and "Goetterdaemmerung" will stand a chance?
But that is nothing next to Robert Shaw's again winning the Best Choral Performance award for his "Belshazzar's Feast." Forget the fact that even Shaw admirers would have ranked it below his Rachmaninoff Vespers (which did, however, win the Engineering award), or that it, too, was coupled with yet another Bernstein piece - in this case two of them. What is important is that this marks the fourth year in a row a Shaw recording has taken this award and, for that matter, a Shaw/Telarc recording has taken the Engineering award. (In 1987 the latter went to - are you ready? - "Horowitz - The Studio Recordings.")
Please understand, I'm not suggesting that these are not good recordings. In many instances I've praised them myself in these very pages. Even so, when it comes time to pass out the Grammys, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences tends to sing the same old songs. If it isn't Bernstein, it's Solti (who at last count was up to 28), Horowitz (with 22) or Shaw. These may be among the great musicians of our day, but they are certainly not the only great musicians of our day, especially when some of their winning recordings (e.g., the Solti Beethoven Ninth) do not measure up to their own previous efforts.
Causing one to wonder how many of the voters have actually heard some of the recordings they cast their ballots for. I mean, did the bulk of the academy's membership honestly sit down and listen to Solti's recording of Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" when it was voted Best Opera Recording the year of its issue? Or even Shaw's "Belshazzar's Feast"?
Incidentally my spies in Atlanta inform me that that particular Grammy-winning recording has been altered since its initial release, the unauthorized choral shout I questioned at the very end having been replaced by the purely orchestral cadence indicated in the score. Does that mean Shaw will have to surrender his award, or was that the version the membership voted for?
Shades of Milli Vanilli!