The Grammy nominations give critics a chance to sympathize with irate concert-goers who regularly write to editors, "I can't believe I was at the same concert last night . . ." Anyone who listened conscientiously to a cross-section of the year's new recordings is not likely to find the few efforts that showed deep artistic commitment or broke ground musically among the Grammy nominees.
The problem lies in the differences between recordings and performances. A recording is, above all, a commercial undertaking. For example, the music from the 1984 film Amadeus was not aimed at advancing the understanding of Mozart's music or at offering a flash of musical revelation. The Amadeus recording sold vigorously because of the film and became important for its success in the world of sales, and, by extension, a Grammy winner.
A successful recording that contains a perceptive performance is a happy accident. That happy accident is one of an infinite number of possibilities, valuable, perhaps, for study and comparison, but most valuable for its ability to stimulate thinking about other possibilities.
Performance tries again, offering to listeners the process of music; recordings substitute technical gloss for the process. Microphones make musicians cautious, reluctant to record for posterity a wrong note.
Those same musicians, in performance, will risk everything in the heat of playing to try to illustrate an insight. One of my favorite recordings is an old Utah Symphony recording of the complete Nutcracker ballet. It includes a climax in which the full trumpet section cracks the note, reassurance that living players were in the studio, striving, and at that instant, falling short. The producers obviously considered the outline of the music more important than the perfection of every note.
This year's nominations have been influenced strongly by the technical achievements of recording engineers. The Telarc label gains from this. Telarc's Atlanta Symphony recordings enhance the sound of the instruments by placing the ensemble to make the recording simulate the sound as it would occur in a concert hall. With all respect for a maturing orchestra, one has to ask what else, besides conductor Robert Shaw's gift with choral music, would make that ensemble the nominee for 10 Grammy Awards?
Atlanta's recording of Berlioz's orchestral songs, Nuits d'Ete, with soprano Elly Ameling, is in line for more than one prize. This is a combination possible only on records, for Ameling, sensitive and musically able as she is, would not fit the Berlioz instrumentation in concert. In the recording studio, she becomes the equal of the orchestra. Next year, these forces might try Tristan und Isolde.
The interesting thing about these awards is that quality is sometimes recognized. The Chicago Symphony's Moses und Aron is an important document that brings Schoenberg's epochal opera within reach of a wide audience and offers a polished, idiomatic performance. Also among this year's nominees are Claudio Arrau, the octogenarian pianist whose playing preserves a tradition important to any musician or listener, and pianist Andras Schiff, whose clear musicality speaks directly, even within the constraints of recording.
The favored nominee is Andrew Lloyd Weber's Requiem. Destined to be this year's Amadeus, it is a big seller, a pop hit and an empty imitation of whatever "classical" music might be.
Requiem may be the right word for the whole Grammy undertaking.