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GRAMMY COMMENTARY : Boulez vs. the World--and Himself : Will too much success put an end to the hot-ticket conductor's winning streak?

February 25, 1996|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass write the On the Record column for Calendar

None of my usual Grammy brickbats this year--well, not as many. The crop of 1996 classical nominees is notable for the increased presence of music that deserves to be heard, rather than for names of performers who hardly need the exposure that awards bring.

Shostakovich's genius has been belatedly recognized (in four categories), for example, and some interesting rare operas have cropped up in place of the usual titles. The Three Tenors aren't around in any form, and even period performance has begun to get its due.

Still, nothing succeeds like past success. For the last two years, the combination of Bela Bartok and Pierre Boulez has taken multiple awards, including best classical album. The team is back in '96, but less likely to win since the competition includes a Debussy program from the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by . . . Pierre Boulez.

A split vote among Boulezians could give a best album victory to Berlioz's mighty opera "Les Troyens," conducted by Charles Dutoit, or to Maxim Vengerov, the likable young Russian fiddler, and his terrific recording of Shostakovich and Prokofiev concertos with the London Symphony under Rostropovich.

Vengerov's work also shows up in the instrumental solo with orchestra category, where it is challenged primarily by Itzhak Perlman's "American Album," pairing the Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber and the Serenade by Leonard Bernstein. Vengerov has the edge, since he's also in the running for best album. Another dazzling Russian, pianist Evgeny Kissin, with his Prokofiev concertos, has an outside chance in this category.

Win or lose, Perlman will be among the speakers at the Wednesday awards, a rare honor for a classical artist. More important, he'll also play an excerpt from his nominated recording.

The operatic contest is on the whole positive, with nominees that enhance rather than merely inflate the catalog. The qualification regards the conspicuous absence of three recordings from William Christie and his Arts Florissants: Purcell's "King Arthur" and "Dido and Aeneas" and Charpentier's "Medee," the crowning events of a year rich in early opera releases (for which, as The Times' Daniel Cariaga suggested here recently, a separate Grammy category should be created).

The aforementioned Dutoit-Montreal Symphony "Les Troyens," with Gary Lakes' heroic Aeneas, is the front-runner. It may feel some heat from a period performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," with L.A.'s Rodney Gilfrey in the title role, led by John Eliot Gardiner. But the No. 2 position (which could easily become No. 1) is probably occupied by the Kirov Opera production of Borodin's "Prince Igor," hardly a model of vocal strength but conducted by the charismatic, well-publicized Valery Gergiev.

More period Mozart, "La Clemenza di Tito," may get votes for the presence of the delectable Cecilia Bartoli, but in the hands of conductor Christopher Hogwood, it's otherwise a routine outing.

Special interest attaches to the remaining entry, Rossini's "Tancredi," the first budget-label (Naxos) opera to make it to the finals. It's unlikely to win, despite the dynamite singing of Ewa Podles and Sumi Jo, but the mere fact that a cheapo made it to the finals is significant.

Nominations for best orchestral performance include, in addition to the Boulez releases, some Hindemith, with Wolfgang Sawallisch lumpily conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, while the busy Simon Rattle and his City of Birmingham Symphony are in the running, not for their unhackneyed Szymanowski, Schoenberg and Henze but for a who-needs-it Elgar concert.

My vote goes to the dark-as-damnation Eighth Symphony of Shostakovich from Andre Previn and the London Symphony. It could slip into the end zone behind the backs of the battling partisans of Boulez.

In the vocal performance category, Sylvia McNair presents Purcell with grace and charm, Sergei Leiferkus weighs in with menacingly masterful Mussorgsky, incipient heartthrob Roberto Alagna offers Italian-French miscellany, Wolfgang Holzmair miniaturizes Schumann, and the hugely hyped Bryn Terfel blasts some gentle English songs out of the water and to near-certain victory.

The chamber music category has the perennial '90s winners, the Emerson Quartet, playing recondite Webern superbly. If anyone beats them, it will be the starry trio of Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma and Richard Stoltzman, with their hyper-glossy Brahms-Beethoven-Mozart collection. The venerated Alban Berg Quartet, with their Janacek, is a very long shot.

The solo instrumental category pits five pianists against each other, in a contest between youth and middle age. Fourteen-year-old Konstantin Lifschitz deserves all possible praise for his poetic way with Bach's "Goldberg Variations," but his name isn't sufficiently known. Evgeny Kissin's is, and I may be among the few not to respond to his overheated Chopin, whereas the Chopin of veteran Murray Perahia--the sentimental favorite--is moonlit magic from start to finish.

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