Performers taking part included Katherine Jenkins (soprano), the Fron Male Voice Choir, Joshua Bell (violin), Sting, Edin Karamazov (lute), All Angels, Juan Diego Florez (tenor), Lang Lang (piano), Natasha Marsh (soprano), Alfie Boe (tenor), Natalie Clein (cello) and Vernon Handley
The London Chamber Orchestra
Hosted by Fern Britton, with guest presenters Douglas Henshall, Sarah Brightman, Katie Derham, Aled Jones, Trudi Styler, David Mellor, Nigel Havers, Simon Bates, Anthony Payne and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 3 May, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
In the great scheme of things there is classical music and then there are the Classical BRITS. These annual awards are presented by BPI, the British Phonograph Industry whose work also includes The BRIT Trust, funded by the music industry. Its avowed aim is to give young people the chance to express their musical creativity regardless of race, class, sex or ability. The work includes the BRIT School in Croydon, the only non-fee paying performing arts school in the UK, and Nordhoff-Robbins Music Therapy. The one good thing about the Classical BRITS is that the profits go to the BRIT Trust. This year’s awards, the eighth, sponsored by National Savings & Investments, took place on Thursday 3 May at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with broadcasts scheduled for ITV1 on May 13 and 20.
There were nine awards in total, for Singer, Instrumentalist, Classical Recording, Contemporary Composer, Soundtrack Composer, Young British Classical Performer, Critics’ Award, Album of the Year, and Lifetime Achievement Award. The nominations included a wide range of performers and composers, from Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon to British violinist Ruth Palmer, from conductors Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Colin Davis to composers John Adams and John Williams. The NS&I Album of the Year was chosen from a list of the top ten best-selling ‘classical’ albums, with the winner being voted for by Classic FM listeners and Classic FM Magazine readers. The list offered choral groups All Angels, Libera and the Fron Male Voice Choir, singers Alfie Boe, Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins and Sting, violinist Nicola Benedetti, period vocal ensemble The Sixteen, and Paul McCartney’s new choral work “Ecce Cor Meum”. Veteran conductor, Dr Vernon Handley, a great champion of British music, received this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. Fern Britton hosted the evening with guest presenters giving the awards.
Among the artists attending and performing were Sting and Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, soprano Natasha Marsh, tenor Alfie Boe, cellist Natalie Clein, Chinese pianist Lang Lang, American violinist Joshua Bell, Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, Welsh mezzo Katherine Jenkins, the Fron Male Voice Choir, and the London Chamber Orchestra conducted by Christopher Warren-Green who, during the evening, paid tribute to Sir Edward Elgar to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Although there were some exceptional albums in the running for the Classical BRIT Awards, some crossover items or the pop end of the market were also included. I don’t consider that the vocal groups Libera and All Angels are at all classical, whatever listeners to Classic FM might think. They may be among the top-selling albums but they only perform arrangements of ‘classical’ music in a pop style. And that’s the trouble with the Classical BRITS: they are aimed at the sound-bite generation that listens to Classic FM and, increasingly, the dumbed-down areas of BBC Radio 3 who don’t want to hear a complete symphony or a concerto but just the big tunes, something they can remember and hum to themselves later. Of course, with proceeds going to the BRITS charities, a popular programme has to be chosen to appeal to the widest audience, in order to fill the Royal Albert Hall. In fact it does a disservice to the music.
The evening was a mixture of performance interspersed with the award giving. The stage setting was a variation on the usual strangely ruined edifice resembling Debussy’s ‘La cathédrale engloutie’, with the addition of much foliage and, for no discernible reason, a random pile of chairs. The performance part opened with Katherine Jenkins and the Fron Welsh Male Voice Choir singing ‘World in Union’ (as they were a choir, surely that should have been ‘unison’?), an adaptation of an old hymn, ‘Immortal, invisible, God only wise’ which dispensed with Walter Chalmers Smith’s lyrics but kept John Roberts’s Welsh tune. It was hard to tell whether Miss Jenkins was singing in English or Welsh. The Fron Choir then sang ‘Land of my fathers’, at which point all the Welsh in the audience stood up.
Joshua Bell produced a deliciously sweet sound on his violin for Manuel Ponce’s ‘Estrellita’, but spoiled the mood by following it with a souped-up version of Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons. During a change of set The London Chamber Orchestra played some Elgar (one of the Enigma Variations) but the sound was very muddy, almost distorted through very boxy amplification. They didn’t so much play it as growl it. Then it was Sting’s turn with his newly found interest in the songs of John Dowland, which he sings with lutenist Erin Karamazov, but he doesn’t have the right voice for it and seems almost unmusical. (Where is Alfred Deller when you need him?) And where is Paul Robeson when you need him for ‘Steal away to Jesus’, the Afro-American spiritual which female vocal group All Angels managed to bland out but not until they had kicked the life out of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ by la-la-la-ing it. Enrobed all in white and standing in pools of dry ice, they looked like a welcoming committee at the Pearly Gates. At least Juan Diego Florez delivered a superb version of ‘Granada’ before the interval.
The second half opened with Lang Lang playing the piece that inspired him to be a pianist, Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody’ as played by Tom and Jerry and he evoked that happy pair in a very spirited and, of course, amplified version. New opera favourites Natasha Marsh and Afie Boe contributed ‘Libiamo/Brindisi’ from Verdi’s “La traviata”, while the soprano’s solo was Adèle’s ‘Laughing Song’ from “Die Fledermaus” and Boe essayed Puccini’s ‘Recondita armona’ from “La Bohème”. Both seem destined for further stardom. Finally, the best of the evening was Vernon Handley conducting Natalie Clein in part of Elgar’s Cello Concerto: certainly worth waiting for. The play-out music was from Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.
Talking of Beethoven and Vernon Handley, the best speech came from the conductor who was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. At 77 ‘Tod’ Handley, walking with two sticks, reckons he’s only halfway through his lifetime and that his farewell concert will be in 2021 – although that could change – and the resulting recording will be on the Age Concern label. Having been a champion of British composers such as Robert Simpson, Arnold Bax and Malcolm Arnold, among many others, he has now decided to discover Beethoven, because he’s found out that Ludwig was born in Chipping Campden! He didn’t leave, however, without paying tribute to the people who have made his career possible, the orchestral players.
The Classical BRIT Awards went to the following:
Singer of the Year: Anna Netrebko: “Russian Album” and “Violetta” (DG/Universal)
Instrumentalist of the Year: Leif Ove Andsnes: Horizons (EMI)
Classical Recording: Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle: Holst The Planets (EMI)
Contemporary Composer: John Adams: The Dharma at Big Sur / My father knew Charles Ives (Nonesuch/Warner Music)
Soundtrack Composer: George Fenton: “Planet Earth” (BBC Worldwide/EMI)
Young British Classical Performer: Ruth Palmer: Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 & Sonata for Violin and Piano (Quartz)
Critics’ Award: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/RIAS Kammerchor, Rene Jacobs: Mozart “La Clemenza di Tito” (Harmonia Mundi)
Album of the Year: Academy of St Martin in the Fields: Paul McCartney “Ecce Cor Meum” (EMI)
Lifetime Achievement Award: Dr Vernon Handley