The sound of one hand clapping

It's fitting, but frustrating, that the annual Gramophone Awards were announced quietly in a Hawksmoor church in North London.

In an age of greatest hits, best evers and one-and-onlys, classical music has become a lone voice of moderation in a clamour of superlatives. As an industry we’re modest to a fault, ruthlessly chopping down our tall poppies with chastening reviews and damnings with faint praise, subjecting our artists to the kind of demanding scrutiny that only comes from love and just a little bit of obsession. So while the Grammy Awards are a technicolour extravaganza (only outdone by the MTV Awards) and even the edgy Mercury Prize sprawls over front pages and column inches, it’s fitting that the annual Gramophone Awards were announced quietly last night in a Hawksmoor church in North London.

Fitting, but also frustrating. Taking place within weeks of the Classic BRIT Awards – the commercial face of classical music – the Gramophone Awards risk being obliterated by their louder rival. Voted for by critics rather than by the public (as is the case for the BBC Music Magazine Awards) or industry members (the Grammys, Classic BRITs), the Gramophone Awards are easy target for those already inclined to see classical music as a whispered conversation among the ivory-towered elite.

But while democracy in music has given us One Direction, meritocracy has given us Domingo, Monserrat Caballe, Menuhin and Glenn Gould. Classical music doesn’t need to shout, but that’s no reason why it shouldn’t.

A major change this year saw Gramophone’s individual category winners announced in advance, saving only the public-voted Artist of the Year award and the Record of the Year for the ceremony itself. This gave us several weeks to pore over the eleven winners – Jonas Kaufmann at his peak in Wagner, a vividly quirky Trittico from Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera, the baroque glories of the Gabrieli Consort’s Venetian Coronation, bold, generous performances all – before they were obscured by the big winner. It’s a shift to a savvier, more commercially-minded approach and not before time. Only through exposure, through champions, highlights and yes, even short-cuts, can classical music reach audiences in the current digital babel.

When the Gramophone Awards were launched in the 1970s the recording industry was a simpler and smaller affair. Each week saw a fraction of the new releases we have now, with radio the only real alternative to buying records. Now, with the amount of digital content available online doubling year-on-year, and a bewildering amount of amateur as well as professional music available to us all digitally, is the very notion of expert-driven awards outmoded?

Quite the contrary. Over-exposed as we are, ears dulled by the constant demands of music in shops, restaurants, on the radio and on the internet, this is the time when we are most in need of curated listening, as Gramophone editor James Jolly explains. “It’s wonderful to live in this age of spectacular excess but every so often you just want someone who knows their stuff to choose and play you the best music.” Far from excluding new listeners, awards like these invite them to cut straight to the good stuff, to defer the learning curve until after they’ve seen what lies at the top of it.

Setting the curve in 2013 with a winning Record of the Year was Moldovan violinistPatricia Kopatchinskaja performing concertos by Bartók, Eötvös and Ligeti. It’s a wonderful result, in large part for being so unexpected. Smart money might have been on vocal winner Jonas Kaufmann, nominee Joyce DiDonato or even Gramophone’s most-awarded artist John Eliot Gardiner. A victory for Kopatchinskaja and three 20th and 21st-century concertos is a victory for grit over polish, for challenge over comfort. This young artist is not one to mince her musical words. Sacrificing beauty for emotional engagement she risks much, and to reward this daring with a win at such an early stage in her career sends a vital message to an industry of retouchers and studio edits that truth is more valuable than the loveliest of illusions.

Gramophone’s 2013 winners – Kopatchinskaja, Gardiner, trumpeter Alison Balsom, guitarist Julian Bream among them – are serious musicians. Their job is to perform to the best of their ability, to answer eloquently in interviews and choose daringly in their repertoire. Ours is to shout about the results. Classical music itself may still escape the vulgarity of hyperbole and excess that dogs the pop music industy, but if we are to have a hope of keeping it that way then we may have to risk a little vulgarity ourselves in promoting it. I’m holding out for a Gramophone Awards ceremony with elephants, Rhinemaidens and a chorus of thousands – after all, it’s what Verdi, Wagner and Mahler would have wanted.

Julian Bream, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gramophones. Image: Getty
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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