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

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism