Audiophile Gold Among the 2006 Grammy Nominees

The 2006 Grammy nominations are in, and audiophiles have much to rejoice about. In a year when far too many pundits are sounding the death knell for the CD in general and high-resolution formats in particular, there's a bumper crop of great sounding, high quality recordings vying for a listen.

Before we get to the audiophile "short list," which is thankfully quite long, a note about the Grammy selection process. The five nominees in each of Grammy's 108 categories are chosen by the voting members of The Recording Academy. (Voting members must have six credits in the same musical category on a single commercially-released album, or 12 tracks in the same musical category plus a website promoting themselves or their work on a single digitally-released album). To help ensure the quality of the voting, members are directed to vote only in their fields of expertise; they may nominate in the four general categories (Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best New Artist) and in no more than nine out of 31 fields (encompassing 108 categories). In the final voting round for Grammy Award winners, Recording Academy members may vote in the four general categories and in no more than eight of the 31 fields.

While name recognition and big label pressure have been known play a major part in voting process—a pop producer with rudimentary knowledge of classical music, for example, may choose to vote in the classical category simply because she/he knows one of the nominees—the Academy's track record for nominating high quality discs is quite good. If any recording mentioned herein piques your interest, don't wait to see if it wins a Grammy award before checking it out. In the classical categories in particular, instances of the finest music garnering fewer votes than the formulaic are too numerous to mention.

Among labels universally praised for attention to sound quality, Telarc and its associate labels (Telarc Jazz, Telarc Blues, Heads Up International) plus their distributed label Manchester Craftsmen's Guild (put out by a multi-discipline, minority directed arts and learning center serving urban Pitsburgh) have scored big. Although Heads Up projects are mastered and recorded at different facilities, sometimes with non-Telarc engineers, recording quality tends to be extremely high. Check out this long list, which includes notes about quality and format:

Best Pop Instrumental Album
Spyro Gyra—Wrapped in A Dream (Heads Up International)—SACD but not DSD.

Best Contemporary Jazz Album
Mike Stern—Who Let The Cats Out? (Heads Up)

Best Jazz Vocal Album
Nancy Wilson—Turned to Blue (MCG Jazz)

Best Jazz Instrumental Solo and Best Large Jazz Ensemble
Michael Brecker—"Some Skunk Funk" (Track from Some Skunk Funk, Telarc Jazz/BHM)—SACD 2 Channel & 5.1 Surround DSD.

Best Traditional Blues Album
Tab Benoit With Louisiana's Leroux—Brother To The Blues (Telarc Blues)

Best Contemporary World Music Album and Best Surround Sound Album
Ladysmith Black Mambazo—Long Walk To Freedom (Heads Up International), Martin Walters, surround mix engineer, surround mastering engineer, and surround producer (Ladysmith Black Mambazo)—SACD in 2 Channel & 5.1 Surround (not DSD).

Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals
Slide Hampton (Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band)—"Stardust" (Track from Dizzy's Business, MCG Jazz)

Best Engineered Album, Classical (two nominations)
Michael Bishop, engineer (Paavo Järvi & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)—Elgar: Enigma Variations; Britten: The Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra, Four Sea Interludes (Telarc)—SACD 2 Channel & 5.1 Surround DSD
Jack Renner, engineer (Norman Mackenzie & Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus)—Vaughan Williams: Mass In G Minor, And Other A Cappella Works (Telarc)—SACD 2 Channel & 5.1 Surround DSD

Best Classical Contemporary Composition (two nominations from the same disc)
Christopher Theofanidis (Robert Spano)
David Del Tredici (Robert Spano)—Paul Revere's Ride (Tracks from Del Tredici: Paul Revere's Ride; Theofanidis: The Here And Now; Bernstein: Lamentation," Telarc) SACD 2 Channel & 5.1 Surround DSD. (If your system makes the chorus and/or orchestra sound small or blurred, you're in trouble.)

Producer of The Year, Classical
Elaine Martone—Del Tredici: Paul Revere's Ride; Theofanidis: The Here and Now; Bernstein: Lamentation (Robert Spano, Norman Mackenzie, Hila Plitmann & Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus); Elgar: Enigma Variations; Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Four Sea Interludes (Paavo Järvi & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra): Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (Michel Camilo, Ernest Martinez Izquierdo & Barcelona Symphony Orchestra); Mahler: Symphony No. 1, Songs of a Wayfarer (Benjamin Zander, Christopher Maltman & Philharmonia Orchestra), Renaissance Favorites For Guitar (David Russell)

All of Martone's titles are not only DSD-native, but have been issued in SACD 2 channel & 5.1 Surround Sound. The SACD version of the David Russell comes out in 2007.

There is, however, music beyond Telarc. As a particular partisan of ECM's vaunted sonic clarity in jazz and atmospheric engineering in classical, I was delighted to discover several ECM discs on the list:

Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group
Saudades—Trio Beyond—Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings & John Scofield (ECM)—a beautiful, live 2-CD tribute to the music and musicianship of the late Tony Williams.

Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra)
Bach: The Sonatas And Partitas For Violin Solo, Gidon Kremer (ECM New Series)
Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Vol.II, András Schiff (ECM New Series)

In the Best Engineered Album, Classical category, besides Telarc's two nominations, we find three discs from non-audiophile companies:

Látigo: Leslie Ann Jones, engineer (Quartet San Francisco) (Violinjazz Recordings), also nominated for Best Classical Crossover Album)
Mahler: Symphony 2: Wolf-Dieter Karwatky & Rainer Maillard, engineers (Pierre Boulez, Wiener Philharmoniker, Christine Schfer, Michelle DeYoung & Wiener Singverein) (Deutsche Grammophon—this should be quite spectacular. For what I suspect is a far better performance award-potential, DSD-native SACD surround, check out Ivan Fischer's recording of the same symphony on Channel Classics.)
Requiem: John Newton, engineer (Craig Hella Johnson & Conspirare) (Clarion Records)

Best Classical Album includes two discs of music captured in DSD-native SACD Surround:

Mahler: Symphony 7: Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Andreas Neubronner, producer (San Francisco Symphony) (San Francisco Symphony, also nominated for Best Orchestral Performance
Beethoven: Symphonies 1–9: Bernard Haitink, conductor; James Mallinson, producer (London Symphony Orchestra) (LSO Live)

Two other recordings in the Best Classical Album category must be mentioned:

Mozart: La Clemenza Di Tito René Jacobs, conductor; Marie-Claude Chappuis, Bernarda Fink, Sergio Foresti, Sunhae Im, Mark Padmore & Alexandrina Pendatchanska; Martin Sauer, producer (Freiburger Barockorchester) (Harmonia Mundi), also nominated for Best Opera Recording, because it is available as a PCM-native surround SACD
Lieberson: Rilke Songs, The Six Realms, Horn Concerto: David Starobin, producer (Justin Brown & Donald Palma; Michaela Fukacova, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson & William Purvis; Peter Serkin; The Odense Symphony Orchestra) (Bridge Records, Inc.), also nominated for Best Classical Vocal Performance), because it contains one of the last performances by audiophile favorite, mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

While it is likely that, due to name recognition, Michael Tilson Thomas' Mahler 7 will win a Grammy for Best Orchestral Recording, note that it's up against another superb sounding, DSD-native surround-sound SACD of a Mahler symphony that has already brought MTT a Grammy:

Mahler: Symphony 6: Iván Fischer, conductor (Budapest Festival Orchestra)_(Channel Classics). Fischer's recent recording of Mahler 2, first eligible for a Grammy next year, is absolutely spectacular in both sound quality and performance.

For Best Choral Performance, two of the nominated discs are available in PCM-native surround SACD:

Immortal NystedtØystein Fevang, conductor (Bærum Vokalensemble & Ensemble 96) (2L)
Pärt: Da Pacem Paul Hillier, conductor (Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) (Harmonia Mundi). If any label excels in capturing a resonant church acoustic with extraordinary clarity, it is HMU. The music, by the way, is gorgeous.

There are, of course, many more recordings to cite. Chandos, an English label long praised for its spacious, realistic acoustic has several nominees, as do Hyperion and Harmonia Mundi. And while Reference Recordings' spectacular new Garden of Dreams: Music by David Maslanka was issued too recently to qualify this year, it stands a good chance of receiving one or more nominations in December 2007.