German Record Critics’ Award
As Independent as Possible

The quartet of critics in action.
The quartet of critics in action. | Photo (detail): KFR / Mark Wohlrab

Only the name is a bit awkward: the German Record Critics’ Award. Its reputation is immense. In summer 2013 the music world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the highly esteemed prize – which has become anything but old.

Politicians look at polls and television broadcasters at ratings. Even newspapers conduct detailed analyses of reading behaviour by electronic means: Which texts are most read? Where do readers stop reading? Thus there prevails everywhere an alignment of content to majority interests and a mistrust towards values that rest on knowledge and the opinion of specialists. The German Record Critics’ Award, launched fifty years ago, in 1963, by the Bielefeld publisher Richard Kaselowsky, Jr., has set its face against this pull to conform its standards to meet current needs.

Initially, the one of the award’s sponsors was the Federal Association of the Phonographic Industry. In 1974 the industry-led German Phono Academy even assumed full sponsorship of the award. But since 1979 the Association of the German Record Critics’ Award has been completely independent of the phonographic industry. It is supported by the volunteer work of its members, their contributions, donations and sometimes revenue from benefit concerts of artists who have recognised that the award also serves their concerns.

Criticism as volunteer work

Unlike the record awards of the industry, the German Record Critics’ Award is not geared to sales figures and media attention, aspects which are often influenced by advertising budgets and intense public relations campaigns. It is not ruled out, however, that the winners of industry awards may coincide with those of the Record Critics’ Award. Popularity and success are not as such signs of lack of artistic quality. But the critics remain sensitive to works that receive no publicity and are not optimized for the market. By dint of a certain persistence, critics’ views can influence public opinion. The tenacity with which the Award’s jurors championed, for example, exponents of the historical school of music performance such as Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Jordi Savall contributed to an important paradigm change in the interpretation of music and helped achieve its wider acceptance.

Base camp Bonn

Currently, 145 music critics, divided into 29 juries, work at the Association of the German Record Critics’ Award, whose office is located in the Bonn House of Culture. The diversification of the juries is a response to the ever increasing specialisation in the issuing of sound carriers. There is a special department for piano music and for orchestra works, for opera as for rock and pop, for jazz as for folk, for recitation as for cabaret and choral music. DVD productions are also judged separately. On fixed dates, the members of these juries must come to an agreement as to the best recordings of a quarter year and nominate a short list, which is then released.

The Nightingale

Once a year an inter-jury panel confers up to fourteen annual German Record Critics’ Awards for recordings in the different categories. Since 1968, special awards are also given to ensembles, soloists and producers that have distinguished themselves by their lasting achievements. These special awards, which for decades took the form of pins and certificates of honour, have since 2011 been presented in the shape of the Nightingale: an eighteen centimetres high sculpture of a small bird sitting on a branch. The artist Daniel Richter made it out of euro cent coins and gave it to the Association. The Salzburg gallery owner Thaddeus Ropac undertook the financing of the first gilded bronze casts.

The quartet of critics

To illustrate the work of the juries and make it more easily accessible to the public, the Association launched the “Quartet of Critics” in 2010. Prior to a concert, four members of the Association meet and discuss before the audience various recordings of a given work, which is then performed. Since 2011 the “Quartet of Critics at Deutschlandradio” has been a ninety minute live broadcast. This new institution enjoys growing popularity with the public, not least because of its high entertainment value. Competence of judgement should of course form the foundation of the criticism of recordings, yet since critics are only human beings, vanity, prejudice, private taste and ideology sometimes play a rôle in the expression of opinion. In discussion, these passions must expose themselves to opposition. And it is a fine thing to witness enthusiasm making way for insight into the better argument. This indeed is true criticism.