Monday, September 21, 2009

100 Best Yeah Whatever

I meant to write something about this a while ago: the Sunday Telegraph's "100 Best Classical Recordings" list, from back in August. Here's the list, sans commentary:

1 Beethoven Fidelio (conductor Otto Klemperer) EMI
2 Mozart Così fan tutte (conductor Bernard Haitink) EMI
3 Mozart Die Zauberflöte (conductor Otto Klemperer) EMI
4 Puccini Tosca (conductor Victor de Sabata) EMI
5 Rossini La Cenerentola (conductor Riccardo Chailly) Decca
6 Strauss Der Rosenkavalier (conductor Erich Kleiber) Decca
7 Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin (conductor Semyon Bychkov) Philips
8 Verdi Don Carlos (conductor Claudio Abbado) DG
9 Verdi Falstaff (conductor Herbert von Karajan) EMI
10 Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen (conductor Daniel Barenboim) Warner

1 Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 4 (soloist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli) EMI
2 Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos 3 and 4 (soloist Mitsuko Uchida) Philips
3 Beethoven Violin Concerto (soloist Itzhak Perlman) EMI
4 Brahms Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2 (soloist Leon Fleisher) Sony
5 Elgar Cello Concerto (soloist Jacqueline du Pré) EMI
6 Grieg and Schumann Piano Concertos (soloist Stephen Kovacevich) Philips
7 Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, K 364 (soloists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman) DG
8 Mozart Piano Concerto No 23 in A, K 488 (soloist Solomon) Testament
9 Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2 (soloist Sviatoslav Richter) DG
10 Sibelius Violin Concerto (soloist Leonidas Kavakos) BIS

Piano solo
1 Chopin Martha Argerich The Legendary 1965 Recording EMI
2 Albéniz Iberia (Alicia de Larrocha) Decca
3 Bach Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould) RCA
4 Bartók Romanian Folk Dances (Zoltán Kocsis) Philips
5 Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata (Rudolf Serkin) Sony
6 Brahms Klavierstücke Op 116-119 (Wilhelm Kempff) DG
7 Debussy Préludes Books 1 & 2 (Krystian Zimerman) DG
8 Rachmaninov 24 Preludes (Vladimir Ashkenazy) Decca
9 Schubert Sonata in B flat, D 960 (Clifford Curzon) Decca [or Orfeo]
10 Schumann Fantasy in C (Sviatoslav Richter) EMI

Early and Baroque
1 Vivaldi The Four Seasons (Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante) Virgin Veritas
2 John Dunstaple (Orlando Consort) Metronome
3 Josquin des Prez Missa Pange lingua (The Tallis Scholars) Gimell
4 Tallis Spem in Alium; Lamentations; Mass and Motets (Magnificat) Linn
5 Buxtehude Organ Works (René Saorgin) Harmonia Mundi
6 Claudio Monteverdi L’Orfeo (Emmanuelle Haim, Le Concert D’Astree) Virgin Veritas
7 Purcell Dido and Aeneas (Andrew Parrott, Taverner Choir and Players) Chandos
8 Bach Brandenburg Concertos (Trevor Pinnock, The English Concert) Archiv
9 Pergolesi Stabat Mater (Rinaldo Alessandrini, Concerto Italiano) Naïve

1 Bach Mass in B Minor (Andrew Parrott, Taverner Consort and Players) Virgin Veritas
2 Bach St Matthew Passion (William Mengelberg, Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Toonkunst Choir) Naxos Historical
3 Handel Messiah Pinnock (The English Concert and Choir) Archiv
4 Mozart Requiem (John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists) Philips
5 Schubert Complete Sacred Works (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir) EMI
6 Berlioz Requiem (Leonard Bernstein, Orchestra Nationale D’Ile de France, Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra) Sony
7 Mendelssohn Elijah (Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus) EMI
8 Brahms A German Requiem (Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir) EMI
9 Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle (Marcus Creed, RIAS Kammerchor) Harmonia Mundi
10 Verdi Requiem (Carlo Maria Giulini, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus) BBC Legends

1 Beethoven Late String Quartets (Busch Quartet) EMI
2 Bach Cello Suites (Pablo Casals) EMI
3 Bach Complete Violin Sonatas and Partitas (Nathan Milstein) EMI
4 Haydn Op 76 String Quartets (The Lindsays) ASV
5 Beethoven Complete Violin Sonatas (Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer) DG
6 Schoenberg, Schubert Verklärte Nacht; String Quintet (Hollywood String Quartet) Testament
7 Bartók Complete String Quartets (Tokyo String Quartet) DG
8 Elliott Carter String Quartets One to Five (Pacifica Quartet) Naxos
9 Mozart Complete String Quintets (Talich Quartet) Calliope
10 Brahms Schubert Piano Quintet Op 34; Piano Quintet 'The Trout’ D 667 (Amadeus String Quartet, Clifford Curzon) BBC Legends

20th Century
1 Stravinsky Rite of Spring (Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) EMI
2 Debussy La Mer (Serge Koussevitzky, Boston Symphony Orchestra) Pearl
3 Ives Symphony 2 (Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic) DG
4 Bartók Orchestral Masterworks (Sir Georg Solti, London Symphony Orchestra) Decca
5 Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Mstislav Rostropovich, London Philharmonic Orchestra) EMI
6 Messiaen Vingts Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus (Yvonne Loriod) Erato
7 Ligeti Études (Pierre-Laurent Aimard) Sony
8 Andriessen De Staat (Lucas Vis, Nederlands Blazers Ensemble) NBE Live
9 Boulez Répons, Dialogue de L’Ombre Double (Boulez, Ensemble InterContemporain) 20/21 [DG]

1 Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 7 (Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) DG
2 Haydn Symphonies 93-104 (Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) EMI
3 Mozart Complete Symphonies (Karl Böhm, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) DG
4 Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (Zubin Mehta, London Philharmonic Orchestra) Apex
5 Brahms Complete Symphonies (Kurt Sanderling, Dresden Staatskapelle) RCA
6 Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 (Evgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra) DG
7 Bruckner Complete Symphonies (Günter Wand, Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra) RCA Red Seal
8 Sibelius Complete Symphonies (Sir Anthony Collins, London Symphony Orchestra) Beulah
9 Strauss Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Also Sprach Zarathrustra (Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra) RCA Victor
10 Mahler Symphony 9 (Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) DG

20th-Century English
1 Vaughan Williams Symphony 5 (Dona Nobis Pacem LPO/ BBCSO/ Vaughan Williams) Somm
2 Elgar The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures (Janet Baker, Richard Lewis, Kim Borg, Hallé Orch & Sheffield Philharmonic Choirs, LSO/Barbirolli) EMI
3 Elgar Symphony 2 and Short Pieces (BBCSO/Boult) EMI
4 Elgar Violin Concerto (Yehudi Menuhin/LSO Elgar) EMI
5 Elgar and Vaughan Williams Barbirolli Conducts English Music for Strings (Sinfonia of London, New Philharmonia) EMI
6 Britten War Requiem (Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Bach and other Choirs, LSO/ Britten) Decca
7 Delius Brigg Fair, Appalachia etc (LPO/Beecham) Naxos
8 Turnage Twice Through the Heart, Hidden Love Song, In Torn Fields (Sarah Connolly, Gerald Finley, LPO Marin Alsop) LPO Live
9 Finzi Dies Natalis (Toby Spence and Scottish Ensemble) Wigmore Hall Live
10 Tippett A Child of Our Time (Faye Robinson, Sarah Walker, Jon Garrison, John Cheek, CBSO & Chorus/Tippett) Collins

1 Schubert Winterreise (Fischer-Dieskau/Gerald Moore) EMI
2 Schubert, Wolf (Irmgard Seefried) BBC Legends
3 Schubert (Bernarda Fink) Harmonia Mundi
4 Schubert A Voyage of Discovery Hyperion
5 Schubert (Lucia Popp) EMI
6 Schumann, Brahms (Kathleen Ferrier) Naxos
7. Strauss (Christine Brewer, Roger Vignoles) Hyperion
8 Wagner, Mahler (Kirsten Flagstad, Vienna Philharmonic) Decca
9. Un Frisson Français (Susan Graham) Onyx
10 Brahms, Schumann (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) Wigmore Hall Live

Yes - that is only 98. The other 2 are apparently "compilations", although they don't actually say which ones! They mention a few Handel recitals plus the Best Classical Album in the World... Ever! so I suppose you can sort of pick your own pair.
That's not the only thing wrong with the article. For a start, the tone is quite bizarre. While the brief comments on the recommendations themselves are presented straightforwardly, the introductions to each section, along with some little boxes called "The Classical Rules", are in a sort of tongue-in-cheek style that seems to be trying to ape The Bluffer's Guide, although not very well (example: "For the most ambitious social climbers among you, scratchy old reissues are a must. Try Dutton, Testament and Naxos Historical". Seems sort of snide, especially when you consider how many historical recordings are included in the list). I wonder if the article's authors (Igor Toronyi-Lalic, John Allison, and Michael Kennedy) actually wrote these bits too? They're odd because they're clearly aimed at people who don't know much about classical music, whereas the list itself doesn't quite seem that way.
The second problem is the underlying premise. Newspapers and magazines love these lists. It gives them a chance to be authoritative and definitive, and it nicely fills some space without requiring much, you know, journalism. But everyone knows it's impossible to compile a list of 100 best anything. And things are complicated by the way they've divided the list into sections - OK, it ensures good representation of various genres, but nine "20th century" versus ten "20th century English"? Oh, wait, this is the Telegraph after all.
A couple of the classical music forums have had some fun belittling the whole endeavour (here and here), although some of their criticisms inevitably are to do with some of the choices made. If it's the case that you can't compile a list of 100 best anything, then surely it's a corollary that you can't really say "oh, well this should have been there instead" - my subjectivity trumps your subjectivity! Seeing as I'm very much not a "you have to have this performance of work X" sort of person, I don't have any particular objection to the individual choices. Having said that, those individual choices add up to an overall impression, and that's where I start to object.
First, over a fifth of the albums on the list are marked as "deleted". The neophyte may well ask, "if they're so important, why are they not available?". Perhaps their deleted status elevates them a little higher - not only are they good, they're rare too, and even more worth seeking out. But in practical terms, the list of 98 has now shrunk down to the mid-70s!
Second, there does seem to be a tendency towards older recordings. Nothing wrong with that per se, and again let's assume all the performances are indeed great, but the overall impression is not one of classical music as a vibrant, living thing. Maybe it's my relative youth - a lot of the great performances were recorded long before I was born or before I became interested in this music, so I haven't lived with them as "classics" for decades. Perhaps when it comes to "classics" I should be more backwards-looking. But the general theme seems to be of an art that might not be capable of many more great achievements.
The main thing about the list for me is that it provokes a rather complicated feeling that can be largely summed up in the phrase is that it? I don't know, there's something boring about it. Yes, these are all great pieces of music, and these are all (for the sake of argument) great performances, but... pffft.... those 98 albums don't come anywhere close to summarising the concept of "classical music" as it exists in my head. Now, I do accept the general notion of a "canon", and that the Telegraph list is a not unreasonable attempt at defining some key components of it. But the "canon" is always going to be a nebulous concept, and more than that, while we may generally agree on parts of the canon, each of us has a quite different canon in our own minds (maybe "canon" is the wrong word here - let's call it a "roster" instead, just to pick the first word that came to mind). I look at the Telegraph list and I don't see - say - Prokofiev, or Janacek, or Reich (OK, he is mentioned in one of those little sidebar-y things), or Palestrina, or Machaut, or Telemann, or etc etc etc. Weirdly, by only focusing on (for the sake of argument again) the greatest masterpieces, the list somehow does classical music a great injustice. Because for me, and for all of us (duly noting that there are no doubt some exceptions), the wonderful thing about classical music is all those byways, all those composers and works you file under "lesser known" or "unjustly neglected". Yes, we love the "canon", but ask us "what should I listen to?" and prepare to be deluged, not just with a first flood of suggestions, but then a constant torrent of "oh, and that reminds me of..." and "well, you can't mention that without also including this" and "well, what about...?" The 100 Best Classical Recordings may be, as the blurb says, "music no classical fan should be without", but it really is the barest of minimums.

No comments: