Friday, May 6, 2011

Classic FM Hall of Fame 2011

Classic FM is a UK Classical music radio station which was immediately successful when it launched in 1992.  It's aim was to be more "popular" (or to its critics, lowbrow) than the existing classical music behemoth, BBC Radio 3 which was, at that time, becoming rather esoteric in its output.  In particular, Classic FM plays, largely, excerpts from works rather than the whole piece, as Radio 3 did.  Interestingly, this more populist approach did have an effect on Radio 3 which subsequently became somewhat more accessible.

In 1996 Classic FM launched its Hall of Fame where listeners would vote for their favourite pieces of classical music to produce a top 300 list.  Over Easter we had the release of the sixteenth edition of this. 

Now, the first thing about this is that it isn't really a "Hall of Fame" at all, as Classic FM have completely misunderstood the concept, which is widely used in US sport.  The idea of a Hall of Fame is that experts (certainly not the public) choose a number of individuals each year who have made a particular contribution to the sport and put their names into a Hall of Fame.  Agent Triple P travels to Toronto quite frequently and that is the location, for example, of the Hockey Hall of Fame.  It is not a popularity contest and it isn't something that works like a chart of ups and downs.  Once elected into the Hall of Fame you are there forever and the following year's intake will be different.  

The Classic FM "Hall of Fame" is more akin to the FHM World's Sexiest Woman list.  The latter is, like the Classic FM chart, a reader elected popularity contest.  Perhaps there should be a Classic FHM list of the sexiest classical musicians.  It does seem, particularly, if you are a woman, that your chances of getting a record deal are pretty slim unless you are attractive.  Anyway, it means the list has all the possible weaknesses of internet polls as regards mulitiple voting and pressure groups.  For example, this year, one of the presenters at Classic FM pushed very hard (successfully) for a particular favourite piece of music of his (Embers (251) by Helen Long -Howard Shore's assistant on the Lord of the Rings soundtracks) to be included.

Also, given that Classic FM is driven by a computerised playlist you wonder what chance pieces have that are not on their playlist: not least because Classic FM would never play them in the first place.  They keep this list secret of course, not least because it has commercial value and has already attracted litigation as to ownership of its content.

A number of things struck Agent Triple P as he looked at this year's list (the first time he has really done so). 

Firstly, the issue of the inclusion of a lot of film soundrack music.  Now, Triple P likes film soundtrack music, particularly of the orchestral type as originally developed by composers such as Korngold (who was a proper classical composer first), Steiner, Hermann, Newman, Young, Steiner, Rozsa, and then, latterly, Goldsmith, Williams and Barry.  However, we do have an issue about it being included in a classical chart.  Surely classical music should have been written primarily for performance in the concert hall rather than to support another media (there was also some TV music included)?  Now, we admit there are difficulties in this definition as composers such as Walton, Shostokovich and Glass have all produced film music.  There is of course, some music which was written as incidental music to plays (Sibelius wrote quite a bit) and ballet music is, undoubtedly there to support a theatrical performance.  However, there is a fundamental difference in that the music for a ballet is an equal part of the work with the dance elements (or, perhaps, even the dominant part) whereas a film or TV soundtrack is always going to be a minor, supporting element.  Anyway, Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings rightly came in as the highest ranking film score at number 50 with Ennio Morricone's The Mission a rather surprising, to Triple P anyway, number 2 at 72.  Third was Shostakovich's The Gadfly (78). John Barry had two entrys in the top ten for Dances with Wolves (84) which Triple P thinks is one of his weaker scores and Out of Africa (108).  The later is listenable to but is inferior, in this context we would have thought, to The Lion in Winter or, indeed Raise the Titanic.  John Williams got two entries in the top ten film soundtracks (out of no less than five entries in the top 300) for Schindler's List (107) and Star Wars (151).   No James Horner or Jerry Goldsmith, though.

There are other oddities in the list, from brass band works to what Triple P would call New Age music such as the cloyingly ghastly Einaudi. The latter has no less than three entries in the list whereas Phillip Glass only has one (his violin concerto at 160) and John Adams doesn't have any at all.  Other over-represented composers (we think) include Karl Jenkins (four entries) and someone called Hawes (two entries). 

Composers who scored better than Triple P might have thought include Sibelius (hooray) and Dvorak with five entries, Shostakovich (seven entries) and Elgar with no less than nine (comprehensively beating Brahms, for example).  But then British composers did very well altogether, picking up 19% of the entries, which is not what we would have expected.  Composers who didn't do as well as we might have thought include Richard Strauss (just one entry, for his Four Last Songs (66), surprisingly) and Khachaturian (just two entries).  Some of Triple P's favourite composers didn't get a single entry: Respighi and Nielsen, for example.  There is also comparatively little early or Baroque music (outside of Bach and the inevitable Vivaldi).

To what extent any of this is down to the playlist or the type of people who listen to Classic FM (who we imaging to be old couples who do a lot of gardening and probably still drive a Rover) we don't know.

Anyway the top ten was as follows:

10. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  No surprise here although, personally, we very rarely listen to this symphony and, indeed there is always an underlying issue of familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least ennui with some of the top choices.  Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "We play this when Mr Classic FM is washing the car".

9. Bruch Violin Concerto No1.  This was a very popular piece in the forties and fifties and we are rather surprised at its high placing, unless Classic FM's listeners are all in their seventies and eighties. Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "Cheers you up after a hard afternoon's gardening".

8. Elgar Cello Concerto.  An encouraging showing for this we feel.  Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "We play this before we go to church".

7. Elgar Enigma Variations.  Not such a surprise for this one but Elgar getting two in the top ten is, surely? Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "Nice to have on when Mrs Classic FM is baking scones".

6. Beethoven Symphony No. 6.  Agent Triple P's least favourite Beethoven Symphony, possibly through over familiarity.  We would have been happier to see the 3rd (only 77 -are they mad?) or 7th (23) up here. Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "Ideal music for pruning the roses to".

5. Mozart Clarinet Concerto.  Not surprising considering how often Classic FM play it, but we might have expected some other Mozart to score higher such as the Piano Concerto No. 21 (48), Eine kleine Nachtmusik (59) or the Symphony No. 40 (179).  In fact Mozart operas and choral works did much better than his orchestral pieces on the whole.  Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "Nice music for afternoon tea".

4. Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5.  Again, we rarely listen to this as we prefer later piano concerti  but it  does have some top tunes in it.  Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "Very nice to accompany pre-dinner Sherry whilst waiting for the Antiques Roadshow to come on TV".

3. Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.  Based on the Tallis piece Why Fun'th in Fight this is probably the only one of the Classic FM top ten to also be in Triple P's top ten. Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written".  You're absolutely right!

2. Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending.  Knocked off its number one position of the last few years two in the top three for VW. Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "We have this playing on the cassette player when we take the Rover to the Cotswolds".

1. Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2.  Despite the overfamiliarity of part of it having been used in the film Brief Encounter it's such a monumentally brilliant piece that it continues to be able transcend this (unlike the Mozart Piano Conecrto No 21 slow movement and Elvira Madigan, for example).  A worthy number one, we feel.  Mr and Mrs Classic FM say: "Brief Encounter is our favourite film".