Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A Look Back at the Classic 100 Baroque and Before

The Classic 100 Baroque and Before has come and gone, but what an enjoyable ride it was. It probably didn’t present too many surprises; JS Bach dominated the countdown, Handel followed and his Messiah came in at No 1; Vivaldi and Purcell did well and there were generally more Baroque pieces than Before. But, despite such broad things that were always going to happen, the countdown did reveal the sheer depth and breadth of early and Baroque music.

It could be argued the music was mostly the same but that’s said about every type of music by people who don’t appreciate it. In truth we had polyphony, plain chant, early opera and sacred and secular choral works; plus sonatas and concertos in several instruments in styles that showed more variety than might be assumed. How can you compare the power of an organ toccata with the gentle beauty of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas?

Which brings me to the discoveries of the countdown! No matter how well known many of the pieces in countdowns like this are, there are always some surprises and new encounters – at least for me. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas were one of the most exciting for me, they were amazingly evocative and got just as much, if not more, out of the violin than the flashier sonatas like Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’.

Another curious encounter was JS Bach’s ‘other’ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the one called ‘Dorian’. It lacked the dramatic and powerful opening and wouldn’t have the same impact when being played by a mad genius or evil mastermind, but it made up for that with its rolling pace and friendlier melody. In some ways I would argue it’s the more accessible of the two works as the fugue is less complex, something some people find off-putting about organ music.

But what of the Before? There was some complaint on social media that it didn’t get a good enough look in because the Baroque overwhelmed it. And it certainly didn’t do as well overall. There was some, including two in the top 10, but Baroque music was much, much more prominent. Was this a failing of the countdown? Of the voting public? Or just the ABC for not programming it enough?

All those arguments got trotted out on social media as the countdown reached the end. Not just about early music either; the presence of Pachabel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the top 10 caused an inconsiderate amount of moaning on Twitter and apparently showed how ignorant people are and how ABC Classic FM needs to program “insert the complainant’s favourite composer here”. I found it quite ironic that the same people complaining that The Four Seasons are overplayed were very happy about the Messiah being No 1 – surely it’s hard to be more hackneyed than the Hallelujah Chorus.

Of course, in the end I believe it’s a combination of things. The programming informs what listeners know and like and what listeners know and like informs programming – it’s a circle just like all commercialised processes. And it’s beside the point. So the top spots were largely predictable, big deal, the event of the countdown attracts a lot of listeners who may not know much music beyond those ‘monumental’ pieces. It gives them a chance to hear the lesser known works like the ‘Dorian’ and Biber. And from there perhaps they’ll find the love of the music and seek out more. Only then will the ‘what the listeners like’ grow and that will help the programming grow in turn.

And that’s why I love Classic 100 countdowns. That and I get obsessive over lists and this gives me a chance to make a heap of them.

In conclusion, this was a splendid collection of music that celebrated some true ‘classics’ and introduced me to some beautiful works I hadn’t encountered before – and, as always, encouraged me to keep exploring this wonderful sound world. Get listening!

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