Classic 100: “The music you can’t live without” on the ABC, which we can’t live without.

Jun 3, 2021

Detractors of the ABC might not appreciate how important it is to them personally. Apart from the obvious news and current affairs, a constant major pleasure for us comes from ABC Classic FM. At the moment they are conducting their 2021 Classic 100 countdown. Voting is underway until Monday 7 June. The countdown itself will be broadcast throughout the weekend of June 12 and 13.

This year is the 19th Classic 100 countdown. Previous rank holders can be viewed in the Classic 100 Archive. Over the years, listeners have been asked for their favourite pieces in many categories, including piano, opera, concerto, chamber music and symphonies. Two have been dedicated to just the one composer, Mozart (2006) and Beethoven (2020), both prolific.

This year the Classic 100 is about the music you can’t live without! It’s not too late to vote – you can nominate 10 pieces from an enormous selection. It certainly is not too late to listen.

For the committed classical music buff, this is an event not to be missed. And so it should also be for those who dabble in classical music or those who are curious but unconvinced about wanting to get involved.

Make a weekend of it. Even if you only have the radio on in the background there will be countless times when you will be drawn closer to the speakers, to sit down and listen. Prepare to be entertained.

If you want to vote, how do you choose your 10 compositions? Here I have given my selections under various categories. They are not in any particular order of preference. The links are all to YouTube, which means you may have to cope with ads at the beginning. Some are for videos of actual concerts, others are recordings. They aren’t necessarily the best performances, but I hope they will be worth listening to and maybe provide some inspiration.

Memories

First experiences via friends, the radio or a live concert can be long lasting. In second year high school, one of our compulsory subjects was music. Our teacher used to play this minuet at the beginning of each lesson. It is perhaps the first piece of classical music I ever took notice of, and it has stayed with me ever since.

Luigi Boccherini – Minuet from String Quintet in E major, G. 275

Uplifting

Last year on P&I we wrote about the Beethoven countdown. ABC listeners had 408 of his works or groups of works to choose from. The ABC announced the top 100. His symphony No. 6 came in at number three on the list. This musical wonder takes the listener out into the countryside. So peaceful, and in many ways so unlike Beethoven. This link is to a recording by the Hanover Band conducted by Roy Goodman with instruments from Beethoven’s period.

Ludwig Van Beethoven – Symphony No. 6, Pastoral

Australian

Homegrown music does get the emotions going. But which one to choose? This list of ten memorable Australian compositions via the ABC helps. Pieces by Carl Vine, Elena Kats-Chernin and Ross Edwards are particular modern favourites. However, for pure Aussie emotion, one can’t go past Peter Sculthorpe. Any of his pieces with didgeridoo, such as Kakadu, bring out the patriotism. Small Town does too with its reference to The Last Post. On Anzac Day, along with possibly two thousand others, we attended the dawn service in the small town of Cooroy, outside Noosa.

Peter Sculthorpe – Small Town

Irreverence

Saint-Saëns was a remarkable person, with possibly questionable morals. However, there is little that is questionable about his music. He composed an enormous number of works, many of them full of fun and mischief. Wikipedia writes that Grove rates Carnival of the Animals as “his most brilliant comic work, parodying Offenbach, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Rossini, his own Danse macabre and several popular tunes”. He forbade performances of it during his lifetime, concerned that its frivolity would damage his reputation as a serious composer. If you can pick it, the fourth section, Tortues/Tortoises at 3:33 is a very slowed down version of one of France’s best known tunes – the Can Can. You will recognise The Swan towards the end. The finale reminds me of shoppers causing mayhem racing around a supermarket with their trolleys. Volume up!

Camille Saint-Saëns – The Carnival of The Animals

Sublimity

Mozart’s “Gran Partita” is a serenade for thirteen instruments: twelve winds and string bass. It consists of seven movements. The third movement, the adagio, is mesmerising – almost sensuous – to listen to, as the instruments take turns, over the top of a rhythmic beat. Thirteen seemingly disconnected performers in marvellous harmony. This link to the adagio is to a performance on historical instruments. (But you should also listen to the whole piece – the short finale is terrific.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Serenade No. 10 for winds (Gran Partita)

Performance

A performance can elevate a musical piece from ‘so-so’ to amazing, whether solo, instrumental, vocal, symphonic, operatic or ensemble. The link below might not be to one of the great performances, but it is to one of the greatest ever performers, Joan Sutherland. This is her farewell concert at the Sydney Opera House in 1990. Still hitting those high notes, in front of two former Prime Ministers. (This piece does not appear on the ABC’s list of works. Hopefully, the ABC will ensure that the actual countdown includes top performances of each composition that makes the 100.)

Home! Sweet Home – Joan Sutherland

Fun

Many composers built humour into their music, Beethoven, Mozart and Saint-Saëns to mention just three. But the fun guy of all was Joseph Haydn. Very little of his work is sad. His music almost always makes you smile and feel good. Out of his 106 symphonies, try the Surprise Symphony. His piano trios are also a treasure of playfulness and cheer – he wrote 45 of them. The whole of his Gypsy piano trio is bright and light, but the third movement is the killer. It must have been fun for Hadyn to write. It must be fun to play. And it is fun to listen to.

Joseph Haydn – Piano Trio No. 39 in G major Hob. XV/25 (“Gypsy”)

Tension

Drama is a key feature of music. Composers create moods of all sorts, across the spectrum of emotions. At the opposite end of fun is tension, and the master was Sergei Prokofiev. In so many of his works he takes your nerves to the most extreme edge – and leaves you there. It is as if you are in a classroom with someone scratching the blackboard with their fingers. Thankfully, he does provide occasional relief. His piano sonatas and concertos are fiendishly difficult and full of tension. His first piano concerto is only 16 minutes long, starting with dramatic rising phrases. Those nerve edging phrases reappear at the end.

You want tension! Well here we give you a double dose.

First, the concerto played by Martha Argerich, one of the all-time legends of the piano. Watch her performance to see how difficult the work is. And how marvellous it is.

Second, with Anna Arazi, a diminutive women with hands somewhat smaller than Martha’s. We saw her play the Prokofiev No. 1 in Dallas in 2015, when she was a contestant in the Dallas Chamber Symphony International Piano Competition, which permitted playing on alternatively sized keyboards. Before arriving in Dallas, Anna’s practice had been on a standard size, DS6.5 keyboard. However, she intended to risk performing on a DS6.0 keyboard, with narrower keys, requiring less stretch for her smallish hands. On arrival in Dallas she had one day only to adapt to the smaller keyboard, which had been fitted into the large concert Steinway grand. This performance is in the first round! The orchestral part was played by a second pianist. This recording was done on my iPad. The tension for us in the audience was palpable – with just one day’s practice was her choice of narrower keys too much of a gamble, will she make mistakes, come to grief, be booted out and sent home?

Martha Argerich – Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1

Anna Arazi – Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1

Genius

Mendelssohn’s octet for strings was written when he was 16 years old. Wikipedia includes the following quote: “Its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.” They advise that a typical performance of the work lasts around thirty minutes, with the first movement usually comprising roughly half of this.

Felix Mendelssohn – String Octet in E-flat major

Climactic

Everyone loves crescendos. Throw in a visual of the music and you could be in heaven, or maybe Rome. The fourth movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome provides us with a musical vision of the pines on the Appian Way at dawn, 2,000 years ago. Imagine, in the far distance, you hear the Roman Army approaching, the ground trembling as they march incessantly closer, to the sounds of trumpets and beating drums, eventually making an abrupt but triumphant stop as they reach you at The Capitoline. We saw a performance of the whole tone poem in Genoa: the Italian audience insisted on the conductor repeating the Roman Army section. There are better recordings than in the link below, but few better visuals. Turn the volume right up of course.

Ottorino Respighi – The Pines of Rome (IV)

How will ABC listeners vote?

Listing ten pieces of classical music you can’t live without is a difficult task of course, but a lovely mind challenge.

You wouldn’t want to bet on what makes the top ten!

To find out, put the weekend of June 12 and 13 aside.

(PS Anna Arazi revealed after her first round performance that the pain she normally endured when playing the Prokofiev on the DS6.5 disappeared on the narrow keys of the DS6.0. She flew through the notes at the same speed as Martha! Ultimately she won third prize at the Dallas Competition.)

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