Arts: Never mind the music, feel the sales pitch

Vivaldi? Old hat. Vivaldi in tight jeans? Now you're talking...
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The Independent Culture
Who could have guessed that when Kennedy, the Three Tenors and the like took to the pop stage, a small band of pop/jazz musicians was poised to return the compliment. The "good music" crew had grown populist wings, could fly between genres, and flatter new-found listeners with names worth dropping. But the pop contingent faced a tougher challenge.

A hybrid music was suddenly born. Not for the Tenors, though, who were more than happy to "cross over" - as countless great singers had done before them - with cheesy ballads and hits from stage and screen. This "new music" is Classical Lite, less dumbed-down than musically numbing. Aspiring classical composers have had some useful precedents. In the early Nineties, Gorecki's accessibly trance-like but dead-serious Third Symphony lulled a huge public into a sense of false security about new music. Record moguls daubed anything that questioned, challenged or fell discordantly past the ear as "elitist". Anti-modernists crawled out of the woodwork crying "told you so", and the upshot was to raid dusty bottom drawers for long-lost, second-rate music and encourage living composers to "smile and communicate".

This finger-snapping, tune-obsessed counter-culture has bred a sizeable community of creative newcomers, some of them talented, others not, and with uncomfortable long-term implications for the record industry. For while no one can deny that "plinky-plonk" music (the reactionary term for the avant-garde) sells in relatively small numbers, the problem with these sweet-toothed successors is rather more serious. Who will want the CD reissues? Music that speaks honestly and uncompromisingly is perennial, whereas music that's merely "nice but dim" is prey to the fickle vicissitudes of fashion. Viewed long-term, musical quality is the best policy - and damn the fast buck.

I'm not talking about ballads or custom-composed "light music", but of musical ephemera dressed as symphonies, tone poems, concertos or oratorios. Suddenly, the new-release sheets are bursting with them. Why, for example, is a brilliantly creative songwriter like Sir Paul McCartney handing out tunes and ideas to instrumental arrangers, rather than keeping them in house (so to speak), experimenting and daring to be different, as he did so successfully with the Beatles and Wings? Granted that his latest "classical" CD, Working Classical (working class-ical: get it?), is a less portentous production than the over-ambitious Standing Stone, but it's still not really him.

String-quartet song arrangements in Linda's memory have genuine vitality, whereas three extended orchestral pieces circulate wistfully and inoffensively but without going anywhere. It's music that soothes and reminisces, but never challenges. This sort of musical small-talk is not the stuff of "serious" composers. Can EMI's booklet writer really believe that McCartney is "an important new voice in the classical field"?

Some would reply that we ought to stop thinking in terms of a "classical field", that electronic communication, cultural cross-pollination and a shrinking demand are somehow forcing classical music - or at least the recorded wing of it - to modify its profile. The signs are definitely there. Before becoming "Sony Classical", CBS had forged important musical trails by recording Bartk with Bartk, Stravinsky with Stravinsky, as well as a whole blazing host of less saleable moderns.

Nowadays, aside from a brave series devoted to the boldly out-reaching music of Gyorgy Ligeti, Sony's menu has largely jettisoned flavour in favour of bland crossover that is neither fish nor fowl (save for a shrinking repertoire of reissues). Pianist Chick Corea revisits his Seventies number Spain as a sort of mock-concerto, backed by the London Philharmonic, and with a pleasant but forgettable Piano Concerto for the company.

In the past, Corea - whose influences number Bartk and Berg among their ranks - has performed Mozart with the likes of conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and pianist-composer Friedrich Gulda. He's also a prodigiously gifted jazz player and a fine solo-piano miniaturist. But saddle him with strings and the constraints of musical form (or something like it), and his own work suddenly becomes self-conscious and stilted.

Burton-on-Trent-born fusion composer Joe Jackson, whose Symphony No 1 toys occasionally with a theme from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, suggests a similarly muddled musical identity. You listen for something simmering beneath the surface, and hear very little. What you do hear is skittish, clever, and relatively superficial: musical "entertainment", and that's about the limit of it. But a true "symphony"? I don't think so. Still, there's hope even among the gaudy straits of Sony's new-release sheets.

With luck, some of those who care to dabble in Jackson or Corea or will take a risk with Nicholas Maw's Violin Concerto. It's on the same label; it's played by the eminently marketable fiddler Joshua Bell (a contemporaneous release called "Short Trip Home" has him jazzing folk-style) and, at a glance, it looks as if it might share the same lightweight aesthetic. But the truth is profoundly heartening, and if any crossover groupie takes the trouble to beam up the end of track two and the beginning of track three, he or she is likely to be enraptured. It's a wonderful moment from a memorable piece, and fully worthy of Sony's treasurable legacy.

Elsewhere, in this dubious battle between listening and merely hearing, violinists have played centre-court. Again, as with the composers, I sense a looming identity crisis. For all his posey punk shenanigans, Kennedy was once a healthy sign for our regenerative musical life; but he too has capitulated. I'll accept the Hendrix-Bartk sandwich (heard in concert), the shock-tactics dress code and many other zany eccentricities. But in Classic Kennedy (EMI), even he dabbles in the odd ambient arrangement, with a Titanic-style "Scarborough Fair" that takes the biscuit.

Why couldn't EMI have asked him to perform something that better suits his maverick temperament, like Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale"? What a fabulous CD/video production that might have made. We had come to rely on Kennedy to provide an accessible cutting edge. I'd hate to think that the nerve has vanished with the Nige.

And while we're talking violinists and poses, there's the Finnish bombshell Linda Brava. Blatant as she is about her appearances in Playboy and on Baywatch, not to mention the sexy mermaid-style imagery touted on her new Virgin Classics CD, Brava plays the violin - mostly mainstream this time - with a freshness, innocence and lack of sophistication that are the hallmarks of countless top-grade students. That, for the moment, seems to be the extent and limit of her skill.

But, tell me, will even that face, that body and all the hype seduce anyone who is not interested in "classical" music to sit through the whole of Grieg's 25-minute Third Sonata for violin and piano? It's a fine piece (and good for Brava's credibility), and, yes, there are tunes - but it's not easy listening.

The paradox of Brava's relative musical chastity faces its diametric opposite in the interpretative sophistication of Anne-Sophie Mutter's latest, Four Seasons. Once more, there's the sex: tight jeans this time, a reclining pose and a decidedly sultry look. But while Brava's Grieg is candid and forceful, Mutter's Vivaldi teases, insinuates, seduces, quietens to a whisper, holds back, then flies at you with ruthless virtuosity.

What you see is what you hear: hot-blooded temperament delivered with cunning, control and a certain studied deliberation. By comparison, her earlier recording (under the illustrious Herbert von Karajan) is all tweeds and surgical stockings. Mature Mutter is a music marketer's dream: she has all the right ingredients, both as a woman and as an artist, and she crosses the musical divide without compromising on repertoire.

And there's the CD packaging. Deutsche Grammophon's presentation is "high-gloss gatefold", but that, too, is par for the course. A recent, lavishly presented DG booklet-CD of Bach wedding music is so visually preoccupied with soprano Christine Schafer's pretty face, that whoever designed it forgot to print the disc's contents on the spine. When you file it, you'll need to remember the colour green. But at least you'll remember the music - something that, in the current scheme of things, must be counted a precious "plus".