Classical Sight Readings: Hold my hand while I listen...

Here's a marketing wheeze: classics sold in supermarkets, with famous fans to make them user-friendly
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WHAT MAKES people buy records? The big labels would just love to know. After years of crazy glut they've savagely cut back on production and focused instead on sales. And rather successfully in the case of BMG Conifer, thanks to a nifty alliance with Classic FM. The Full Works is a neat title for a neat marketing idea: core repertoire performed by up- and-coming artists, and pushed in Sainsbury's, Tesco and Boots as well as relentlessly on the airwaves.

The packaging leaves no button unpressed. Each record gets quaver-ratings on a scale of five for its romantic, soothing, uplifting, exhilarating and joyful qualities.

Bach's Violin Concertos (five quavers for "exhilaration", two for "romantic") are praised for having "featured in Children of a Lesser God", while Favourite Guitar Works "include the world-famous theme `Cavatina' from The Deer Hunter". Yes, these are aimed at buyers d'un certain age. Moreover, each liner-note is headed by a few pearls from Classic FM presenters. Thus we learn that the ineffable Jamie Crick uses Bach's Double Violin Concerto to cook to: "As soon as I hear the first notes, I'm fired up to cut, chop, knead or mix..." and that Schubert's Trout Quintet puts one of his colleagues in mind of "the old trout" who taught her at school. On the other hand, the musicological notes themselves are entirely respectable. And when the pianist is Boris Berezovsky or the conductor Danielle Gatti, who are we to sneer?

When launching this label, BMG's managing director opined that it would provide "decision-making criteria" for potential buyers. The same rationale was invoked by the boss of Polygram as justification for an equally canny wheeze. Penguin Music Classics will "eliminate the pain of purchase" by not only choosing our recordings, but reinforcing that choice with a promotional essay by a literary star. These, say Penguin, are "contact" discs. Here are "writers people know, talking about music in a companionable way".

Setting aside the fact that purchasing is more often a pleasure than a "pain", let's take a dekko. Here comes our good companion Paul Johnson, promoting Wagner in a way that proves surprisingly sane. And here is Michael Ignatieff musing elegantly on the Goldberg Variations. Douglas Adams trots out the old canard about Bach's having "fallen into a century of neglect", but then describes his third Brandenburg Concerto as "the music of flocking and swarming things, of things that flow and bubble and rise and fizz, of things tense and constrained that suddenly fly free" - which is both illuminating and accurate. Compare this response with the doggedly "critical" reviews in the Penguin Guide to CDs, and you realise the advantage amateurs can have over jaded experts.

William Boyd ruminates on our need for music to make us sad, and DM Thomas offers a wrenching memoir on his dying wife and Mozart's Requiem. Edmund White hails Tchaikovsky as a gay hero. Humphrey Carpenter and David Lodge promote Gershwin and Rimsky-Korsakov with homespun enthusiasm, while from Rabbi Lionel Blue - master of the populist pensee - comes a sweetly personal endorsement of La Boheme. "They were poor like us in the Thirties. They cajoled their rent collector like us."

Only Arthur Miller strikes a false note, self-indulgently rambling on about how Beethoven's "refusal of climaxes" taught one of his actors a valuable lesson. Or did it? The old windbag can't be bothered to find out. He's sent his words to Polygram, and they'd better be grateful.

And the music? Well, as Polygram are at pains to point out, everything here merits a three-star rating in the Penguin Guide, but you get the feeling that other criteria may also be at work. If I were choosing a recording of the Brandenburgs I certainly wouldn't plump for Benjamin Britten's, and my ideal conductor of Beethoven's symphonies would not be Vladimir Ashkenazy. Why, when John Fowles was turned on to Beethoven by the late sonatas, is he here promoting the usual lollipops? Are Polygram trying to shift slow sellers from their backlist? Or is that an ignoble thought?

FINALLY TO the Russian Embassy, to hear the Bolshoi's plans for their visit to the Coliseum this summer. This wasn't opportunism: if they don't tour abroad, they go under, and under harsh press interrogation they seemed pitiable.

Why did the opera hand-out claim that this was their first British visit, when they had not long ago sung at Edinburgh? Gulp. How bankrupt were they? "Since perestroika our finances have not been outstanding. The harder life is, the more creative we become."

To prove it they had brought along three singers whom they had recently loaned to the Royal Opera. And yes, they really can still do the business.