MUSIC / The classical pop-pickers: A living composer is finally top of the classical music charts. But, finds Mark Pappenheim, the popular market is still dominated by compilations

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The Independent Culture
THE very idea of a CD-stimulated Classical Top 20 can still send die-hard music buffs into a 78rpm spin. But when, this week, only four months after the launch of Classic FM, Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No 3 became the first work by a living composer to hit No 1 in the official Gallup chart, it seemed like something of a vindication both for the concept of a classical hit parade and for the new national commercial radio station that has promoted it. For Gorecki's Symphony - a plangently beautiful set of laments, partly inspired by victims of the Gestapo - is just the sort of work (by an obscure, reclusive, living composer) that the sceptics predicted would be squeezed out by a compilation-clogged market and a pop-style station dedicated to 'the world's most beautiful music'.

But Paul Gambaccini, Radio 1 DJ turned classical pop-picker on Classic FM's Classic Countdown, is sure the station can claim the credit for turning the London Sinfonietta's new Elektra Nonesuch recording into a chart-topper. As he says, Gorecki's symphony is that rarity in modern music, a piece you only have to hear once to be hooked - and it was Classic FM (with its audited listenership of 5 million a week) that made sure people heard it. It's a justifiable claim. After all, Gorecki's piece has been around for 16 years, has already had two previous recordings (the earlier of which is also scoring in HMV's specialist chart), and has even enjoyed an earlier burst of Continental cult status following its use on the soundtrack to the French movie, Police. 'It was,' says Gambaccini, 'a piece just waiting to be exposed - and we probably gave it more exposure than anyone else.' Picked as Classic FM's first 'Classical Sureshot' in the week of the station's launch last September, Gorecki's symphony entered the charts the following week at No 19 and just kept climbing.

Where Radio 3 (with an audience of under 2 million) gave the disc a single play on Record Release, rounded off with that traditional passion-killer, the weary litany of catalogue numbers, Classic FM was able to give it a weekly airing. Clearly, every spin helped. The symphony may have instant appeal, but it still had a lot of public suspicion to overcome - not least because of the composer's unpronounceable name. No wonder it took four months to peak: it took that long to teach people how to ask for it in the shops.

Gorecki aside, the chart has proved more predictable. 'Nigel Kennedy's Beethoven Concerto, for example. I knew that was going to race straight to the top - and it came in at No 1. But I'm pleased that the Essential Michael Nyman has done so well (No 20 this week). I've liked his stuff in the past - this proves that I'm not a complete freak]' Gambaccini's current hot tip is the soundtrack to Tous les matins du monde, the Gerard Depardieu film about the Baroque composer Marin Marais. 'Last year it reached No 2 in the French pop charts. So I'll be watching that one.' The likelihood of any classical chart-topper getting that high up the British pop charts is slim, though. 'The level of sale is such that even a No 1 classical album rarely makes it into the Top 50 LPs.' The key factor is cross-over. 'We all know that Nigel Kennedy has crossed over. But we also know that the London Sinfonietta is not exactly a household name. That's the miracle of the Gorecki. It's gone beyond the level of the usual concert-going crowd.'

The fact remains, though, that it is compilation albums that dominate the classical charts - this week they account for 14 out of the Top 20. Gambaccini tries to play them down by restricting them to the first hour of his show, reserving the final two hours for new releases. 'If I didn't do that, they'd sweep the board.' As he says, they not only make boring listening - 'Who cares about the chart progress of Classic Experience II, say, versus Classic Experience III and Classic Experience I??' (although, for those who do, CE I has gone up this week from No 7 to No 6, while CE II has dropped from No 12 to No 14 and CE III has stuck at No 18) - more importantly, they distract attention from new artists and new work. And, as this week's Music Week editorial remarks of the similarly plagued pop charts, 'If new artists fail to emerge, what are we to put on the compilations of tomorrow?'

Still the classical marketing men continue cynically recycling their back catalogues in ever more perverse permutations. 'The fact that Sensual Classics and Classics for Lovers have both appeared in the charts at the same time (this week at Nos 13 and 15 respectively) seriously suggests market forces at work rather than some great underlying artistic trend,' observes Gambaccini.

Given his suspicion of samplers, it is ironic that Classic FM has just issued its own compilation, The Sound of Classic FM, on the EMI label. The first Gamba ccini knew of it, he says, was when it popped up on his own show last week. Next week, though, he'll find it challenged by a rival product from a perhaps surprising section of the BBC. For Philips Classics' The Best of the Classical Bits is pegged not to Radio 3, nor even to Radio 2, but to Gary Davies' Radio 1 show.

'It all began about three years ago,' says Davies, 'when I was doing the lunchtime show. Just for something a little bit different, I started digging out little pieces of music to play while I read the lunchtime weather'. At first, he used movie and TV themes, but then he thought he'd try a touch of the classics - 'and as soon as I did, it just took off. People began phoning and writing in to ask the names of things or to request particular pieces. It wasn't anything that I forced on the listeners - it was something they forced on me'. Soon, he says, requests began arriving with the PS, 'I love this piece so much, please don't talk over it]' And so The Classical Bit was born as a slot in its own right.

The new CD offers the 18 most requested tracks of all. As Davies admits, it hides no surprises. 'The music the listeners suggest is pop. I mean, it may be classical, but it's still pop. It doesn't matter whether you know classical music or not, you will know every single track on this CD.' Not that he doesn't get odd requests: 'You name it and I've probably had a request for it.' Whether Gorecki's Third will ever make it on to the show, let alone The Best of the Classical Bits, Vol 2, is doubtful.

For despite their different packaging, all the many compilations draw upon the same small selection of familiar pop classics. Copycat syndrome is rife. Teldec's Sensual Classics, for example, offers a 75-minute scenario for seduction, beginning with Rachmaninov's Brief Encounter concerto, climaxing with Ravel's Bolero, and concluding cheekily with Bach's Air on the G string - lie back, light up and listen to the music of the Hamlet cigar commercials. But as Harriet Capaldi of Teldec observes, when Quality Television came up with their rival Classics for Lovers, they stuck the Bach in halfway through - 'which rather misses the point]'

Despite the different target audiences, there is nothing on Philips' Gary Davies album, or even Sensual Classics, that would be out of place on Your Hundred Best Tunes, Radio 2's long-running Sunday evening series pegged to a listeners' poll first drawn up in 1959 and last updated eight years ago. 'But it never changes,' concedes the show's current producer Maura Clarke. 'That's the whole thing. It's cherishable - part and parcel of the fabric of the old BBC.' Maybe it needs a fresh look: on the current list, Nessun dorma makes only No 45, the Four Seasons No 81 and Beethoven's Violin Concerto, sans Nige, is left floundering at No 96. There is no Mahler, no Gershwin, no Carl Orff. If even such family favourites were absent only eight years ago, what hope has Gorecki of ever hitting the all-time Top 100?

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: Classic FM Top 10 ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 ( 5) Gorecki: Symph No 3. . . . . . .Zinman 2 ( 3) Beethoven: Vln Cto. . . . . . . Kennedy 3 (15) Essential Ballet. . . . . . . . Compilation 4 ( 4) Classical Ballet. . . . . . . . Compilation 5 ( 2) Take 2. . . . . . . . . . . . . Compilation 6 ( 7) Classic Experience. . . . . . . Compilation 7 ( 8) Essential Opera. . . . . . . . .Compilation 8 ( 6) Vivaldi: 4 Seasons. . . . . . . Kennedy 9 ( 9) In Concert. . . . . . . . . . . The three tenors 10 (14) Opera Gala Sampler. . . . . . .Compilation ----------------------------------------------------------------- Copyright CIN: compiled by Gallup -----------------------------------------------------------------

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: HMV Best Sellers ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 Gorecki: Symph No 3. . . . . . . . . Zinman 2 Tavener: Protecting Veil. . . . . . .Isserlis 3 Hildegard von Bingen. . . . . . . . .Gothic Voices 4 Beethoven: Vln Cto. . . . . . . . . .Kennedy 5 Orff: Carmina Burana. . . . . . . . .Previn 6 Baroque Classics. . . . . . . . . . .Compilation 7 Gorecki: Symph No 3. . . . . . . . . Katlewicz 8 Handel: Judas Maccabeus. . . . . . . King's Consort 9 Vaughan Williams. . . . . . . . . . .Boult 10 Holst: Planets. . . . . . . . . . . Previn ----------------------------------------------------------------- Based on sales at HMV, Oxford St -----------------------------------------------------------------

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: Radio 2's 10 Best Tunes ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1 Bizet: In the Depths of the Temple 2 Verdi: Chorus of Hebrew Slaves 3 Allegri: Miserere 4 Bruch: Violin Concerto (adagio) 5 Pachelbel: Canon 6 Beethoven: Pastoral (finale) 7 Mozart: Pno Cto No 21 (andante) 8 Gluck: What is life? 9 Stephen Adams: The Holy City 10 Elgar: Enigma Variations (Nimrod) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Based on Radio 2 listeners' poll -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)

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