Vox pops

The aspirations of Classic FM's listeners are laid bare in its `Hall of Fame'. But will the results alter the policy of just playing the good bits, asks Bayan Northcott
No doubt the powers that be at Classic FM had their own consumerist reasons last year for sorting the votes of some 80,000 of their listeners in a chart of the top 300 favourite works under the naff title of Hall of Fame. And sure enough, the spin-off compilation discs did pretty well in the subsequent ratings. Yet the actual sequence of choices in the chart proved by no means so naff - indeed, rather intriguing.

For a start, it seemed far less dependent upon the pop promotion razzmatazz of Classic Countdown than might have been expected. True, there were plenty of items such as Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (no 16 in the chart) or Delibes' Flower Duet (70), which might initially have been picked up from earlier best-selling compilations, or from advertisements. Yet, surprisingly, Puccini's Nessun Dorma came in only at 115. And, of such pseudo-classical concoctions as Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary or The Piano Concerto of Michael Nyman, there was not a trace - unless one counts Gorecki's Third Symphony (98), which at least began as a serious composer's serious attempt to simplify his style, whatever the market has subsequently made of it.

Yet neither did the 1996 Hall of Fame entirely correspond with that repertoire of operatic gems, dance music and nostalgic piano pieces which used to be known as "Light Classics", despite the appearance of Puccini's Che gelida manina (43), Johann Strauss II's Blue Danube (84) or Debussy's Clair de Lune (102). Nor, for all the reliance of Classic FM itself on extracts and single movements, was the chart dominated by bleeding chunks. For while the Top 20 duly included Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations (7), the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth (12) and Bizet's Pearl Fishers Duet (14), it also encompassed Beethoven's Fifth (19) and Sixth (3) plus his Emperor concerto (8), Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (4) and Piano Concerto No 21 (9), Elgar's Cello Concerto (6), Dvorak's Ninth (15) and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (2).

True, all of these were pipped to No 1 by the sublimely gemutlich First Violin Concerto of Max Bruch; no doubt helped in turn by last year's lustrous recording from Joshua Bell. But the work remains a masterpiece of its kind, just as Bell, for all the record industry hype, has proved a true musician.

Does this mean that all the doom and gloom about the "decline of the classics" is confounded, and that the Western canon resides cherished as ever in the bosom of Middle England - or whomsoever constitutes Classic FM's core audience? Not entirely - for there were odd anomalies in the chart. The absence of anything (save the Gorecki) composed since 1945 was not, perhaps, so surprising; more so, given the rise and rise of early music, was the representation of all those pre-Purcellian centuries solely by Monteverdi's Vespers (135) and Tallis's 40-part Spem in Alium (177). Again, certain supreme masters made unaccountably late first appearances in the chart: Wagner not till the Tannhauser overture at 107 and Haydn with his Trumpet Concerto at 154, while poor old Bruckner never made it at all. There was comparatively little great chamber music and from the repertoire of the Austro-German lied or the French melodie, not a note.

All the same, it will be interesting to see whether the weightier trends are confirmed in the 1997 Hall of Fame for which voting is now open until Easter (rather more interesting than the question of whether Bruch One will be knocked off the top by Rach Two, which seems to be the selling point of the operation). Because, if so, then this suggests that the station that pumps out "the world's most beautiful music" could be facing a real dilemma: whether to feed the apparently aspiring expectations of a significant proportion of its audience with more complete works, unbroken opera relays and serious music features (to say nothing of more lieder and Bruckner) or, by cleaving to the by now well-worn formula of "best of classical bits", silly music "lifestyle" programmes and insanely repetitious adverts evidently preferred by its commercial paymasters, to risk at least some of that audience straying into the dread direction of Radio 3n

Music on Radio: page 18