The crisis of identity in classical music

No one is quite sure how to treat, say, the maunderings of a Ludovico Einaudi
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The Independent Online

Amazing news from the world of classical music. The awards for classical music recordings, the Classical Brits, have been won by classical musicians. Now, if you don't follow the increasingly weird doings of the classical music establishment, this may sound like a piece of news on a par with "Dog wins Crufts", but it isn't really like that. In this case, the news that awards have gone to musicians like Cecilia Bartoli, Renée Fleming, Maxim Vengerov and Simon Rattle goes against the tendency of these awards, and, one has to suppose, against the whole strategy of the classical music industry.

To get a sense of what is going on at the Classical Brits, you have to take a look at some of the runners-up for these awards. The awards are always described as "prestigious". If you look that word up in the dictionary, you will wonder whether they quite mean "cheating, deluding, deceitful; deceptive, illusory"; but then again, perhaps that is exactly what they mean.

This is supposed to be an award for classical music. If you look in detail at many of the recordings shortlisted for the prize, you will see that among them are such compositions as the unbelievable kitsch of Ludovico Einaudi's Echoes - The Collection, a work by which, it is safe to say, Sir Harrison Birtwistle will not be seriously rivalled. Or there is Aled Jones's record Higher, a collection of folk songs and arrangements of "traditional" songs.

Classical music recordings, you might conclude, produced few things finer recently than Miss Myleene Klass's record Moving On, in which the Pop Idol graduate went back to the piano and treated us with arrangements of themes from Braveheart, Gladiator and - a work not obviously in need of arrangement for the piano - Beethoven's so-called "Moonlight" sonata. There again, what could be more solidly in the great tradition than a record by Miss Hayley Westenra, a warbling Kiwi prodigy who provides new words to Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte and Vivaldi violin concertos (River of Dreams) before delighting us all with her own rendering of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights?

Now, it is not really much to the point to indicate that most of these records are rubbish, although I will relieve my feelings by saying so. What is more important is that by describing any of this stuff as "classical music", the organisers come perilously close to fulfilling the dictionary definition, rather than the PR definition of "prestigious". It is simply deceitful and deceptive to claim that Miss Klass's performance of themes from Gladiator falls into the same category as a Daniel Barenboim recording of a Beethoven concerto. Even if it did, no one but a lunatic could suggest it could possibly be considered as exhibiting comparable quality.

Some of the motivation here is a familiar industry incentive, to reward things for purported artistic merit which have sold well to a naive and credulous public. How much easier to shortlist Hayley Westenra than to identify artists of exceptional ability known principally to the cognoscenti, such as the Emerson Quartet or Louis Lortie. But some of it springs, I think, from an anxiety about the nature of classical music. We're not sure what it is any more; we're not even sure what it isn't.

You and I might have thought that classical music consists of music which is specified by a composer as played by particular instruments, to the highest level of detail. It isn't a style, but a degree of specification and a kind of authority deriving from a creative mind. So George Gershwin's "Summertime" falls into the category of classical music when it occurs in the first act of Porgy and Bess, played according to Gershwin's score . When it is reduced to the vague essence of the tune and loose harmonic outline, and elaborated by musicians into a different pattern of figuration, say by a jazz band, it stops being classical music, just as a jazz arrangement of a Bach prelude is not classical music.

But around the fringes of classical music are an increasing number of phenomena, much in evidence in the new programming of Radio 3 which so many people find objectionable. There is world music; jazz and improvisation are growing closer to the work of many art musicians; film music sometimes falls into one category and sometimes another, and we won't easily decide where the line is drawn - personally, I think the work of Danny Elfman deserves performance in concert, where the scores for Lord of the Rings are harmless mock-symphonic kitsch.

There is a crisis of identity in classical music, and no one is quite sure how to treat, say, the maunderings of a Ludovico Einaudi, and few people seem prepared to say that Hayley Westenra, by virtue of singing "Amazing Grace", is qualified neither by excellence nor nature to accept an award next to Renée Fleming. What is tragic is that classical recordings, in the sense we all understand them, are producing exceptional and honourable work all the time; and the pressures of the industry and the market only occasionally make it possible, as this year, to reward a record like Daniel Hope's Berg and Britten violin concertos.

Next year, I am afraid, we are going to go back to rewarding yet another record by "the new Charlotte Church"; and since the audience and the life of classical music didn't need even the first one, it is hard to see what the value of such a prize could possibly be.