Rob Cowan: 'Real classical' has been replaced by 'the very best of...'

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We are told that classical music is worth a fortune in record sales and that an increasing number of people are using it to relax. But is it is really classical?

The British Phonographic Industry's shortlist of chart-topping compilations gives us some guidance on constructive "further listening". There's nothing new in that. Record companies have been touting "favourite movements from the classics" since the days of 78s.

Then there's sweet-voiced Andrea Bocelli, a sure draw for the kind of listener who would once have been sold on Mario Lanza. But how many Bocelli fans will have taken the cue from various arias to investigate the operas they come from, including at least one that Bocelli has recorded? Not many, I fear.

We're talking "easy listening" rather than "classical", with youngsters such as Hayley Westenra leading the pack.

Ask the average record buyer about the appeal of so-called classical music and they will usually respond along the lines of passive listening, or worse, something that you only "get into" when you're old.

This is no surprise given such sedentary titles asSmooth Classics - Do Not Disturb and The Very Best of Relaxing Classics. What these sober-sounding albums do is plunder major works for tunes, atmosphere and palatable "background".

Having classical music on "in the background" is light years removed from the drama and passion of what listening to "real classical" or "serious" music is about. When Classic FM made a hit of Gorécki's Third Symphony they were promoting the cause of a fine work not a quick-fire round of single-shot "tasters."

I would like to think that John Tavener - A Portrait, released by Naxos to commemorate the composer's 60th birthday, is somewhere lower down on the BPI list, because it uses the compilation idea so effectively: a combination of complete pieces, extras and one or two novelties.

A pianist such as Krystian Zimerman performing a Rachmaninov concerto should top the charts yet we still play safe with compilations. The biggest crime is the prevalent idea that classical music is where you end up after pop has worn you out.

So I offer one or two proposals. First, an album calledDisturb, with its pounding rhythms of Stravinsky, Bartók and Prokofiev. Then there are choruses from Bach.

There are fabulous modern concept albums by Uri Caine, Heiner Goebbels, Tavener and Pärt. Not all these names are widely known, but they could be.

All it needs is a fresh route of access and the next BPI Top Ten could indeed be "real classical" music.

Rob Cowan

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