Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Elliot Carter - 'two fingers to average listeners'

'For as long as I can remember, Saturday mornings on Radio 3 have meant Building a Library. The programme - nowadays part of CD Review - has been around since Third Programme days and is constructed on clear principles. Each Saturday, a critic assesses the currently available recorded versions of a classical music masterpiece and, after playing excerpts from many of them, nominates the winner. It is an impeccably Reithian BBC programme, designed to guide the average listener who is building a basic collection of classical recordings.

Note the words - the average listener who is building a basic collection of classical recordings. For years, that has been the programme's fine and democratic purpose. But not now. Somewhere along the way someone has captured Building a Library, turning it away from its original - and to me still its proper - purpose and making it into a niche for specialists.

So far in 2006 there have been six subjects in Building a Library: the Concerto Funèbre by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the complete music of Elliott Carter, the Mass in G minor by Vaughan Williams, Mozart's ninth piano concerto, K271, Syrinx by Debussy, and the sixth symphony of Shostakovich. None of these has an incontestable claim as part of an essential collection. Some of them give two fingers to the average listener.

To put it mildly, these six are mainly on the margins, not in the mainstream, of classical music. Some are simply bizarre. Hartmann's (photo right) concerto is an interesting curiosity, but no more than that; I doubt that most listeners on January 7 would have even heard of the composer. And whatever the virtues of Carter, I do not believe there is a large listenership bursting to hear to his music in their homes or cars or on their MP3 players.

Nor do I dismiss the virtues of the Vaughan Williams Mass. But to pretend it is an essential work for a basic library of recorded music is untrue. It isn't. Rightly or wrongly, Vaughan Williams is a minority taste. Perhaps his Mass should be better known and more widely performed than it is. But that's a different question. Its claims to be part of a basic collection are too thin.

The case against Debussy's Syrinx is rather different. Debussy is indisputably a major composer and Syrinx, a flute solo, is without question a masterpiece. But it is a miniature one. It lasts three minutes. Ideal for the MP3 download for sure. But not, unless you are a flautist, the basis for buying an essential CD.

With the Mozart concerto and the Shostakovich symphony we are on different ground again. Of all the six pieces covered by Building a Library this year, they are the two with the most obvious claims to be essential recorded works. And yet neither piece is exactly central to either composer's output. And in the case of Mozart it is striking that Building a Library should give its attention to a relatively marginal masterpiece when in modern times the programme has not thought fit to examine either the Marriage of Figaro or the Magic Flute.

My charge, therefore, is that a favourite programme with wide appeal has been hijacked by and for specialists. And specialists, what is more, with a
consistent bias against the 19th century. None of the six pieces examined in 2006 comes from the century that remains at the heart of any recorded-music library. It is now 26 years since Building a Library examined Brahms's first symphony and 23 since his violin concerto was on the list. When you listen to Building a Library nowadays you understand why, for all the defects that so infuriate Alan Bennett, Classic FM is so successful. I say it is time to reclaim a flagship Radio 3 show for the mainstream audience - not the easy-listening audience, that's a completely different thing. On Saturday, in case you are wondering, Building a Library turns to the operas of Francis Poulenc. I rest my case.'

Martin Kettle writing in today's Guardian

Pliable says - I suspect these mentions of the complete music of Elliot Carter, Hartmann's Concerto Funèbre, Vaughan William's sublime Mass in G, not to mention Poulenc's operas (the Dialogues des Carmélites is a work to die for, which unfortunately is exactly what happens to the poor nuns in the final scene) will prompt many of my readers who don't currently listen to BBC Radio 3's Building a Library to make it a weekly fixture. If so follow this link for webcasts and Listen Again services. There is also what the BBC describes as 'a searchable exclusive online database of more than 1,000 of the finest classical performances' from the Building a Library programmes. Fascinating, but fallible, and ready to give you hours of fun and discussion - just follow this link.

Image credits - Eliot Carter from Metrotimes, Karl Amadeus Hartmann Nmz.de
Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Private Passions

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