'Rocky 2' concerto tops poll of classics

Rachmaninov tops chart for 4th time - despite author's disdain

John Ezard and David Ward
Tuesday April 13, 2004
The Guardian

Tolstoy was discredited as a music buff and the mantras of an obscure Russian hypnotist vindicated last night when a Rachmaninov concerto topped the Classic FM hall of fame for the fourth year.
"Tell me," the author of War and Peace asked the composer, wretched after the public failure of his Symphony No 1 in D minor, "does anyone want this type of music"?

The remark from his hero threw Rachmaninov into a deep depression. He was recommended to a hypnotist and musician, Nikolai Dahl, who spent months repeating the phrases, "You will begin to write ... you will work with great facility ... the concerto will be of excellent quality."

And, when his romantic Second Piano Concerto in C minor was premiered in 1901, Dr Dahl's suggestions proved to have worked not only on the composer but on wider audiences for the next 100 years.

Rocky 2, as musicians call it, with its serene apparent recollections of love and love making, is still one of the best-loved, most often performed concertos in the repertoire.

Its emergence - in each year so far of the new century - as the British classical listening public's favourite tune indicates Rachmaninov's position as perhaps the most popular mainstream composer of the last 70 years. Its place was secured by the votes of the commercial station's listeners.

Although his music was out of fashion long before he died in 1943, Rachmaninov's celebrity reached larger audiences through films, notably Brief Encounter, after the war.

The top 100 has three other works by him. In contrast, it has nothing by the three more modernist British composers who were established when he died: Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and William Walton. There is nothing from Britten's Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw or War Requiem, nor from any opera till George Bizet's Pearl Fishers at 21.

However, the traditionalist Vaughan Williams has nine pieces in the poll, with Lark Ascending in fourth place.

The steepest ascent is by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whose Farewell to Stromness came 290th last year. Last night, after Sir Peter's appointment as master of the Queen's music, it was 76th.

Sir Peter said modestly: "I've got no illusions about Farewell to Stromness being a better piece than Grieg's Piano Concerto [fifth] or anything like that, they're far, far better composers than I am. But I'm very pleased and very touched."

Farewell to Stromness is a simple piano composition, without the tempestuous complexities of Sir Peter's symphonies or some of his other earlier work. He wrote it as a piano interlude, a possible elegy for his inspirational Orkney, when it was threatened by a uranium mining project, now abandoned.

Climbing more steadily up the Classic FM ratings is a second modern work, Karl Jenkins's choral The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, in eighth position - with the honour of being sandwiched between two of Elgar's best-loved works, the Enigma Variations and his piano concerto.

Jenkins is composer of Adiemus, but The Armed Man is a more conventionally big work for choir and orchestra. It is seen as an example of a piece which might put off orthodox organisations, but achieves mounting popularity on the circuit of choral societies.

Other chart placings take the love of a good tune into bizarre territory. Howard Shore, who did the film score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, might be surprised to find his modest, plangently warbling chords rated 12th - one place above Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

And, at 18th, the American Jay Ungar's Ashokan Farewell, popularised by a TV documentary series about the American civil war, has more in common with a campfire singalong than a classical musical platform.

The top 100 has 20 Mozarts, 19 Beethovens, 14 Tchaikovskys, 12 Bachs and 11 Elgars, no Wagner (not even Tannhauser) and only one Mahler. The only operas are The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Nabucco, Cavalleria Rusticana and The Pearl Fishers.

The highest new entry is Patrick Hawes, whose Quanta Qualia (from the CD Blue in Blue) was released last October.