Having recovered from the saturation that was the Hottest 100 20th Century countdown on Classic FM, there are many works that have not made the list that probably could have, considering their quality and representation of what the music of the 20th Century has come to mean to many. Today, I’ll name 25 whose absence surprised me, or ones that I think should have been there. This list, however, is only meant to be a starting point. I’m sure it will seem pretty conservative to many. But here we go.
1. Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3. I was staggered this work didn’t make the list, simply because it is one of the greatest concertos produced for any instrument in the century – as well as being one of the most performed. Here is one of the best performers of the concerto – Martha Argerich
2. Berg Violin Concerto. I am no great fan of 12 tone / serial music – a great deal of it sounds like an overly academic lecture to me. This, however, is the most beautiful example of how the serial chains – with some bending of the rules – can be placed to produce music that charms the senses. It should have been there – if only because it is performed quite often in Australian concert halls. I like this sensitive performance.
3. Shostakovich String Quartet No.8. Only two string quartets made the list – Ravel’s and Messiaen’s, and no piano trios made it. That shows to me that perhaps that the listening audience don’t listen to much in the way of chamber music. There is plenty of chamber music that should be championed – but I think this particular quartet is important because of its position as the proud and public statement of asserting one’s individuality in response to oppression and demands to suppress that individuality.
4. George Crumb – Black Angels. A little while ago, the Kronos Quartet was the hottest ticket in challenging but popular contemporary music circles. Their album “Black Angels” was pretty popular. This is the piece from which the title of the album is derived. Not surprising it didn’t make it – but it’s definitely something that should be on such a list.
5. Bartok – Piano Concerto No. 3. There are plenty of Bartok works left off the list that are excellent examples of his Hungarian folk inspired music. I think it is somewhat insulting to think that something by Khachaturian features higher than Bartok in the list. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, The Miraculous Mandarin and Violin Concerti come to mind as works that could have made it – but I wasn’t overly surprised they didn’t. However, I was quite amazed his beautiful and relatively uncontroversial Piano Concerto No.3 didn’t make it and something by Lloyd Webber did. It is one of the true jewels of the century. When I refer to this concerto in my blogs, I usually have the glorious 2nd movement. And here it is, this time with Hungarian piano legend Andras Schiff.
6. Reich – Six Pianos. Again with the pianos, people will say. Yes, that’s because I am a pianist. I obtained a sampler CD with a 3 minute excerpt of the work many years ago, when in my late teens. It intensely annoyed me and made me laugh all at once, because of the seeming absurdity of six pianos playing what seemed to be in an eternal loop. I remember playing it on a loop whilst having a phone conversation with my usually calm best friend and it slowly drove him to shout to turn it off. Since those days, I have come to really like it and the effect it has on the world around me. It should have been on the list – but I can sort of see why it didn’t.
7. Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine. On the same minimalist vein, I was surprised this work wasn’t in the list, simply because it is a showy, exciting work that is played quite a lot in Australia’s concert halls as an overture. Perhaps the voters of the list don’t frequent Australia’s concert halls as much as we would like to think.
8. Carl Vine – Percussion Symphony. I really like the music of Carl Vine – probably because I do favour tonal music over atonal generally. I also love percussion. I could have nominated a number of his symphonies – or his Piano Concerto, which again is beguiling and easy to listen to. However, his popularity seems to have waned – so much so that he didn’t make an appearance. I will throw in a video of his Piano Sonata – a musical form that didn’t make any appearance in the list.
9. Koehne – Powerhouse, Inflight Entertainment. Another composer that really impresses me in Australian contemporary music is Graeme Koehne – it really lifts a concert hall and really beguiles the ear. Powerhouse and the Oboe Concerto, Inflight Entertainment, are wonderful works and really should be more popular than they are. I don’t have videos of them, but I do have another great Koehne work, True Story of the Kelly Gang.
10. Schoenberg – A Survivor from Warsaw. Another work that is from the Second Viennese school and hence shunned by a wide listening audience. This work, however, is one of the best of the century – representing a moving memorial to victims of the Nazis in WW2. I was a bit surprised not to see it in the list, though it is a difficult work – but so was the subject matter.
11. Ligeti – Lux Aeterna. This is one piece featured in a soundtrack I would have loved to have seen in the Hottest 100. It set the scene for the weirdness that was Kubrick’s 2001 : A Space Oddity and remains an unsettling and wonderfully evocative work. I am mildly surprised it didn’t make it, considering that 2001 is still a popular film in some circles and the work is not as challenging as some others from the century. There’s plenty of other great Ligeti – his piano and violin concertos are stunners – but I’m not as surprised that they didn’t make the list.
12. Cage – 4’33”. This work has created a lot of conversation about what is music, what is performance, what do we listen to. It should have been in the list, simply because its place as an icon of the century. Here is a somewhat surreal moment, where it is televised on the BBC, cheery presenter and all.
13. Gubaidulina – Offertorium. This is one of my favourite violin concerti from the century, from the deeply religious Russian female composer. There was only one female composer represented in the list – Elena Kats Chernin (another of my favourite Australians). It’s disappointing more don’t know more about Gubaidulina.
14. Busoni – Piano Concerto. Sometimes, late romantic works are just damn good. And one of the best of the 20th Century was also its longest piano concerto – the Busoni monster, lasting 70 minutes and featuring a choir in its last movement. A neglected masterpiece (I have never heard of a performance being staged in Australia, for shame) and a kaleidoscope of piano colour. This is Marc Andre Hamelin performing it – one of the best advocates for untraditional piano music around.
15. Martinu Symphonies. I like all of Martinu’s symphonies – they are colourful, spiky and characterful – as feel as containing a mix of optimism and pessimism. But they seem to suffer when it comes to airplay and access to concert halls. However, I think he is one of the greatest orchestrators of the century and it’s a pity he is so neglected.
16. Nielsen Symphony No. 4. Unlike his Finnish contemporary, Sibelius, Nielsen seems to be in decline in terms of popularity – which is a great pity, because there is a frenetic, passionate response to the events of life in Scandinavia present in Nielsen which you don’t see in Sibelius. The century needed the both of them to balance each other out. I was a little surprised that the 4th, the Inextinguishable, was not on the list, but not overly.
17. Shostakovich Symphony No. 4. I am not surprised this didn’t make the list – it is not often played in Australia (or anywhere) and isn’t the pop sensation that its successor turned out to be. However, I would argue that this is a work more in tune than the 5th with what the 20th Century produced, in terms of responses to the pain and torment of the century. The work is a “screamer” – and showed what could have happened if Shostakovich was allowed to produce the music he wanted to compose. It is also so much better than the 7th, which I barely listen to.
18. Bartok String Quartets. Shostakovich and Bartok stood out as the great quartet writers of the century, challenging and awakening ears of concert hall listeners throughout the century. Another person to miss out in the maelstrom of throwbacks.
19. Ives – The Unanswered Question. No Ives on the list was a mild surprise, considering his presence on various recordings over the years. The insurance salesman was before his time – composing works like The Unanswered Question in 1906, while Rachmaninov was still working his way through his 3rd concerto. This video helpfully explains the work.
20. Poulenc – Concerto for Two Pianos. Having no Poulenc was a mild surprise – I remember this work in particular being the basis for a ballet – and what a ballet it was. This is actually one of my favourite works of the century – a lovely dessert piece.
21. Antheil – Ballet Mecanique. The only time when I have seen people actively disgusted at a Sydney Symphony concert was during a performance of Ballet Mecanique. It was awesome. Again, I can see why it isn’t popular, but what a piece of music it is. Not lovely, not romantic – completely without emotion. As some of the actions of the 20th Century were.
22. Rachmaninov – Symphonic Dances. The more dreamy, elegiac Rachmaninov made it to the Hottest 100 list, but my favourite work is less of a throwback than the others – the Symphonic Dances. They are a bit edgier, less assured to my ears – I sense a man cut off from his heritage, trying to recall his time in his homeland and not quite succeeding.
23. Ravel – La Valse. Plenty of Ravel made the list – including his excellent Piano Concerto – but to my mind, the best work of the lot didn’t make it. His La Valse shows exactly what was happening to the century – World War One marked the death of the excesses of the Europe that thought waltzes and fluffy dances was the way to go. This is a great work and it’s a huge shame it didn’t make it.
24. Janacek – Sinfonietta. One of the musical jokes the Classic FM people played on the audience was featuring one of the Salon Des Refuses as a fanfare throughout the list. One of the most puzzling aspects of the list was the complete absence of Leos Janacek – though Eastern Europeans of the earlier parts of the century didn’t really have a large presence on it. He should have appeared at least once.
25. Shostakovich – Moscow, Cheryomushki. No, I am not surprised at all this wasn’t on the list. I only discovered it whilst in the DVD section of Fish records. This ode to apartment living is one of the funniest pieces of propaganda made in the 20th Century. Instead of writing about corn as high as an elephant’s eye, Shostakovich was writing about the wonders of having your own garbage chute. I’m putting it on the list because I think people should host Cheryomushki Parties.
And let the discussion begin.