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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Drawing the Classical Line

By Norman Lebrecht / October 23, 2002

Simon Rattle tops the week's charts, but most classical CDs are barely distinguishable from pop

The sight of a symphony topping the classical CD charts has sprung tears to the eyes of traditionalists and sent anoraks scouring the archives in search of distant precedent. Amid claims of a classical 'revival', Sir Simon Rattle's performance of Gustav Mahler's fifth symphony, his first as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra outsold the field last week after being aired on network television (a once-in-a-decade aberration by the BBC) and advertised lavishly.

The last symphony to reach number one was by Henry Mikolai Gorecki, a reflective Pole who in 1976 set about subverting doctrinaire western atonalism and socialist state atheism with a hymnodic rhapsody of serene faith. Gorecki's tuneful third symphony sold three-quarters of a million copies in the post-Communist dawn of the early 1990s, often to people who wandered vaguely into stores asking 'for that record, the one with the woman singing.'

Gorecki never had a follow-up hit, nor is his evocative Third heard much any more, except as a soundtrack on tele-thrillers. Like most chart fodder, it held our attention for a few weeks before heading in heaps to the charity stores. Rattle's hit will, I predict, go much the same way. Its over-eagerness in attack and occasional raggedness in ensemble qualify the CD as a souvenir of Rattle's career move, rather than as a milestone account of a masterpiece.

No matter how much EMI invest in Rattle or how splendidly he rules Berlin, I have a hat here for the eating should he ever score another number one in the classical hit parade. For the charts are an uneven pitch, tilted against classical music. Over a dozen years, as sales slumped, the classical record industry dumped the serious stuff and embraced dubious surrogates.

EMI's biggest selling classical star is not Rattle but an electric fiddler in a white, wet top, followed by a pack of music students dressed up as 'The Planets' who render symphonic pops to a disco beat. Sony Classical (a flagrant oxymoron) peddles the piano medleys of pop crooner Billy Joel and the precocious warble of Charlotte Church who, since she has taken up boys and smoking, is being displaced by Aselin Debison, a 12 year-old from Nova Scotia who nasalises country-style ballads.

Decca, once a watchdog of vocal purity, became the spiritual home of jumped-up karaoke singers like Russell Watson and Andrea Bocelli. No-one, apart from teenaged rack-stackers and the DJs of Classic FM, is fooled into thinking that this is classical music. It's just another deception by a dying record industry. The question is whether crossover has cultural or social value - whether it will change the world we inhabit, or last longer than a prawn sandwich. No crossover act has earned more opprobrium than the quartet known as Bond, four graduates of London music colleges who turned their bare backs on orchestral careers and formed a girl gang that plays amplified melodies to a techno backdrop. Bond wear swimsuits, or less. Their CD label, Decca, supposedly vetoed a nude shot for the debut album cover.

Airy as a G-string, Bond have been banned from the classical charts for crossing the line between fake classics and unadorned entertainment. Their record company has launched an appeal, ahead of the release next month of their second album, Shine. The girls meanwhile are negotiating a major-brand underwear deal. They make no pretence to be other than what they are: four good musicians having a great time.

Their leader, Haylie Ecker, can hold her own in cultural colloquium. She suggested I come and watch them working with schoolchildren, displaying the merit of their kind of music. 'Some of these kids, she said, 'have never seen a violin before - that's the social base we're starting from.'

Meeting the seven year-olds at the Church of England Primary School in Kentish Town, a well-disciplined inner-city academy, the girls soon discovered what they were up against. Playing an instrument was not something any of the children had thought of doing. Patiently, the girls put tiny fiddles into hesitant hands and encouraged them to create a sound. One kid, Kyle, proved a natural, as if to the fiddle born.

Haylie called for a simple tune that everyone knew - 'What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?' Not a flicker of recognition. England's folk heritage has been erased, along with higher cultures, from the school curriculum

'How do we get to be like you?' piped an infant.

'What you've got to understand,' declared Tania Davis, the viola player, 'is that if you want to be like us you have to learn the classical way of playing an instrument and practise hours every day until you get it right.' Mercifully, there were no thought police present to arrest her for elitism.

'Do you know what classical music is?' Haylie asked the junior school. 'It's very quiet,' lisped one little girl. They explained that a string quartet is a bit like a hamburger - first violin and cello are the bun, the other two are musical meat.

Bond gave a short performance, leading with Allegretto , by the TV-jingle writer Karl Jenkins. Starting softly, they induced a trance-like rapture in the school, a silence among the lambs. But when the throb-throb backing track kicked in, the kids were transformed into a state of agitation, arms and legs jerking, concentration fractured into nanoseconds. Where the girls had manifested that classical music improved mental coordination, they now exposed the destructive futility of disco rhythms. You don't have to be Menuhin to know that Mozart is better for tender minds than heavy metal.

Engagingly, Bond make no exaggerated claims for their work. They admire Kennedy for his individuality and despise The Planets as programmatised robots. Bond select their own music and write some of it themselves. They practice, privately and collectively, several hours a day. One plays Schubert with her boyfriend, another bewails the plight of a top-flight classical violinist in New York who cannot get enough work to feed himself.

Bond belong to the classical tradition. But the world has turned and the girls are out to make a splash and have some fun, before they settle down. In years to come I won't be surprised to hear Haylie, Tania, Eos and Gay-Yee performing a Bartok quartet or a new piece by Peter Sculthorpe. They believe in the redemptive power of great music. What they play is poles apart from what they know how to do. They stand at the cusp of a cultural revolution, going with the aggressive zeitgeist while lamenting sonatas lost.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001