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Australian classical music lovers have voted for their favourite 20th-century works in ABC's Classic 100 Countdown, and the results are full of surprises. ABC radio's weeklong traversal of the 100 highest-ranked pieces – all composed since 1900 – culminated in a gala concert on December 3, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra playing the Top 5 and announcing the modern masterpiece that nabbed the number one spot: Elgar's Cello Concerto.
Like so many other fans of the work, ASO conductor Benjamin Northey came to know the Cello Concerto through Jacqueline Du Pré's beloved recording. "It tugs at the heart strings of those with a soft spot for Elgar's unique style of British romanticism," he said.
Judging by the complete Classic 100, it seems allegiance to the motherland is alive and well when it comes to Australia's taste in classical music. Three works in the Top 10 are by British composers: Holst's The Planets claimed second place and Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending came in third. The latter free-spirited work for violin and orchestra was No 2 in the original ABC Classic 100 Countdown ten years ago, runner-up to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto K622.
Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, First Symphony, Violin Concerto and Dream of Gerontius also made the 20th-century list, as did Vaughan Williams's two famous Fantasias and five entries by Benjamin Britten. Russians dominated the symphonic offerings (Shostakovich Nos 5, 7, 10; Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and Peter and the Wolf, and Rachmaninov blockbuster piano concertos).
Classic FM presenter Julian Day, the host of New Music Up Late and a composer himself, feels there are a few glaring omissions. "According to all the history books it was the big names like Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage that ruled the roost so it's intriguing that none of them made it," he said. "I was even more surprised that so few of the really significant living composers appeared – Steve Reich, say, or Louis Andriessen – whose music is very accessible and often really gorgeous."
Edo de Waart, onetime chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony and a champion of the American minimalist composer John Adams, was once asked during a radio interview, “Why do we have to listen to music that sounds like bus crashes?” The maestro replied, "Sir, you're living in the wrong century."
But that's not the view of the 20th century reflected in the Classic 100. The darkness and turmoil is there (the Shostakovich symphonies, Schoenberg's Transfigured Night) but the broader picture is one of a tuneful century: three Puccini operas, Léhar's The Merry Widow, Bernstein's West Side Story, Ravel's Boléro, Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne... Even de Waart's favourite composer John Adams, who snuck in at No 100 with his opera Nixon in China, wrote catchy, repetitive music.
If this suggests we are a conservative bunch, Julian Day is at least encouraged by the way voters embraced the music of living Australian composers: those on the list include Percy Grainger, Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards. Australia's Elena Kats-Chernin is the only female composer in the Top 100. "We have some amazing talent in our midst and it's great that we're listening to their sounds," said Day.
The complete Countdown will be replayed on digital radio ABC Classic 100 from Monday December 5. The highlights CD is available now on ABC Classic FM.
100: JOHN ADAMS Nixon in China
99: RAMIREZ Misa Criolla
98: PROKOFIEV Lieutenant Kije Suite
97: ADDINSELL Warsaw Concerto
96: SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op 93
95: TAVENER Song for Athene
94: SIBELIUS Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105
93: ELGAR Violin Concerto in B minor, Op 61
92: BRITTEN Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
91: LLOYD WEBBER A Requiem: Pie Jesu
90: HOWARD SHORE Lord of the Rings
89: LÉHAR The Merry Widow
88: ELGAR Dream of Gerontius
87: O'BOYLE Concerto for Didgeridoo
86: VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on Greensleeves
85: WEILL The Threepenny Opera: Prologue and Act 1
84: VILLA-LOBOS Bachianas Brasileiras No 5
83: RAVEL Daphnis and Chloe
82: GLASS Akhnaten
81: MESSIAEN Turangalila-Symphonie
80: GRAINGER Irish Tune from County Derry
79: BARBER Violin Concerto Op 14
78: ELGAR Symphony No 1 in A-flat, Op 55
77: GERSHWIN Piano Concerto in F
76: BERNSTEIN Candide
75: STRAUSS An Alpine Symphony Op 64
74: KORNGOLD Violin Concerto in D, Op 35
73: MAHLER Symphony No 6 in A Minor
72: GERSHWIN An American in Paris
71: BRITTEN A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
70: BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols
69: RACHMANINOV Vespers Op 37 (All Night Vigil)
68: JENKINS The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
67: DEBUSSY Preludes
66: MAHLER Symphony No 9 in D
65: PARRY Jerusalem
64: RESPIGHI Pines of Rome
63: SCHOENBERG Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for string sextet Op 4
62: RAVEL Piano Concerto in G
61: MAHLER Symphony No 4 in G
60: SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No 7 in C Op 60, Leningrad
59: BRITTEN War Requiem
58: MAHLER Symphony No 8 in E-flat, Symphony of a Thousand
57: PROKOFIEV Symphony No 1 in D Op 25, Classical
56: PÄRT Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
55: CANTELOUBE Chants d'Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne)
54: RAVEL Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess)
53: RESPIGHI Ancient Airs and Dances
52: PUCCINI Turandot
51: SCULTHORPE Kakadu
50: BRITTEN Peter Grimes
49: ROSS EDWARDS Dawn Mantras
48: SHOSTAKOVICH Gadfly Suite
47: STRAVINSKY Petrushka
46: PETER SCULTHORPE Small Town
45: EDWARDS Violin Concerto Maninyas
44: RACHMANINOV Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27
43: GLASS Violin Concerto No 1
42: BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra
41: MESSIAEN Quatuor Pour Le Fin Du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time)
40: STRAUSS Der Rosenkavalier Op 59
39: ELENA KATS-CHERNIN Wild Swans
38: PROKOFIEV Peter and the Wolf, Op 67
37: RAVEL String Quartet in F
36: MORRICONE The Mission
35: STRAVINSKY L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird)
34: DEBUSSY La Mer (The Sea)
33: MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)
32: COPLAND Fanfare for the Common Man
31: SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op 47
30: SIBELIUS Symphony No 5
29: NIGEL WESTLAKE Antarctica Suite
28: PUCCINI Tosca
27: SIBELIUS Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 43
26: KHACHATURIAN Spartacus
25: MAHLER Symphony No 5 in C-sharp minor
24: GERSHWIN Porgy and Bess
23: SIBELIUS Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 47
22: RACHMANINOV Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op 43
21: ELGAR Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D, Op 39
20: RAVEL Boléro
19: RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op 30
18: COPLAND Appalachian Spring
17: PUCCINI Madama Butterfly
16: PÄRT Spiegel Im Spiegel
15: SIBELIUS Finlandia
14: GORÉCKI Symphony No 3 Op 36, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
13: BERNSTEIN West Side Story
12: VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
11: STRAUSS Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)
10: PROKOFIEV Romeo and Juliet Op 64
9: STRAVINSKY Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
8: ORFF Carmina Burana
7: BARBER Adagio For Strings
6: RODRIGO Concierto de Aranjuez
Premiered in Moscow in 1901 with the composer playing piano and his cousin, Alexander Siloti, conducting.
BN: "Music drenched in romanticism but with forward looking harmonies and dissonances. The original uber-rubato and sometimes schmaltzy aesthetic is perhaps somewhat out of style with musicians these days, but audiences lap it up when it's played well. It's distinctly Russian music, but even more distinctly Rachmaninov."
4: VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The Lark Ascending
Premiered in London in 1921, conducted by Adrian Boult. A review from The Times famously said, "It showed supreme disregard for the ways of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along."
BN: "The ethereal quality of this work is very demanding on the soloist. It's so fragile that you need a very poetic and accurate player to make it float as it should. People love the simplicity of the pentatonic based solo lines and the rich pastoral accompaniment. Strangely, for such a popular work, the Countdown Concert was the first time I've conducted the Lark."
3: GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue
Premiered 1924 in a concert called "An Experiment in Modern Music" in New York, with Gershwin playing the piano.
BN: "I listened to Bernstein conducting this work with the New York Philharmonic a lot when I was a kid. The opening is the most famous clarinet line in history. As soon as you hear the soaring smear of sound, the listener is transported to Gershwin's bluesy New York. Originally for a jazz band, the Rhapsody is a timeless masterpiece."
2: HOLST The Planets
Premiered to an invited audience in London, 1918, conducted by Holst's friend Adrian Boult.
BN: "I must admit I was surprised by this and thought it would be somewhere between 10 and 20. Again, British music at its most powerful and evocative. The most famous movements are Jupiter and Mars but tonight we play Mercury. I'm not really a huge fan of this piece, mainly as I feel its a bit passe now, but audiences still flock to hear it live and it lends itself well to multimedia concerts with footage of planets. It's very cinematic music."
1: ELGAR Cello Concerto in E minor Op 85
Premiered in 1919 with the London Symphony Orchestra, labelled a disaster due to the limited rehearsal time Elgar had with the orchestra.
BN: "Like most people, I was introduced to this work through the Jacqueline Dupre's recording with Barenboim conducting. It tugs at the heart strings of those with a soft spot for Elgar's unique style of British romanticism. The coda of the work sounds like someone not wanting to let go, it's deeply moving when interpreted sensitively."