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The Futility Of Making Top Ten Lists In Classical Music

 New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini has an interesting article in the arts and leisure section of the January 9 Sunday Times on making lists of the ten greatest composers . Ten greatest composers ? How can any one make such an arbitrary list ? Does this mean that all the other composers are inferior to this exalted if arbitrarily chosen group ?

  Tommasini discusses the music of such giants as Bach,Handel, Beethoven, Schubert ,Brahms,Chopin, etc ,and shows how futile and pointless the whole exercise is.  The problem is that people tend to equate the greatest with the most famous, even though this is not necessarily the case .  There's no question that Bach,Mozart,Handel, Beethoven, Schubert,Brahms, Stravinsky and Wagner etc are AMONG the greatest composers . 

  But how can any one say that such giants as Bruckner,Mahler,Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Prokofiev,Shostakovich , Berlioz, Charles Ives, Dvorak, Janacek, Carl Nielsen and others are not as great in their own way ? 

  Classical music is an almost unimaginably vast field with so many great composers . And there are also many composers who may not be quite as great as the greatest but who still wrote much highly enjoyable music .  For example ,  Max Bruch ,Ottorino Respighi ,Camille Saint-Saens, Aram Khatchaturian ,  Emmanuel Chabrier , to name only a handful . 

  The fact that they aren't the equal of Bach and Beethoven is no disgrace to them .  It's the same when it comes to ranking great conductors, violinists,pianists,cellists and singers .  Here too, people tend to equate the most famous with the greatest . 

  There have been certain superstar performers in the history of classical music whose famed eclipsed that of other performing musicians ; violinists such as the legendary Nicolo Paganini of the late 18th and early 19th century , and more recently, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Yehudi  Menuhin , and in the present day , Itzhak Perlman.  Pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein ,  Van Cliburn, cellists such as Mstislav Rostropovich ,Pablo Casals , etc.

  But while they may not be quite as well -known to the general public as these names, here is a partial list of other instrumentalists who are or were very great :  pianists Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin,  Artur Schnabel, Alfred Brendel, Emmanuel Ax, Clifford Curzon, violinists Joseph Szigeti , Gidon Kremer, Bronislaw Huberman, cellists Pierre Fournier , Lynn Harrell .  You may not have heard of these names if you are new to classical music and not yet very knowledgable about it, but I assure you, all are towering musicians.

  Among conductors ,  Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini , Leopold Stokowski , Serge Koussevitzky , Fritz Reiner, Sir Thomas Beecham , Herbert Von Karajan , Sir Georg Solti , Wilhelm Furtwangler , Carlo Maria Giulini , Willem Mengelberg , Carlos Kleiber, Artur Nickisch , George Szell, Eugene Ormandy etc are among the most illustrious among those no longer living , and  Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim , Bernard Haitink , James Levine, Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Muti , Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel , Andre Previn , are among the most eminent living ones .

  But there have been other giants in the field, such as Eugen Jochum ,Hans Knappertsbusch , Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch , Erich Kleiber (father of Carlos),  Victor De Sabata, Vaclav Talich , Rafael Kubelik , Rudolf Kempe, William Steinberg , Ernest Ansermet , Yevgeny Mravinsky , etc, who are not quite as well-known to the general public but revered by CD collectors and cognoscenti. 

  Great opera and concert singers have included Caruso , Feodor Chaliapin , Maria Callas, Rosa Ponselle, Kirsten Flagstad , Lauritz Melchior , Luciano Pavarotti , Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson ,  Marilyn Horne,Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter , Jussi Bjorling , Ezio Pinza , and so many others ,as well as among those currently active such as  Renee Fleming, Anna Neterebko, Deborah Voigt, Ben Heppner,Placido Domingo , Natalie Dessay , Thomas Hampson, Bryn Terfel ,Rene Pape, and others .

  All these names I've cited barely scratch the surface. With so many great names ,how can any one make ridiculous lists of the "Ten Greatest " ?

Posted: Jan 10 2011, 08:52 AM by the horn | with no comments
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