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Musical Series – The Classic Top 400

The classic Top 400 is broadcasted on NPO Radio 4. The Top 400 is the classic counterpart of the Top 2000, with the difference that the list is shorter, while there are centuries of music to choose from instead of decades. A Top 4000 would be more appropriate, but anyway…

The ‘eternal’ number 1

Just as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is always at number 1 in the Top 2000, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” is always at number 1 in the Classical Top 400. It has grown that way.

Concertgebouw conductor Willem Mengelberg started the annual performance around Easter in 1899. By the Second World War, the quality of his performance was renowned. That tradition has grown and in 2021 you can always find a performance near your residence around Easter, often organized by a local choir.

If you have never heard the Matthew live I can recommend it. It is a special experience, sitting in an often just too cold church on an uncomfortable chair, listening to what is often a mixture of professional and amateur musicians and singers who have worked incredibly hard to give a beautiful performance. It does something to you, it is impossible not to be touched. The atmosphere of a church, often with impressive reverberations, reinforces that effect.

Is the St. Matthew the best thing ever written? No more than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is the best song ever written. It is tradition, a common shared experience. There are many excellent recordings to be found on the streaming services of the ‘Matthew Passion’. The performance by the Collegium Vocale Gent under Philippe Herreweghe is heavenly. J.S. Bach: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244– Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, Harmonia Mundi, 2007

Popular composers

Which composers have the most works? This table shows the top 10:

Composer Number of works
Johann Sebastian Bach 39
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 20
Ludwig van Beethoven 17
Franz Schubert 16
Arvo Pärt 14
Gustav Mahler 12
Georg Friedrich Handel 9
Antonio Vivaldi 8
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy 8
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 8

Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are not surprising. Arvo Pärt is. There is much to say about Pärt, but that is for another article.

The stragglers

It is much more interesting to look at the last three spots of the Top 400. Chances are that there you can find the “unknown gems”, pieces that are less often performed, but have great quality.

The 400th place is for Symphony no.3 by Schumann. I have a confession to make: Schumann is a composer I’ve never really delved into. Too many concerts where a Schumann piece was a filler and after a few minutes I asked myself how long it was going to last. Until I heard this great performance by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner. Wonderful! Fiery! Full of life! So Top 400: thank you for correcting my inanity.

Schumann: Complete Symphonies – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner, Archiv Produktion, 1998.

Outside, the autumn storm is howling. We close the thick velvet curtains, light the fireplace, open a good bottle of wine and burn candles. We surrender to the romance of Rachmaninov’s cello sonata, which ranks #399. As a cellist, you can go all over the top with this piece, or you can do it in a more rutted and understated way like Alexander Chaushian, maximizing the impact of the most romantic passages. You would almost get red ears from this cello eroticism.  With Yevgeny Sudbin on the piano, BIS has delivered here a fine album for the long, cold winter nights.

Rachmaninov – Borodine – Chostakovitch : Russian Cello Sonatas– Alexander Chaushian (cello), Yevgeny Sudbin (piano), BIS, 2011.

At place 398 we find “Psalm 130” by Lili Boulanger. Sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger are big names in music. Lili is the first woman to win the prestigious composition prize Prix de Rome. Lili had weak health and died at a very young age, she was only 24 years old. As a composition teacher at the conservatory, Nadia trained many great composers from the beginning of the last century. As is unfortunately often the case in history, women of stature are usually understudied. In recent years there have been many projects around the work of the Boulanger sisters, as a rehabilitation of their position in music history.

If you like grand choral works, such as Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ for example, then Boulanger’s ‘Psalm 130‘ will amaze you. It is at times a grand and impressive work, without becoming bombastic. The performance by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, with the superbly singing mezzo-soprano Ann Muray, is stunning.

Boulanger: Psalm 24 / Faust Et Helene / D’Un Soir Triste / D’Un Matin De Printemps / Psalm 130 – BBC Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Chandos, 1999

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