The Classic 100

Australia’s 100 favourite symphonies

ABC Classics 480 2832/ 480 2837  8 CDs

reviewed by Neville Cohn

480 2842 Symphony 100 Box 3D

It was an event unique in the music history of Australia: a countrywide vote for the nation’s favourite 100 symphonies, an event hosted by The Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This was not the first time that the ABC  – and the record label ABC Classics – had instituted an initiative along these lines – but not in relation to symphonies.

In earlier years, there had been nationwide voting to establish Australia’s tastes in chamber music as well as the piano repertoire, favourite Mozart moments and many other music genres along these lines.

This symphonic countdown was a particularly remarkable experience. After voting had closed, the ABC began the mammoth task of broadcasting each of the 100 symphonies in their entirety, starting with the symphony at number 100 ( by co-incidence, it was Haydn’s Symphony No 100).

It was a fascinating experience, not only listening to the works in their order of popularity but also to messages  – reactions, opinions, congratulations, reservations – from those many enthusiasts across Australia who phoned in to the ABC to share their views on the whole enterprise.

Has any other radio station anywhere provided such a mammoth listening experience?

The collection on the ABC Classics label – on eight compact discs – contains the ten symphonies voted as most popular in their entirety with a number of the remaining 90 symphonies each represented by a single movement. It’s not an ideal arrangement and

I’m certain that the compilers would have wanted all 100 symphonies to have been available in toto. But I imagine that the full collection would have been so expensive as to be beyond the pocket of many, if not most.

One would have to wonder how some of these works got onto the list – and how many votes were cast in total? Without this crucial component, one can only speculate.

Were the numbers so small as to be an embarrassment? I rather doubt that – but one cannot be sure.

How many voted for Ross Edwards’ Symphony? How many votes were cast in, say, New South Wales or the Northern Territory – or Christmas Island?

How many voters plumped for, say, Tchaikowsky or Sibelius? How did Brahms fare in Tasmania, say, or Haydn in Norfolk Island – or Messiaen in W.A.?

It seems to me that if such an ambitious enquiry into Australia’s symphonic tastes was undertaken, why not get the figures out there? And if whatever reason, voting numbers are to be suppressed, then why not provide percentage figures in relation to the total vote count which would certainly be of great interest.

Intriguingly, how many votes were cast in favour of symphonies that didn’t make the list at all? Which were they? How close did they come to inclusion?

The answer could well be revelatory – or not. Without these figures, one is left to surmise.

How many would have voted for Australia’s No 1 symphony – Dvorak’s New World, a worthy winner, although possibly a surprise to those who might have felt that  Beethoven’s Ninth or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth would be first over the line?

Audience tastes, of course, vary over time and place. Consider these results from a poll taken in 1938 by New York radio station WQXR. It makes fascinating reading:

Beethoven’s Fifth came out on top with 23.9% of the votes, Beethoven’s Seventh came second with 18.3% and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth came third with 16.5%.  Beethoven’s Ninth, Third and Sixth were respectively fourth, sixth and twelfth.

At the time, it was suggested by some commentators that it was only a matter of time

before the Seventh outstripped the Fifth. Time has shown that it didn’t happen. It  probably never will.

(I wasn’t able to obtain figures for other composers: placings for Dvorak, Mozart, Haydn and Mahler which would have made interesting reading.)

If, for whatever reason, the ABC Classics compilers didn’t want to reveal the voting numbers, it would surely have been a straightforward enough task to disclose the percentage voting figures as was the case with the New York radio station.

Although some of the recordings of the Top Ten works are of leading overseas orchestras, a very considerable number of the tracks on these eight CDs are by Australian orchestras, although one would wonder why the W.A.Symphony Orchestra is represented by only one track. The WASO’s form has come along impressively in recent years and it’s a shame it doesn’t have more representation on compact disc.

Apart from the top ten in toto, single-movement excerpts from 19 other symphonies round out the eight CDs of the set – ten hours listening time.

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