From Orpheus to the avant-garde

10th October 1997 at 01:00
THE HISTORY OF CLASSICAL MUSIC. Naxos, Pounds 8.99 cassettes, Pounds 12. 99 CDs.

EXPLORATIONS 2. Gramophone Publications, Pounds 6.95. Tel: 0181 422 4562. Unknown Public's quarterly magazine plus CDs are available from Freepost (RG2558), PO Box 354, Reading RG2 7BR. Tel: 0118 931 2580.

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG EXPOSITION. Sony Classical.

Michael Church reviews some recent recordings and a publication that could be useful in music teaching

Having given us the Bible, it must have seemed child's play for Naxos Audiobooks to offer The History of Classical Music in a mere five hours. And music teachers - at whom this four-CD box is primarily aimed - should have no trouble making good use of it.

The narration is in the hands of that master-storyteller Robert Powell, and the musical illustrations, drawn from Naxos's vast recorded archive, are expertly chosen. After passing references to Orpheus's lyre and the trumpets that brought down the walls of Jericho, Richard Fawkes's script gets down to brass tacks with the birth of notation - circa 600 AD - and the development, around 1000 AD, of the stave.

This tour d'horizon is emphatically not to be listened to in one fell swoop. It should be used as a stimulus for further exploration into any given period. With major composers being dispatched in two or three minutes, the information is necessarily limited, and also a touch bland. Beethoven, we are told, "had problems with women - he never married". That's all we get on the tempestuous love-life that shaped his work and launched a clutch of feature films.

The real problem with the script, however, is that it is too ambitious, trying to reflect the social and political background at every stage as well as hurling names and dates about like confetti. I would have confined all this to an accompanying booklet and given centre-stage to the complex technical evolution of classical music. What are neumes? What is faux-bourdon? Such things need more than an oblique sentence or two.

Meanwhile, a small publication - with an associated CD - has arrived that provides a clear way into the labyrinth known as "new music". Published under the auspices of the Gramophone, the almanac of the classical record industry, Explorations 2 is an overview of current trends, produced by a group called Unknown Public. In its usual guise, UP is a quarterly journal on cutting-edge new composition that comes with an attached CD. This particular number contains interviews with John Adams, George Benjamin, Gavin Bryars, John Tavener and a host of others, along with back-ground articles that bring normally fuzzy concepts into sharp relief.

I never thought I would read such a lucid analysis of minimalism - or such a cogent argument for taking it seriously - as the one to be found here. I was riveted by Benjamin's account of his own creative process: sparked by abstract ideas, but fuelled by a love of instrumental colour. Here also we find a critical recantation to warm the heart: a veteran modernist admitting that state-supported avant-gardists have been left high and dry while true creativity sweeps on under the "world music" banner.

There are state-of-play articles about film music, and about the increasing crossover between the jazz and classical traditions. It's exhilarating stuff, as is the music on the CD. Sixth-form and GCSE pupils wanting a handle on the music of the future should start right here.

In this regular column I shall be recommending records that may be useful to students and teachers, and not always at the top end of the academic spectrum.

But since we're dealing with new music, it's worth noting the existence of a mid-price four-CD box that charts the work of the man who began it all.

Arnold Schoenberg Exposition encompasses all his important works, in some cases necessarily abridged, and in so doing reflects his progression from mellifluous tonalism to rigorous serialism and finally home to accessibility. It even includes an interview in which he talks about his painting. Sixty years of musical history, all packed into one ingenious little box.

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