November 17, 2011


The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Parry. X5. $24.99 (4 CDs).

The Greatest Video Game Music. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Skeet. X5. $16.99.

     You have to get past the sheer effrontery of the notion of “50 Greatest” this or that to enjoy any of the many collections claiming to skim the surface of the world’s best something-or-other. Certainly that is true as regards The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music, because most of the items here aren’t even “pieces” but parts of pieces – and that is apart from the question of whether individual selections deserve to be included at all. Why, for example, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5? Is it “greater” than the 20 other dances and also greater than, say, his Symphony No. 4 or Ein Deutsches Requiem? Nonsense. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth – greater than, say, the finale of his Ninth? Oh Fortuna from Orff’s Carmina Burana – tremendously exciting, to be sure, but one of the greatest classical pieces ever? A movement from Bach’s Third Brandenburg rather than one from, say, the Fifth – and what about the Mass in B Minor? Pachelbel’s Canon (actually only one of the innumerable ones he wrote) – ubiquitous, yes, but among the greatest works ever? It is the word “greatest” that sticks in the craw here. The collection could have been called, say, 50 for Fun: Classical Music You’ll Really Enjoy, or something like that, and it would not raise so many hackles. And in truth, if you think of it as 50 for Fun, this is a pretty good foray into the more accessible side of classical music – no extended choral works, nothing deeply in minor keys, no complete Mahler or Bruckner symphonies, certainly no Verdi operas (much less Wagner). A bit of Grieg here, a little Chopin there, a touch of Vivaldi, a soup├žon of Debussy – there is nothing very wrong with this collection, even if there is nothing particularly right with it, either. It is a well-played, decently priced compendium of snippets that listeners unfamiliar with classical music may enjoy as an entry point to other, deeper and more complex works – or simply to the totality of pieces heard here only in small portions. This could be a good seasonal gift for someone who doesn’t listen to classical music but has always been a bit curious about why anyone would.

     The Greatest Video Game Music, aside from its similar title, is a somewhat different kettle of fish. The title may refer to the “greatest” music from any video games or to music from the “greatest” video games, but no matter: what listeners get here are 21 classical-music-style orchestrations of music, mostly upbeat, dramatic and/or emotive, from such games as “Legend of Zelda,” “Super Mario Bros.” (which includes a surprisingly sweet waltz), “Call of Duty 4,” “Final Fantasy,” “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “Halo 3.” Even the theme from “Tetris” is here – and, for that matter, so is the main theme from the currently wildly popular “Angry Birds.” Unlike classical music, which is created so audiences will listen to it, video-game music is written in support of a nonmusical experience. This does not mean it is necessarily uninteresting – film music too is created to support a nonmusical medium, and some such music is excellent when standing on its own. In the case of this album, though, it is a little difficult to know the intended audience. The games whose music is heard here are primarily mainstream rather than hard-core, and the selection of music omits, for example, the original “Tomb Raider” games and “Outcast,” both offering particularly good scores. But of course the selection of any “greatest” compilation will always be a matter of opinion. A bigger question for this CD is how well the video-game music adapts to a classical orchestra. The answer, in the main, is: not very well. Shorn of the connection to the games they support, sonically altered to be performed by traditional orchestral instruments, the themes are catchy enough but, as music, rather mediocre. Even superb composers, such as Shostakovich, were generally not at their best when creating film music. The lesser composers of these video-game themes have produced pieces that work well enough in context – sometimes very well indeed – but do not hold a listener’s interest very effectively when heard as orchestral compositions. This is basically evanescent music, designed for a supporting role; nothing here is ever likely to make it into someone’s idea of a compilation that might be called, however wrongheadedly, The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music.

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