Beethoven, having died in 1827, is hardly the flavor of the moment. Bach didn't have an alter ego as an MC or sell mixtapes on the street. Pudgy opera singers tend to look less than Beyoncé-esque, and had Vladimir Horowitz paraded into Carnegie Hall in Danger Mouse's outfits, the effect would have made people gasp, and not in a good way.
What I'm trying to say is that classical music has an uneasy relationship with popularity. Listeners with a passing interest tend to value it for its soothing qualities or, conversely, for its extreme volume. The combined timbres of winds, brass, percussion, and strings playing at full volume bring on the gut-wobbles just as surely as five Marshall stacks do. I know a rock critic who couldn't care less about Wagner's operas, but give him the "Ride of the Valkyries," that leaping theme from Wagner's Die Walküre that Francis Ford Coppola used in Apocalypse Now, and he flips out.
The top 10 best-selling classical "songs" on iTunes show exactly this split between calm and stormy. The list also shows an unhealthy obsession with Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor whose voice adds entire new dimensions to the word lackluster. While he tried to sing both straight classical and crossover material in the mid-'90s, he now plies a musical river that's lined with lira alone these days. And since he's appeared on American Idol, he's hit the jackpot. Recently, I downloaded all the Bocelli and non-Bocelli tracks and spent an afternoon coming to grips with what really sells.
At No. 10 was the opening chorus of Carl Orff's 1936 cantata "Carmina Burana," a setting of lewd poems by a bunch of medieval monks whose only outlet for their desires was to put them in verse. In Latin. The track takes the solemnity of Latin and makes it defiantly impious and bellicose. And if there's anything people like in their religion these days, it's defiance and impiousness. Check out Christian rock for examples. This recording is on the London Symphony Orchestra's own LSO Live label, conducted by Richard Hickox. It's loud, it's rhythmic; people love it.
I was then whipsawed—quietly, but whipsawed nonetheless—by two recordings of Pachelbel's "Canon." At No. 9 was Raymond Leppard leading the English Chamber Orchestra. From the softly plucked basses and cellos at the opening to the contented plinkings of the harpsichord, it's not difficult to hear why it's so popular. That it's also the de facto choice for bridal marches from Atlanta to Phoenix doesn't hurt, either. However, it's not quite so popular as Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert's interpretation of Pachelbel's "Canon and Gigue in D Major: Canon," as iTunes labels the exact same piece of music. Listeners who went for this one obviously prefer the quicker tempo and use of solo strings instead of a full chamber contingent. Tomato, tomahto.
British conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique held down spot No. 7 with the first movement of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5," by far Beethoven's most well-known moment. They attack the famously assertive opening and dig those woodwind crescendos. Gardiner is an aggressive interpreter here, and while this recording is one of the first to show up when searching for the "Fifth Symphony," that hard-nosed aggression must tip buyers in his direction.
On to No. 6, and keeping the energy level high, was Aaron Copland and his "Fanfare for the Common Man." With the blood coursing through my veins at this point, I almost saluted the flag outside a museum I was walking past. Again, it's the London Symphony, this time with Copland conducting. From the way the trumpets fudge the opening, it's hard to tell why this one gets downloaded so often; I'd go with Leonard Slatkin's version with the St. Louis Symphony. But when people want their rousing fanfares, it's best not to ask questions. Give them the fanfare and move away quietly.
With No. 5, the light started to dim and I couldn't see straight. Andrea Bocelli's "Con Te Partiro" held that position. This is in the classical section? Bocelli's tenor is, how do you say, unsupported and is about as operatic as Boone's Farm is fine wine. With its synthesizer-sounding string section and chorus, the song is high-class movie music. Like so many terrible tunes, I can't get this one out of my head, especially this mock-heroic modulation from G to A at the end. Ravel does the same thing at the end of "Bolero," so you know Bocelli's arranging team can ID a good model when they hear it.
Bocelli also had position No. 4, though there he had the star power of Céline Dion to help him out in "The Prayer," from Bocelli's Sogno album. Dion coos with an electric keyboard in the background before twittering in Bocelli's ear when he enters. Is easiest listening a genre?
Yo-Yo Ma and the first movement from Bach's "First Cello Suite" were up at No. 3. The hugely popular cellist has delved into world music and worked with such pop musicians as Bobby McFerrin, so his ranking makes sense. The meditative suites can put the listener in a state of auditory bliss where the outer world and its troubles fade away. The mellow-sounding cello never screeches like a violin, and in a capable cellist's hands, like Ma's, it almost takes on the soothing quality of a voice. Who wouldn't want a little of that in their iPod? And thank God Bach beats, at least a little, Bocelli.
Then it's back to the loud, with Fritz Reiner leading his Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a raucous interpretation of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." It's a staple at outdoor concerts, where the final sections can be buffed up with cannons for real militaristic power. Like my rock-critic friend and Wagner, this is classical music you can rock out to.
Which brings us to No 1., an alternate version of "Con Te Partiro" featuring Andrea Bocelli and his perfect mate, the soprano Sarah Brightman, titled "Time To Say Goodbye." The arrangement includes the "Bolero" pattern on a drum throughout, along with Brightman's straight-from-a-phonetic-dictionary Italian. That, folks, is the sound of lousy vocal technique.
With its warhorses and canon of great works, classical music is insulated from a lot of fads. Beethoven's Fifth will probably always be popular, and so will "Carmina Burana." But it's not so far from popular culture that a tenor whose calling card is his biography and who is backed by an effective PR machine can grab the spotlight. Beethoven raged at the heavens for letting him lose his hearing, but then, he never heard Andrea Bocelli.