Many years ago, that ever-popular New York radio station WQXR published the winners of its 2001-2002 Classical Countdown Winners. There are few surprises in any of the four categories. However, there are many points of interest.
In the 40 entries under Favorite Works, Beethoven comes in number 1, 2, 3, 5, and 13, four of which are symphonies and one a piano concerto (“Emperor”). Mozart does not show up until No. 11 and then only five more times as numbers 12, 20, 34, 35, and 37. Only two operas, “Don Giovanni” and “La Boheme” show up on this list; and I must heartily concur with those choices. Verdi, surprisingly, appears only once and that for his Requiem rather than for any of his operas.
Tchaikovsky comes in at numbers 21, 29 and 32 with two symphonies and his Violin Concerto, the latter making one wonder why the Piano Concerto No. 1 did not make it. Schubert appears only once and that time for his “Trout” Quintet, while Mahler is there thrice for his first two and fifth symphonies. Bach also appears three times for his Brandenburg Concerti (what? all of them?), B-minor Mass, and Goldberg Variations, the latter representing the only piece for soloist on the list.
No need to mention all the others, because you have already surmised that all of these are the “war horses” of classical western music. Copland (“Appalachian Spring”) and Barber (“Adagio”) are the only American composers on the list ; and I wonder if more would have shown up had this been a poll of European listeners. Should you see all 40 listings, you will, doubtless note, the complete absence of “modern” music, especially atonal, and music from before Vivaldi. But there is a good reason for that, since the challenge was to choose individual pieces.
Note also the breakdown by genre: 15 symphonies, 10 concerti (of which 4 are for piano, 4 for violin, and 1 each for clarinet and cello), 4 non-operatic vocals (3 requiems and an oratorio [“Messiah”]), only 1 chamber work and only 1 piano solo piece. The appearance of 3 requiems is most interesting in light of the world situation today. I wonder if they would have appeared prior to September 11, 2001.
As for the top 12 instrumentalists, the list was in this order: Ma, Perlman, Stern, Galway, Rubinstein, Horowitz, W. Marsalis, Bell, Gould, Mutter, Argerich, and Heiftiz. Notice how violinists lead the pack with 5, pianists a close second with 4, and 1 each for cello, flute and trumpet. Notice also that the cellist stands in first place. Draw your own conclusions here.
The top 12 conductors stand thus: Bernstein, Levine, Masur, Mehta, Toscanini, Solti, Muti, Marriner, Ozawa, Karajan, Barenboim, and Slatkin. Here the Americans put up a better showing, holding 1st and 2nd places, not to mention last. Despite the poor acoustics of so many of his RCA recordings, Toscanini still holds a fond spot in many fans’ hearts.
It is with the top 12 singers that some really interesting results emerge: Domingo, Fleming, Pavarotti, Callas, Te Kanawa, Bartoli, Bjoerling, Ferrier, Upshaw, Battle, Sutherland, and Terfel. 6 of them are sopranos, 3 tenors, a mezzo, a contralto, and a baritone. What strikes me is that the very popular baritones of the past–Merrill, Milnes, Warren–yield to the most recent Wunderkind, Bryn Terfel. I suppose that Shakespeare was right as usual: Time has a wallet on his back wherein he puts coins for oblivion. I am also a little surprised to find Battle’s name in this list. She is just fine on recordings but her small voice does not work (for me) in a live performance. And after some of the pranks pulled by Pavarotti, I wonder why anyone would choose him above Bjoerling. But, hey! these are personal choices, and against that there is no arguing.
Had they added a listing of “Most Hauntingly Beautiful” musical pieces, I would have expected to see “La Mer,” one or two of Rodrigo’s works for guitar and orchestra, “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” “Symphony on a French Mountain Air” by D’Indy, “O mio babbino caro” from “Gianni Schicchi,” the waltz from “La Belle Helene,” and I’d better stop here lest I get bombarded by messages asking “How could you leave out ABC orXYZ?” That way, madness lies.