ABRSM “Core Classics” – The Review

Sheet Music Review

Once in a while, a publication arrives for review which is based on a great concept and is itself essentially a very good product, but where the mismatch between the original intention and its actual delivery is a glaring one, as though at some point in the developmental process there was a communication breakdown.

Core Classics: Essential Repertoire for Piano, a set of seven progressively “graded” solo repertoire books published worldwide today by ABRSM, is a striking example of this phenomenon.

So let’s see what went awry, and more positively, what this beautifully presented new series actually has to offer…

The Core Concept…

ABRSM explain,

Core Classics is a collection of seven books of music, covering Grades 1 to 8. Selected and authoritatively graded by piano specialists, this series contains a rich selection of engaging pieces to form the backbone of any pianist’s repertoire.
With 130 pieces spanning four centuries, Core Classics is equally valuable for learners working towards a grade exam, between exams, or playing for leisure, building technical skills and confidence.”

So far, so brilliant!

I’m sure I’m not the only piano teacher eager to hold a set of books that cover all bases, featuring the best and most popular piano music ever written, all carefully organised in progressive order. Such a series, well edited and engagingly presented, would deserve to sell like proverbial hot cakes.

And how refreshing to see ABRSM again acknowledge the aspirations of the many who want to play the piano for pleasure and deep enrichment: an encouraging recognition of a much broader constituency, even if (given the extraordinary dedication and commitment of so many amateur players) the word “leisure” still seems faintly dismissive.

But wait…

The Core Classics?

I need to ask you something…

What would you say the “core classics” are?
What composers/works would you describe as Essential Repertoire for Piano?

Perhaps take a moment to literally or mentally compile a list…

Mine would certainly include something amazing from Bartók’s For Children, some Kabalevsky and Walter Carroll at elementary level. For intermediate players I would have to feature Prokofiev’s brilliant and imaginative Musiques d’infants, find room for a Clementi Sonatina, and of course a Satie Gymnopédie. Did I forget Beethoven’s Für Elise and the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata? How about McDowell’s To A Wild Rose?

As players advance, Mozart’s K.545 is surely “essential”. Who doesn’t want to have a go at Joplin’s Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, or Chopin’s Nocturnes and Waltzes? Debussy’s easier pieces, Children’s Corner, the Arabesques and Clair de lune remain immensely popular. And Schumann’s Kinderszenen is obviously another must!

I would also include some ’new classical’ pieces (Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, etc) given their immense popularity with students and audiences, and the inspiration I have repeatedly seen players of all ages derive from them. Several top classical concert pianists (including Víkingur Ólafsson, Valentina Lisitsa and Lang Lang) are programming and recording this music; ignoring it just seems snooty.

What a disappointment then to find that none of the above are included in the series. None of them!

Certainly there are pieces by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann nestling within these publications (albeit rarely their best-known melodies). Indeed the final book in the series stands out for including several popular pieces, such as Schubert’s evergreen Impromptu in A flat, Liszt’s gorgeous Consolation in D flat, and the Rondo from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata.

But ironically, one of the most striking features of the other six books is the near-absence of popular favourites. And several of the most important composers in the solo piano and pedagogic repertoire are entirely missing from the series.

The Core Classics: Essential Repertoire series doesn’t include any music at all by the following composers:

  • Kabalevsky
  • Clementi
  • Bartók
  • Prokofiev
  • Satie
  • Debussy
  • Joplin
  • Gershwin
  • Poulenc
  • Rachmaninov
  • Shostakovich
  • Bernstein
  • Ravel

ABRSM’s decision to miss out the music of so many core composers is deeply problematic in terms of introducing developing pianists to the key innovations and personalities that are such a seminal foundation for properly appreciating and approaching the piano repertoire.

ABRSM’s Alternative Universe

I have compiled the complete list of ABRSM’s 130 “core classics” here, but suffice to say that instead of the masterpieces of the great composers listed above we find old pedagogic and exam pieces by such as George Dyson, Thomas Dunhill, Felix Swinstead, Harold R. Clark, Terence Greaves, William Alwyn, Lionel Salter, David Bedford, Michael Rose, Alan Haughton and Harold Samuel, among others.

Astute readers will no doubt have twigged that what these composers have in common that they were all commissioned by ABRSM to write criteria-driven exam music over the decades. Stravinsky, whose Tango and Les Cinq Doigts are predictably missing, would perhaps be kicking himself!

Those eager to see female composers represented will be pleased to see the inclusion of music by Anna Bon di Venezia, Jessie Furze, Dorothy Pilling, Cécile Chaminade, Louise Farrenc, Sylvie Bodorová and Marianne Martinez. And were it ABRSM’s intention to both highlight female composers and excavate their own publishing vault, they must have been delighted to unearth the Little Habeñera, included in the Grade 2-3 book and composed by one Jean Mackie.

But unfortunately for the rest of us, the piece is one of the several here that are far from “essential”. And indeed, such is Ms. Mackie’s obscurity that where other composers’ dates are shown, hers are simply listed as “(20th Century)”, despite the fact that ABRSM themselves commissioned her to write the piece for them in 1973. Oh dear!

I rather doubt that anyone at ABRSM seriously believes that their own-commissioned exam fodder, somewhat dominating these books, is now more widely regarded as core classical repertoire.

Nor can I imagine that the respected musicians whose names are listed at the front of each collection overlooked ‘the greats’; rather that at some point the project veered away from the wonders of the beloved solo piano repertoire and morphed into an exercise in trying to breathe new life into old exam rope.

As such though, one should have confidence in ABRSM’s assertion that the pieces have all been “authoritatively graded by piano specialists”. And yet even here, regrettably, I have minor misgivings.

It is a little perplexing, for example, that Rebikov’s The Bear (a Grade 1-2 piece in most teachers’ eyes) appears in the Grade 2-3 book, while Fuchs’ Proud Horseman (in ABRSM’s own Grade 3 piano syllabus in 2001-2002) here appears in the Grade 1-2 book. Has ABRSM revised its benchmarking, or did these pieces simply end up in the wrong books by mistake?

The Publications

Moving to the publications themselves, I am very pleased to be able to give a more positive report. I have long held that one of ABRSM’s key strengths is their ability to turn out an outstanding finished publication, and the Core Classics series is happily no exception.

The music engraving is excellent and well-spaced throughout, and as one would expect there is ample, carefully-considered fingering. Ornamentation, where it appears, is always explained in small print above the stave, as in the exam books. Fantastic!

Impressively, the books include something approaching a critical commentary; at the rear of each, editorial consultant Richard Jones lists sources, notes where dynamics (etc) are editorial, and even acknowledges where revisions to the musical text have freshly been made in these editions. These are all important points to include, and are too often missing elsewhere. Jones is certainly to be applauded for an excellent job well done.

The covers (see image above) are lovely too: understated, classy, and presented with a tactile mixture of matt and gloss finish.

One other point:
Comparisons with ABRSM’s recent Encore series are inevitable…

When I reviewed the latter, I praised ABRSM for breaking with their tradition by including helpful and creative teaching tips for each and every piece across the series, concluding:

“At all levels the suggestions given are creative and highly welcome. Those who follow up on even some of these ideas are likely to find their musical experience transformed for the better.”

It’s therefore disappointing that with Core Classics: Essential Repertoire ABRSM have taken a step backwards in this respect, offering neither background to the pieces, nor tips for playing and teaching them.

Some Conclusions

Taken as a whole, ABRSM’s Core Classics: Essential Repertoire series offers a useful and sometimes attractive mix of well-known and lesser-known music that is well-suited to the exam room, if not always to the living room or concert hall. If you are looking for a significant resource of exam-style pieces, the series certainly has you covered, and there’s enough to enjoy here to keep students busy for years to come.

But it seems to me that ABRSM would have been more truthful had they described these collections as books of selected exam pieces from previous years in the mould of their venerable Keyboard Anthology and Short Romantic Pieces series, rather than elevating them to “Core Classics“.

I suspect that many experienced teachers will agree that, fascinating though much of this music is on its own terms, ABRSM’s Core Classics: Essential Repertoire falls far short of offering a pedagogically valid overview or musically balanced introduction to the dizzying wonders of the classical piano repertoire.

The disappointment for teachers will be that the books contain so little of the actual core repertoire that we regularly teach, and which our students are so enthusiastic to play. And while there will no doubt be some who snap up these books anyway because they carry the ABRSM logo, I suspect many more experienced teachers will agree that it would be a grave mistake to rely on the series for the student’s main musical diet, the “backbone of any pianist’s repertoire” that the publishers suggest.

The disappointment for students will mirror these points, but with the added problem that any who swallow the idea that the pieces included here represent the best that the classical repertoire has to offer might find themselves pretty underwhelmed.


Complete List of Included Pieces

+ The series is tastefully presented and music is well edited.
+ The books provide a useful compendium of exam-style repertoire.
+ With plenty of material in each book, they offer good value.

– There are too few “core classics” or popular favourites.
– There’s no background information or teaching tips.
– The series title and marketing seriously misrepresent the content.

Though these books are a useful source of previous exam material, the bottom line is that they don’t include sufficient core classics; nor can much of the included repertoire honestly be described as essential.
And that is obviously rather a problem.

Available online from EVC Music here.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

2 thoughts on “ABRSM “Core Classics” – The Review”

  1. Surely it is the individual piano tutors responsibility to
    include regularly, basic core repertoire in between taking exams one after the other ,there are anthologies from Melanie Spanswick and ETPA which cover this .
    And the core composers missed out are all the ones I learnt as a child instead of exams , although I’m familiar with the names from set pieces at local music festivals , …… Progressing with exams a grade a year is a mistake ,,,,,, and I feel very sad that many children don’t get the opportunity to be excited by our instruments wonderful repertoire early , as a result . …….

    Liked by 1 person

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