ABRSM’s Core Classics

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

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 by ABRSM, is a striking example of this, and rather a missed opportunity. The series is certainly a beautifully presented and musically interesting one, but despite very considerable strengths, it falls short of its stated ambition.

So let’s find out exactly what the series 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.”

So far, so good. 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.

Sadly though, this isn’t it. Take a few minutes to make a list of the most truly essential repertoire of the core classical piano library. Then compare it with the piece listings found here, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

I am especially perplexed by the complete omission of Bartók, Kabalevsky, Clementi, Prokofiev, Satie, Debussy and Joplin, all of whom composed core classics suitable for developing players. So many other popular favourites are missing, too.

The early books in particular are stuffed instead with pedagogic rarities by such composers as George Dyson, Thomas Dunhill, Felix Swinstead, Harold R. Clark, Terence Greaves, Lionel Salter, David Bedford, Michael Rose, and Harold Samuel. The lasting impression is that at some point the project veered away from the wonders of the beloved solo piano repertoire and morphed into an exercise in refreshing old exam pieces.

Certainly there is music by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann nestling within these publications (albeit generally their lesser-known pieces), but it is only as the series progresses towards the higher grades that the content draws closer to the expectations aroused by the title and marketing blurb.

If the Grade 4-5 book represents the nadir, things happily improve thereafter. The final book (Grade 7-8) is a particular triumph, delivering an outstanding collection of 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.

Meanwhile, those eager to see female composers represented will be pleased to note the inclusion of music by Anna Bon di Venezia, Jessie Furze, Dorothy Pilling, Cécile Chaminade, Louise Farrenc, Sylvie Bodorová and Marianne Martinez. This welcome news sets the series apart from previous male-dominated ABRSM anthologies.

And while far from being a compendium of classical hits, there are still many rewarding (and in some cases unjustly overlooked) miniatures peppering these books, including enjoyable discoveries and plenty of returning favourites that will be familiar to teachers who, like me, have entered a generation of our students for ABRSM exams.

The Publications

Moving to the books themselves, 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 important points to include, and are too often missing elsewhere, notably in ABRSM’s otherwise excellent Encore series, reviewed here, where editorial dynamics are frequently added without comment. Jones is certainly to be applauded for an excellent editorial job well done.

The covers are lovely too: understated, classy, and presented with a tactile mixture of matt and gloss finish. In terms of presentation, the only real disappointment is that ABRSM have included neither any background information about the pieces, nor any tips for playing and teaching them.

Some Conclusions

In the final analysis, I feel that ABRSM’s Core Classics books introduce players to too few of the key personalities, innovations and enduring favourites of the repertoire to merit their title, or indeed to sufficiently inspire an appreciation of the dizzying wonders of the classical piano repertoire.

That said, the series certainly offers a useful and often attractive mix of music that is well-suited to the board’s exam requirements, and can equally be dipped into by piano enthusiasts for its varied selection of benchmarked repertoire, much of it not easily accessible elsewhere.

The later books in the series are notably much better than the intermediate ones, usefully filling a gap in the market for some well-devised classical anthologies suitable for Grades 6-8 players. I suspect these will find frequent use in my studio.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.