Classical Music: Your "Must Have" List
What are your "must have" selections for classical music?
List your top 5 at least, or more if you are inclined.
I hope there are at least some Polk owners who still listen to classical music and want to share their preferences - there doesn't seem to be much posting activity in this area since the Home Theater and DVD explosion.
I need some suggestions since my ex took most of my classical CDs and I need to rebuild my collection and I want to see if I was missing anything music lovers generally concurred was a "must have" in the classical music arena.
the king is here (with his list)
You guys have made some great suggestions. You'll see some of the same stuff here. I've tried to include the labels and disc numbers to help out.
A Short List of The Classical Best
Why listen to Classical Music? Because it's the original rock and roll, that's why. And when you get bored by the sameness of rock or pop, there is nothing like the endless depth and interesting nuances of classical music. Plus, these guys are demented -- some truly evil and wacked out personalities here. Worthy not only of your ear, but of your research. Rock stars have nothing on these guys.
This is a short selection of some of the recordings in my collection (my faves). They are in most cases the best of the best if I do say so myself. I know this because I have a very well-read classical music mentor who is up on all this stuff. I am a mere amateur here, but I know enough to be dangerously judgemental. Ready? You will be amazed at how much free time I have. In no order:
BACH Pretty much all you need, if you're just getting into classical music, is the SIX BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS played by Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert (pronounced "consort" by snooty classical music people) on ARCHIV BMG (3-disc set #D284161). Glorious and moving, and instantly recognizable as "classical."
COPLAND You can't be an American if you don't like this modern American classical music by Aaron Copland (really, among the last great composers of the age). Sony Classical has remastered all the early Copland recordings by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Berstein was a personal pal of Copland so you know he got it right) and they sound pristine and powerful. Check APPALACHIAN SPRING/RODEO/BILLY THE KID/FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN on Sony Classical disc SMK 63082. The only better version of RODEO is the on by Emerson Lake & Palmer on the live "Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends..."
Sony Classical has also included Bernstein's rendition of BIZET's CARMEN Suites 1 & 2 in their remastered reissues. If I liked opera I'd like CARMEN first, because the music is tremendously powerful and emotional. This disc is the most moving of versions. (Too bad I didn't write down the disc number when I made my list last night. Up to you.)
TCHAIKOVSKY No composer beats the tortured Tchaikovsky (of "Nutcracker" fame) for angry evil music. The man was demented and depressed, and he poured his emotion into his wonderful music. Amazingly, the best representative bit of this music is available on a cheapy-cheap disc produced by a company called NAXOS. It's called TCHAIKOVSKY FESTIVAL and it's stuff like "1812 Overture," "Romeo & Juliet" and more played by Adrian Leaper and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on NAXOS 8.550500. The TELARC discs are pretty good, and really filled with dynamic response, but this disc is filled with the spirit of the man himself and contains overwhelmingly well recorded and well played versions of these pieces. (Gotta love a composer who uses real cannon on stage!)
As an aside, look to the NAXOS label for cheap discs that often trump the expensive labels in quality and "best version" recommendation. I have all my VIVALDI, TELEMANN and HAYDN string pieces on NAXOS discs. Quality and performance-wise, you can't go wrong with the NAXOS Classical label.
MUSSORGSKY's PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION has always been one of my favorite pieces of classical music -- since hearing ELP do it, my first exposure to it. It comes in two versions, the original solo piano one, and the more familiar orchestral version. For a version of the former that will enlighten you as to why this piece would attract such a wacko as Keith Emerson, listen to the solo piano version played by young pianist Mikhail Pletnev on Virgin Classics (disc 0777 75961126). This is one of my favorites because it's simply astonishing what the original piece of music accomplishes with minimal instrumentation. Pletnev makes the piece come alive. You will be surprised at what a piano can do. The classic orchestral version is done well by Bernstein again on CBS Basic Rep disc MYK 36726.
BRAHMS once left a gathering by saying "If there is anyone here whom I have not offended, I am sorry." Gotta love that. The best versions of his four symphonies are performed by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonica on a Musical Heritage Society 4-disc set #5446042. I like this stuff because you can instantly tell the influence it had on guys like Rick Wakemen (YES) and Keith Emerson: lots of flowing, crashing familiar big-orchestra stuff that would have made Beethoven smile. (We'll get to him in a sec.)
For something lighter, but still tremendous, check out the recordings of Brahms' and Tchaikovsky's VIOLIN CONCERTOS peformed by Fritz Reiner & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (violin played by Jascha Heifetz) on the acclaimed RCA Living Stereo Cd 09026-61495-2.
Now for the big two:
MOZART Another easy-to-get-into classical composer, obviously. Mozart Rule of Thumb: Always go with Marriner's Mozart. That would be Sir Neville Marriner & The Academy of Ancient Music. No one does Mozart better. Witness THE LAST 5 SYMPHONIES on Philips 438 332-2 (2-disc set) and THE BEST KNOWN PIANO CONCERTOS (this is all stuff you'll instantly recognize) with Alfred Brendel at the piano on Philips 442 269-2 (another 2-disc set). Another of my favorites is a two-2-disc set of Mozart's PIANO SONATAS (Concertos include the orchestra, Sonatas are solo piano), the best versions of which are found on the cut-rate VOX BOX label (Vol 1 CDX 5026, Vol 2 CDX 5046), played by pianist Walter Klein. It's relaxing, moving, soft and powerful at the same time, filled with recognizable themes and variations. Heck, it's Mozart!
BEETHOVEN is my favorite of all. He's angry, he struggled (whereas it came easy to Mozart) and he produced some of the most beautiful music ever made... And he was deaf. If that's not enough to make you pissed, I don't know what is. My absolute favorite piece of Beethoven's music is his set of FIVE PIANO CONCERTOS. And the greatest, most moving, most well done version of these concertos is found on a Sony Classical 3-disc set (SB3K 48397) which retails for around $20! Baltimore's own Leon Fleischer is the master at the piano for these early 1950s recordings, and no one has done it better since. Beethoven's Piano Concertos are endlessly fun and innovative and familiar, filled with recognizable and easily assimilated music that really rocks.
But nothing rocks like his symphonies. Simple fact is that they changed western music (from dainty old classical Mozart stuff, to a thundering new wave of orchestral music). You could get all nine of them in one box a myriad of ways: old style, played on "orginal instruments," by Christopher Hogwood & The Academy of Ancient Music on L'oiseau-Lyre 425 696-2, or great new versions, using recently found original never-seen-before transcriptions of Beethoven himself, done by Baltimore's own David Zinman on the Arte Nova label #74321 654102 -- a set of nine discs that retails for cheap, too. The one set to get, tho, remains the set that is the paradigm, the way Beethoven himself must have heard the great symphonies in his own head: performed by Herbert Von Karajan & the Berlin Philharmonic (1963 performances, Deutsche Grammaphone label, 5-disc set 453 701-2). What can I say about Beethoven's symphonies that hasn't already been said, except that there is nothing that compares to them. They just are, and this is the best way to hear them.
Another of my favorite Beethoven pieces are his PIANO SONATAS, 32 in all, that are found on another DG set (8 discs) performed in the early 1950s by Wilhelm Kempff. The recordings are mono, but the realism is astonishing: it sounds like the piano is in your living room. Every nuance of these great piano pieces is reproduced perfectly, with all the emotion and joy and darkness that befits them. It is said that when Beethoven finished the last of these piano pieces, many years after he wrote the first one, he remarked: "The piano has nothing more to say." And he is right.
Day's half over now. I guess I should do some real work around here, huh? :D
Go home and listen to music!