I suppose this could be seen as a followup to my pop music post, although a draft of this has been sitting around for quite some time.
For the aficionado of classical music, there is an added layer involved in record-browsing that is not often present in other genres: the question isn’t just, “which composers/compositions” should I listen to, but also, “which recordings of those pieces should I pick up?” Different conductors, musicians and orchestras can have different styles and sounds. This can be both fun (listen to multiple takes on your favourite symphony!) and vexing (if you’re low on funds and want to make a good choice).
Over the years, I’ve slowly amassed a decent collection of classical recordings. So I thought I’d cobble together a list of ten that have stuck out as being particularly exceptional. Keep in mind that this is a list of recordings, rather than favorite compositions; you won’t find The Rake’s Progress or The Sleeping Beauty on this list, for instance.
1. Glenn Gould – Bach: Goldberg Variations (1955, Sony)
I’d might as well start out with what is likely the most famous classical piano album ever cut.
Gould not only hailed from the same city as me – he also attended the same high school that I would later go to. So when I discovered his albums as a teenager, it didn’t take too long for me to develop a bit of a fascination with the eccentric, opinionated pianist. Anyway, with Gould you usually will be able to hear every note in the score played with extreme precision….and in a fashion that blatantly disregards most of the composer’s instructions for how those notes should be played, and usually on a dull sounding piano, accompanied by extremely audible “hmms” and “haas” from Gould’s mouth. Someone who I can’t recall once described Gould as almost a kind of composer who riffs on the compositions of others. You may not agree with his aesthetic choices, but they’re always interesting ones.
2. Wilhelm Furtwangler – Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (1944, Allegro)
The date is 1944 and the orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic. Although Furtwangler didn’t care for the Nazis at all, he stayed in Germany until the end. The results of that decision, and the controversy that followed, were dramatic enough to eventually get made into a motion picture.
Bruckner died before he could finish his 9th, and as it stands its a particularly grim, apocalyptic piece of work. Furtwangler seizes on this and plays up all its howls and snarls. The result is a disturbing portrait of a nation in self-destruct.
3. Fritz Reiner – Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta; Hungarian Sketches (1955; 1958, RCA)
Pretty much anything that pairs Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is gold. Reiner is one of those conductors renowned for extracting clear and precise performances, even at the expense of emotion – in general, I like his style, but it works particularly well in these modernist (yet still highly listenable) pieces. These recordings were also a part of RCA’s “Living Stereo” series, which featured an impressive amount of, um, clarity for the time, but with a warmth that is often lacking in digital recordings. They’re good for audiophiles.
4. Willhelm Furtwangler – Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1953, EMI)
Opera involves so many variables that the possibility of finding a platonically perfect performance of any of them is quite the pipe dream. But regardless, this is probably the finest opera recording I own. Sure, the sound is a bit fuzzy, and sure, Kirsten Flagstad’s voice is a tad on the elderly side. But the overall organic, downright oceanic shape that Furtwangler gives to the piece, the intense playing of the Philharmonia orchestra, and the vocal powers on display ensure that Tristan’s epic length achieves its hypnotic purpose.
5. Herbert von Karajan – Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande (1979, EMI)
It seems fair to follow up Tristan with its Gallic equivalent. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic were all about pretty sounds, and Pelleas et Melisande is perhaps the most opulent opera in the repertoire. Strawberries and cream, etc.
6. Herbert von Karajan – Haydn: Die Schopfung (1969, Deutsche Grammophone)
Haydn’s oratorio retelling of the opening of Genesis is one of the happiest pieces of music ever written, ending as it does before the whole incident with the snake. This is a very happy-sounding performance, at least.
7. Leonard Bernstein – Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (1988, Deutsche Grammophone)
While late Mahler can at times get a little too morbid for me, I’ll always be fond of his first seven symphonies. This one is pure epic romanticism, and demands to be played as loudly and dramatically as possible, to the point of bordering on kitsch. And Bernstein is the man for that.
8. Anton Webern – Berg: Violin Concerto (1991, Continuum)
This is almost more of a historical curiosity than anything else. One of the composers of the trio called the Second Viennese School is here interpreted by another one. Webern was also renowned as a conductor, but as far as I am aware, this is the only recording of him that was made. Berg’s violin concerto is also as close as you can get to accessible when it comes to atonal music.
9. The Hollywood String Quartet – Beethoven: Late Quartets (1958, EMI)
The Hollywood String Quartet consisted of bored orchestral musicians who made a living performing for movie scores. Beethoven’s final quartets are anything but Hollywood, yet these guys (and gal) are more than up for the task.
10. Sir Neville Marriner/Alfred Brendel (Piano) – Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos (1994, Decca)
Forget period performances; go for the high calorie stuff.