Not quite sure how it happened, but I'm turning fifty years old in a couple of days (my bold for emphasis). Crazy. As it turns out, later this year I will also be celebrating 25 years working in the music industry.
Time sure does fly.
To mark these double occasions, I've put together a list of 50 classical music recordings, arranged alphabetically by composer, that have given me particular pleasure over the years. Some have really impacted my life in a major way; others just make me feel good, or make me think. Besides loving the recording, the only criteria I used is that each selection should still be in print on CD or via download.
50 sounds like a long list of recordings, but it's just a drop in the bucket when it comes to sampling the extraordinary variety and abundance of classical music that is available. Sorry I couldn't squeeze more early, contemporary and vocal releases onto my list (as you'll quickly notice, I have a special passion for symphonies). And I will offend many by not including some very obvious top-drawer works and composers (egads, didn't Rameau, Handel, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Verdi, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Britten or Prokofiev make the cut?). But I would really have to have a list of 500 to begin to do justice to the task of naming the recordings that have meant something special to me.
My "Fifty @ Fifty" list is a sort of thank you note to the artists and composers who have given me, and doubtless many music lovers, so much joy, feeling, illumination -- all of those priceless things that music conveys like no other language.
NB: I avoided choosing selections by artists that our company, 21C Media Group, is currently representing, but there are two exceptions: I included John Eliot Gardiner's recording of L'Orfeo, the album that made me fall in love with Monteverdi's music, and also the conductor's take on Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (Our company is promoting Gardiner's Beethoven tour in the US this fall.)
Numbers 1 - 10
John Adams: The Chairman Dances, etc. - San Francisco Symphony/De Waart (Nonesuch) : My first and still my favorite Adams album. The strange Christian Zeal and Activity casts a hypnotic spell, conjuring up wide expanses of prairie amidst the repetitive incantations of pre-recorded preacher; Short Ride in a Fast Machine may be the most exciting four-plus minutes of music ever composed. (Listen to Adams' Harmonielehre next -- one of the composer's undisputed masterpieces. )
Johann Sebastian Bach: Oboe Concerti - Heinz Holliger with Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Philips): These works by Bach showcase the surpassing beauty and serene joy that the composer miraculously attained in so much of his music.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata, Partita, English Suite 2 - Martha Argerich (DG Originals): There are many stunning recordings of Bach's magnificent keyboard works, but this one from the legendary Argentine pianist has a compelling intensity all its own.
Samuel Barber: Orchestral Works - Baltimore Symphony/Zinman (Argo): This American composer remains undervalued, and this collection makes a beautiful case for his gift for soaring, heartfelt lyricism (the slow movement of the First Symphony alone is worth the price of the album).
Ludwig van Beethoven: "Moonlight" and "Pathétique" Sonatas - Emil Gilels (DG): I wouldn't want to live without my complete set of Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas performed by Richard Goode, but if I had to take just one Beethoven piano album to the proverbial desert island it might be this pairing from Emil Gilels. The performances are evocative and full of noble expression.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Nine Symphonies - London Classical Players/Roger Norrington (Virgin): While the single most thrilling Beethoven Symphonies recording may be the justly celebrated pairing of Nos. 5 and 7 by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic, picking the complete Beethoven symphony set I most cherish is a lot tougher of a call. Brüggen on period instruments, and Harnoncourt and Karajan on modern instruments (particularly the latter's first cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic for DG), are favorites, but if I had to pick just one cycle to live with forever I might opt for the one conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, whose vivid storytelling makes each symphony a distinct adventure.
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique - Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Gardiner* (Philips): The pungent sound of Gardiner's period band, and the electric energy of this performance, bring out all the wildness of Berlioz's phantasmagorical vision (despite the recording's slightly dry acoustic).
Johannes Brahms: Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Piano Pieces, Opp. 117, 118, 119 - Radu Lupu (Decca): The second Intermezzo in the Opus 118 set immediately turns me to mush -- it may just be my favorite single work ever written for the piano. The sound on this recording isn't perfect, but the playing by the great Radu Lupu is deeply poetic and richly communicative.
Johannes Brahms: Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano - Perlman/Tuckwell/Ashkenazy (Deccca Originals): One of the all-time great chamber music recordings. Brahms conveys a lifetime of emotions in this extraordinary four-movement work, from deep melancholy (the overwhelming slow movement captures the despair he felt at losing his mother a year earlier) to irresistible élan (the finale is a longer ride in a less-fast machine than the one driven by Mr. Adams above).
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 - Los Angeles Philharmonic/Giulini (DG): I've listened to this recording for 25 years now and I never get tired of it -- one of my very favorite recordings of a Brahms Symphony. The great Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini gives us both the epic and the tender aspects of this work in a performance of gripping intensity.
Numbers 11 - 20
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 - Vienna Philharmonic/Giulini (DG): I probably listen to Carlo Maria Giulini's recording of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony more than any other recording featuring music by this Austrian composer (Gunter Wand's recording of the Fourth Symphony (RCA) has been a close second). If you fall in love with Bruckner's dense, highly-romantic and deeply spiritual music, you might want to own a complete set of nine symphonies some day, and for that I'd recommend Karajan's cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG).
Ernest Chausson: Concert for Piano, Violin and String Quartet - Chilingirian Quartet with Philippe Graffin, Pascal Devoyon (Hyperion): I get weak-kneed from much late 19th-Century French music, especially this dizzying, sweepingly romantic masterpiece by Chausson. The second movement "Sicilienne" is a haunting, perfume-drenched love poem. Delicious.
Chopin: The Nocturnes - Maria João Pires (DG): During my years working for Deutsche Grammophon, spending time with the wonderful and deeply spiritual artist was a special joy. Here, she imbues some of Chopin's most poetic piano works with a sense of mystery and quiet wonderment.
Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3 - New York Philharmonic/Bernstein (DG): Copland described his Third Symphony, written in 1945, as a representation of the overwhelming spirit of optimism that pervaded the country. Hearing it at a time of our own Great Recession is to hope that a sustainable period of American renewal is still possible for our troubled and needlessly divided country.
Arcangelo Corelli: Twelve Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 - The English Concerto/Pinnock (Archiv): Italian baroque composers sure wrote a huge amount of gorgeous music for the violin (Vivaldi was just one of many!), but few surpassed Corelli. The slow movements, in particular, of this famous set of Concerti Grossi, are unaffectedly exquisite and full of noble feeling, the fast movements irresistibly effervescent.
Claude Debussy: Orchestral Works - Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink (Philips/Decca): If only Debussy had written dozens of orchestral works instead of a relative handful! But just having the beauty of La Mer, Nocturnes and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in the world is enough to make life worth living.
Claude Debussy: Piano Works - Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (DG): Debussy's piano works are among the most beautiful and evocative ever penned, and there are thankfully many wonderful recordings to choose from. This captivating set from an Italian pianist famous both for his technical wizardry and perfectionism includes both of the composer's complete books of Preludes and Images.
Antonin Dvorak: Serenade For Strings; Peter I. Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings - Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan (DG): There is something so effortless, graceful and tender about Dvorak's Serenade for Strings. On this recording, which also features Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, Karajan and his big band serve up the music with flawless, ravishing elegance.
Edward Elgar: Symphonies 1 and 2 - London Philharmonic/Boult (EMI Classics): You either have it or you don't -- a feeling for British orchestral music, that is! I'm not sure where I got the bug, but I definitely have it, particularly for Elgar's two symphonies, which teem with a wide range of powerful emotions. The slow movements of each reach heights of heartfelt, noble expression that can hardly be matched elsewhere.
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem - Members of L'Orchestre National de France/Accentus/Equibey (naïve). The composer himself called death "a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience." True to the spirit of that vision, his Requeim for soloists, choir and orchestra is a transcendent creation of radiant, ethereal beauty.
Numbers 21 - 30
Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel - California EAR Unit (New Albion): I actually can't listen to this album often because it puts me into such an otherworldly state! Inspired by the non-denominational chapel in Houston that is famously decorated inside with paintings by the abstract-expressionist artist Mark Rothko, Feldman uses spare orchestration and distant-sounding voices to create a time-stopping dreamscape.
Philip Glass: Powaqqatsi (Nonesuch): Long before people were talking about global warming, Philip Glass and visionary director Godfrey Reggio told us all we needed to know about the dangers of wanton industrialization. This pulsing, exhilarating soundtrack is my favorite Glass recording, but buy the DVD if you want to see the stunning visuals in all their glory.
Enrique Granados: Spanish Dances - Alicia de Larrocha (RCA): There is a wealth of beautiful piano music by Spanish composers, and no artist played this music with the command of its style and atmosphere better than the legendary Catalonian pianist Alicia de Larrocha. This Granados collection casts a spell immediately, with de Larrocha conveying the music's elegance and mystery with seemingly effortless grace.
Joseph Haydn: Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 69, 86, & 87 - Heidelberg Symphony/Fey (Hänssler Classic): "Papa Haydn," the so-called father of the symphony, wrote 104 works in the genre, a large number of them endlessly appealing. Different working conditions throughout his life led to different focuses for his work in this genre, but the general rule is that his conceptions got bigger, broader and richer, culminating in the amazing sets he wrote for his growing public in Paris (Nos. 82 - 87) and London (Nos. 93 - 104). In recent years I've especially enjoyed Thomas Fey's vibrant series of Haydn recordings, which will hopefully one day yield a complete cycle. For now, try this irresistible recording featuring terrific performances of the two last of his "Paris" Symphonies: they possess all the wit, bustling energy and warmth that make Haydn's music so life affirming.
Paul Hindemith: Orchestral Works: San Francisco Symphony/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Blomstedt (Decca): Displaced by the turmoil of the Second World War, German composer Paul Hindemith emigrated to the United States in 1940 (he returned to Europe in 1953). Sadly, his penetrating orchestral music isn't programmed nearly enough, having a reputation for denseness and heaviness that belies the music's often luminous (though admittedly gritty) beauty. Herbert Blomstedt's survey of the composer's main orchestral works is as important as it is compelling, from the radiant and relatively well-known Mathis der Mahler -- inspired by the composer's opera based on the life of a Renaissance painter -- to the visionary Harmonie der Welt -- also drawn by the composer from his own opera based on the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler.
Gustav Holst: The Planets - London Philharmonic/Adrian Boult (EMI Classics): This popular work is a lot more than just a sonic blockbuster. It's also an extraordinary evocation of the wide range of human emotions that man has projected onto the heavenly bodies above us. The pounding rhythms of the "Mars" movement may be what grabs your attention at the onset, and the jaunty melodies of "Jupiter" that are the most famous, but its the tender delicacy of "Venus" and the mystical allure of "Neptune" that always take my breath away. Hard to believe that Holst wrote the work a full six decades before the first Star Wars film hit the theaters!
Charles Ives: Symphony No. 2 and other works - New York Philharmonic/Bernstein (DG): This was the album that first introduced me to the world of this pioneering American composer, and it remains a favorite. The Second Symphony has all of the trademark Ives qualities: numerous quotes from popular songs and hymns, bustling vitality, surprising juxtapositions and a quirky sense of humor. It's hugely entertaining (especially the train-wreck at the end of the finale) but also strangely moving.
Leos Janácek: Sinfonietta/Taras Bulba/Mládi etc. - Vienna Philharmonic/Charles Mackerras (Decca): The great Charles Mackerras made a large number of superb recordings throughout his illustrious career, and his championing in particular of the works of this Czech composer ranks amongst his most important achievements. You can instantly recognize that "Janácek sound" whenever you hear it and Mackerras serves up its jagged rhythms and unusual harmonies with total conviction. The Sinfonietta at full volume is utterly rousing.
The Sea Hawk: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold - National Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerhardt (RCA Victor): For sheer exuberant joy and romantic swagger, Korngold's film music -- the very definition of Golden Age Hollywood -- is hard to beat. To really appreciate the brilliance of Korngold's creations, start your own Errol Flynn film festival by watching The Sea Hawk, Robin Hood and Elizabeth and Essex!
Boulez Conducts Ligeti: Concertos for Cello, Violin and Piano - Ensemble Intercontemporain (DG): I've been lucky enough to hear superb live performances of some of György Ligeti's greatest works here in New York over the past few seasons, including the Hungarian composer's absolutely amazing Violin Concerto, written in 1990. What a strange, haunting and thrilling work -- an undisputed masterpiece that, like so much of this composer's music, opens your mind to the unlimited expressive possibilities of music.
Numbers 31 - 40
Gustav Mahler: Complete Symphonies - New York Philharmonic/Bernstein (Sony Classical): While it was Bernstein's recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," for Deutsche Grammophon that was the life-changer for me -- I wrote about it, and about Mahler in general, a few times for HP, including this post from June 2010 -- I couldn't make a list of 50 favorite recordings and not include a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies. Over time I came to appreciate Lenny's earlier cycle for CBS Masterworks, which includes a very moving performance of Mahler's Third Symphony, perhaps my very favorite musical work.
Marin Marais: Pieces for Viol - Jordi Savall (Alia Vox): A consummate and probing virtuoso alone with his soulful, cello-like instrument, playing music of rich but understated eloquence: this is perfect late-night listening for communing with the sublime mystery that is music.
Olivier Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles ("From The Canyons to the Stars") - Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Chung (DG): It was conductor Myung-Whun Chung who first introduced me to Messiaen's music with a recording of the explosively original Turangalila-Symphonie that really shook me. As Deutsche Grammophon's press agent, and later U.S. label chief, in New York, I dedicated a lot of time and resources to promoting the label's Messiaen's releases, probably the most gratifying work I did while working in the recording industry. Chung's recording of Messiaen's "Canyons" came out long after I left the label, but it's probably the version of this visionary work that I return to most. Messiaen wrote it on a commission from the great arts patron Alice Tully, who sought a work to mark the country's bicentennial. The result is a mystical, kaleidoscopic depiction of "God's Country" -- the beautiful canyons of Southwest Utah -- complete with Messiaen's trademark birdsong transcriptions and a battery of percussion including an instrument invented by the composer (the geophone!). The eighth movement, "The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran," is more soothing to the soul than any music I have ever encountered -- it is the quiet breathing of God's universe at peace.
Claudio Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - Rolfe Johnson, Dawson, von Otter, English Baroque Soloists/Gardiner (Archiv): I was hooked on Monteverdi immediately after hearing the flourish of brass and percussion that opens this extraordinary opera. Written in 1607, L'Orfeo is one of the oldest music dramas that is still regularly performed. But it's more than just a historic work: it's a ravishingly beautiful one, full of sensuous melodies and glowing sonorities.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Great Mass in C Minor - Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan (DG): Limiting myself to just one Mozart recording for this list was a painful experience, but my memories of discovering the perfect and transcendent "Great Mass" in this "big band" version led by Herbert von Karajan are too strong to resist. Any doubts that Mozart wrote the most beautiful music for the human voice are immediately erased by the soprano solo in the opening Kyrie -- sublime!
Carl Nielsen: Six Symphonies - Gothenburg Symphony/Järvi/Chung (BIS): The Danish composer's six symphonies are still under-appreciated masterpieces. I absolutely love the jagged shapes, buoyant energy and earthy humor of Nielsen's works -- not to mention the deep humanism that illuminates all of his music. Like so many recordings from this label, these are superbly-engineered, and the performances have plenty of fire and authority.
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca - Leontyne Price, Domingo, Milnes, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Mehta (RCA): The tenor's arias in Tosca are my favorites to sing in the shower (given my non-existent vocal technique, they are pretty much the only arias I can sort of sing in the shower), so this opera has always had a special place in my heart. As to the recording, it's a real thriller, with the incomparable Leontyne Price in the title role and some wonderfully dramatic conducting by Zubin Mehta.
Henry Purcell: Theater Music - Academy of Ancient Music/Hogwood (Decca): Elegant and refined, and yet full of stirring pathos, Purcell's music is unfailingly moving; I never tire of hearing his music for the theater, especially in these bracing performances.
Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 - Sviatoslav Richter, Warsaw Philharmonic/Wislocki (DG Originals): There are many very well played and much better-sounding recordings of this great concerto warhorse, but for me, none ring as true as this one from legendary Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Here is Rachmaninov in all his many colors, from brooding melancholy to daredevil exuberance. I remember playing this recording every day for six months straight and thinking, how can anything be this beautiful? I still have that feeling when I hear it.
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 / Valses nobles et sentimentales / La Valse / Ma Mère l'Oye - Rotterdam Philharmonic/Nézet-Séguin (EMI Classics): I pretty much love every note of Ravel's music: the piano works, the chamber music, the orchestra pieces big and small. Besides the command of color, there is a natural, unforced elegance to his music that always astonishes -- somehow, it appears to be lit from within. The luminous beauty of Ravel's music is particularly affecting in his "Mother Goose" ballet (Ma Mère l'Oye), the final three minutes of which never fails to move me to tears.
Numbers 41 - 50
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians - Steve Reich Ensemble (ECM): This was the first album to introduce me to the world of minimalism, and its gently pulsing rhythms and shimmering textures remain a transporting experiencing. A landmark recording of a landmark work.
Erik Satie: Piano Works - Pascal Roge (Decca Originals): Quirky, mystical, haunting, and, for me, endlessly fascinating, Satie's piano works open windows to worlds beyond normal time and space. No more how many times I listen to his three famous "Gymnopédies," my blood pressure instantly drops when I hear them. In our over-stimulated, electronic-device driven world, Satie's music provides welcome relief.
Arnold Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) - Members of the Ensemble InterContemporain/Boulez (Sony Classical): The inspiration for this luminous, lushly romantic work is a poem telling the story of a couple walking through the woods and the revelation of an intense secret: they are in love, but the child the woman is carrying doesn't belong to the man. There, under the moonlight, he forgives her and their love for each other transforms the unborn child into their own. Having read the notes to the recording, I decided to walk deep into the woods on a moonlit night and listen with a friend on my Walkman (I had a special jack so that we could plug in two sets of headphones). It was a ravishing experience until we realized we were kind of lost. Took more than a while to find our way back, but despite (or perhaps because of) some moments of real terror (think modified "Blair Witch"), the music was instantly seared into our consciousness.
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 2 - Vienna Philharmonic/Bernstein (DG): I love all four Schumann Symphonies, but the Second Symphony holds a special place in my heart. It is, in fact, one of my favorite symphonies. The adagio movement is one of the most tender and honest things ever penned: it has a confessional quality that makes you feel that Schumann has utterly opened his vulnerable soul just to you.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 - Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan (DG): The first several times I heard this recording back in college I found myself turning it off after the first few minutes. It was -- and I'm not exaggerating -- just to painful to listen to. Without knowing anything about the biography of the composer, I immediately knew I was hearing the work of someone who was tremendously anguished. Somehow one day I managed to play it all the way through and knew I would need to learn everything I could about Shostakovich and his music. The short second movement of the 10th Symphony seems to take you on a searing ride into Hell itself. It is, in fact, a musical depiction of Shostakovich's nemesis, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Schubert: Octet - Wiener Oktett (Decca Legends): The musical equivalent of a picnic in the country: there's frolicking with friends, naps under trees (and secret kisses behind them), and even the threat of rain (the opening of the final movement!), but a good time is had by all!
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs - Jessye Norman, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Masur (Philips): I would bet that if you asked 100 classical music enthusiasts to name "the most beautiful songs ever written," 90 would say the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. Written when the composer was 84, Strauss colors the evocative texts by two poets (one poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, and three by Hermann Hesse) with deep, autumnal hues. Together, they are a profoundly moving summing up of the essential beauties of life and the truth of love.
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird - Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (Philips): Stravinsky's Rite of Spring may be one of the defining works of the 20th Century, but if forced to choose my favorite of his three great ballets, I'd probably opt for his Firebird. The vibrant orchestral color, the pacing, the drama, and, of course, the famously happy ending -- I really can't get enough of this wondrous score. This is one of Valery Gergiev's most exciting recordings!
Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky: Six Symphonies - Philadelphia Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra/Muti (Brilliant Classics): When you're not in the mood for them, Tchaikovsky's six symphonies can come across as cloying and overwrought. But most of the time, I find them to be emotionally generous, wonderfully dramatic and rich in fantasy. I've listened to many, many recordings of this repertoire and if I had to pick one complete set to live with it would be this one, with the great Italian conductor Riccardo Muti providing plenty of fire and passion.
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Nilsson, Windgassen, Bayreuther Festspiele/Böhm (DG Originals): I think this may be my favorite opera. Many have written about the drug-like qualities of Wagner's music, particularly of the intoxicating harmonies that characterize this work from the very first bar - the famous "Tristan" chord - to Isolde's final, transcendent "Liebestod" (love-death): "To sink, to drown, unconscious...supreme bliss."