After blogging about La Traviata, a friend writes to ask me to make a list of my favorite "classical" composers and their pieces and possibly performances. Of course every music fan plans such an article as this, "someday," and I’ve often thought about what I would pick. Well, the time for thinking is over, and the time for writing is now. Rather than just answer him back in an email, I’ll make the email public.
The format will be in the usual top-ten-style list, by composer. There are some obvious omissions, such as Beethoven: exclusion means nothing in this case. His music is amazing and spectacular. The same goes for Schubert, Machaut, and Handel. But limited to ten, one has to make choices.
Brahms, Johannes. I can recall spending endless hours as a child trying but failing to appreciate Brahms through his famous four symphonies. But I could never get the hang of his music. It seemed too big and mushy for my tastes then, and, sadly, one thing about music is that once you have made a judgment on something, even as a child, that judgment tends to last a lifetime (which explains why there are so many aging rock fans around). But it turns out that the proper path to Brahms is through his chamber work. This might the most extraordinary CD that you will ever own, a lifetime of engaging listening: the Violin Sonatas, with Anastasia Khitruk. Actually, it seems like this might be out of print, but in any case, it is work owning many different versions, including the one by Ashkenazy or Zukerman. The cello sonatas are also amazing: Rostopovich or du Pre. And while you are at it, why not just splurge and get the whole piano works by the master of masters of Brahms, Julius Katchen? That’s a decision you will never regret. Some of these pieces could bring tears to your eyes.
Mozart, W.A. I might have left him out of the list because, well, never mind because it seems like sacrilege to express even a hint of doubt about this incredible genius. But of all his work, which do you listen to? My personal favorites are the string quintets: they provide a fuller sound than the quartets but not as much busyness as the symphonies or operas. They are endlessly inventive and charming. You can get the complete quintets at a bargain price: Grumiaux Trio, Eva Czako, and Bohuslav Zahradnik.
Josquin. Yes, there was music before Bach, hundreds of years before Bach, and not just those ridiculous madrigals you are always hearing about. Josquin is particularly mysterious, his music reflective and penetrating, sounds that are striving for a glimpse of Heaven but reveal the pains of Earth just beneath the surface. If you are unfamiliar with the polyphonic tradition, an eternity awaits. This Missa Pange Lingua by the Ensemble Organum is splendid (we are thankfully spared the sound of boys on the soprano parts). If you want motets, you are very fortunate that this impeccable recording is still available. I do think that it is the only recording available of the Ave Christe, which should really rank as one of the masterpieces of the 16th century.
Tallis et al. There is so much great music from the early modern period of the 16th century. You hear the spiritual depth we associate with the Age of Faith but also see the lights of beauty and prosperity that we associate with the modern world — a time when a millennium of discovery, learning, entrepreneurship, and science was beginning to impact the world and changes the lives of all people. What a time to celebrate! Thomas Tallis’s music represents the height of the English aspect of this genre, a Catholic who kept his faith and his life in the Elizabethan age, which is no small accomplishment. But there are so many others: Byrd, Vitoria, Allegri, Guerrero (Spain), etc. I would suggest that the best approach is to buy this one package: 2 CDs for $15. It includes many of the towering works, including the greatest of the great and the most audibly challenging piece from the late renaissance, the famed Spem in Alium, Tallis’s 40-part motet.
Guerrero, Francisco. Okay, I cannot resist listing just one more CD from the period which is so horribly neglected. If you hear this marvelous CD of the music of Guerrero, you will think what I did: why isn’t this a bestseller? It is so balanced and perfect. What the director Saval did was variously substitute other instruments for voice parts — mostly some darkly hued brass instruments you don’t hear much (like alto trombones) — and thereby replicating what was probably a performance practice at the time. The balance, tempos, timbres, acoustics, and luxurious sound will introduce you to a world you only dreamed about. It is from the late period of the Spanish empire, a time when the priests at the universities were discovering economics and when the Church doctrine on the merit of perfect religious freedom was becoming clear. This CD then becomes like a portrait of all that was glorious in the latter half of the 16th century.
Mahler, Gustav. Why some people are impossibly drawn to Mahler and others completely indifferent remains one of those mysteries of the universe. For someone like me who just recoils at huge and overblown musical endeavors, I can’t entirely understand my lifetime obsession with knowing every note of his nine symphonies. Someone suggested that Mahler wrote symphonies with the same chamber sensibility that Schubert wrote songs. I don’t know if that is true. But nonetheless, whatever "it" is, Mahler had it. Such a range of emotion and mental energy, often indescribable, has never before been heard by the human ear. I can’t choose which among the nine, but I guess I would have to settle on the 3rd and the 4th (though I admit to not knowing the 7th, 8th, or 9th, because I’m deliberately saving them for old age). Just as Mahler had a superstition that he would die after completing his 9th, I have the superstition that I will die after I know all 9 well.
Bach, J.S. Everyone loves the Brandenburg Concertos, and they are brilliant to be sure. Also, you can buy any one of the 300 plus cantatas and be very happy. Actually, have you ever heard any Bach that wasn’t perfect? Yes, some are more perfect that others (The B-Minor Mass!). I’m assuming that all the Bach you think you need is at the local bargain bin, and truly you should get it all. But here is what you will miss, what one philosopher described to me as the greatest musical creation of Western civilization: the solo violin sonatas and partitas. It will take years for your ears to absorb it all and to come to understand their complexity and demands. But there is no better time to start than now. Try Perlman, or, for the daring, Kremer. (Please don’t get an early-instrument rendition of these!).
Joplin, Scott. Hey, how about an American here! There were and are many great American composers but to my ear, ragtime is the most notable of many forms (far more notable than rock!). Is there a human being alive for whom ragtime music doesn’t bring utter joy? It may sound like popular music, and it is, but to do it right requires extraordinary technique and control. You might say that it takes a specialist in the keyboard work of Bach to do it justice. Fortunately, we have just such an edition available. Joshua Rifkin will be forever immortalized by this recording. I don’t understand how Rifkin did it, how he achieves the energy and bounce and yet controls it all the while, but it is all here for you. Joplin was and is a legend, and so is Rifkin for having given of himself so completely in this CD.
Rossini, Gioacchino. I’ve always had my doubts that opera is something that should be listened to at home as versus attended live. At least for my part, I have a hard time making sense of recordings of 19th century opera that I’ve never seen. It all begins to sound the same. But certainly "The Barber of Seville" is different — or perhaps Rossini is different. It is sheer delight. He could never resist a chance to charm the listener or dazzle with vocal technique. How he loved his performers! If you are unfamiliar with his genre, you will be amazed at how many music clichés have their origin in this opera. I like the one with Cecilia Bartoli, who, despite endless accolades, manages to be better than her reputation.
Verdi, Giuseppe. Perhaps it is because I had just been listening to this but this piece has to be on the list. My goodness, what a parade of virtuosity and joy, not to mention tragedy and death. This is another one of those staples of the literature that launched a thousand clichés, but nothing improves on the original. The sociological elements alone are fascinating, with aristocracy coming to terms with the reality of scarcity and death. You can put it on just to listen to in the background (yes, heresy, I know) or listen for intense study. I like the version with the Romanian wonder Angela Gheorghiu.