The Essential Music Library: Classical

The Essential Music Library project is an attempt to get the many musical minds of the SDMB to sit down and discuss what works are absolutely necessary for a well-stocked musical library. There will be roughly 20 threads detailing a variety of genres so that we can get the depth that would be missing from a single-threaded discussion and the breadth necessary to cover what’s out there.

This thread’s topic is classical music, ranging from way back when to 1900 or so. There will be separate threads detailing opera and contemporary classical music; this is for your favorite symphonies and tone poems and chamber music and choral pieces. What are the essential pieces of classical music? What are the definitive recordings?

Previous threads: Project Planning

Alright, I’ll have a go:

Beethoven: Symphonies 3, 5, 9 (and maybe 6); Moonlight Sonata, Emperor Concerto

Mozart: Symphonies 40, 41; “The Marriage of Figaro,” Piano Concertos 20 and 21

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, St Matthews Passion, Art of the Fugue, Cello Suites

Ah, Sorry got to cut it short there for the moment because I gotta go – but hopefully that’s a solid start.

Bloomin’ heck, we’re starting with the big one, are we? :wink:
Right…here’s my comments for starters:
For the old old stuff, here’s a few starting points, with many gaps to be filled:

  • Music by Perotin & Leonin. These guys, in twelth-century Paris, were at a point where western European music did something no other musical tradition has done: pre-composed vertical harmonies, which required the invention of methodical written notation. From here on, there’s an unbroken tradition of notation & harmony through to the present day. And it’s cracking music, too - a complete contrast from the Gregorian chant many people assume was being sung in the big gothic cathedrals of the time. Don’t go for Hilliard Ensemble recordings, though, because they’re week & wimpish. And in general, I’d say this was true of all Hilliard discs :eek:

  • Binchois. King of understatement. This recording is a good introduction. His songs are short, crystal-perfect structure, where every single note is positioned with purpose, and every note is essential.

  • Josquin. This is where I get to be slightly geeky, and suggest you keep an eye out for a vinyl recording of the Missa L’Homme Arme Sexti Toni, directed by Jeremy Noble. As far as I know, this has never been rereleased, but is the one performance to really get the most out of the piece. The climax is the final section of the Agnus Dei, where the four parts of the choir divide to six, with a very complex structure disguised by fabulously-virtuosic singing.
    There’s other composers through this time who are worth hearing, but I’ll just mention in passing: Schutz, Purcell, Byrd…we’ll deal with them another time
    Getting into more recognisable times, again making huge omissions:

  • Bach. If I had to pick one piece, it’d be the St John Passion. To me, it’s a more engrossing piece than the St Matthew, perhaps due to it being much darker and more introspective. (It’s also useful ammunition against people who claim they can’t listen to Wagner because of his antisemitism, but we’ll leave that for another time.) I don’t know recordings well enough to make a suggestion, though.

  • Vivaldi. Yes, he wrote lots of violin concertos. No, they don’t all sound the same as the Four Seasons. Yes, most performances make them sound the same. Andrew Manze’s recordings are probably a good place to begin.

  • Handel. Bluurgh. I find Handel like Brahms, I have to spend ages with a piece before I can see the wood through the trees. Anybody else have this difficulty?

  • Mozart. If opera’s in another thread, then he starts to look quite insignificant. Sure, there’s some good quartets, and the violin & piano concertos are fun, but I really wouldn’t feel like I’d lost a friend if I could never hear them again.

  • Haydn. BLUUUURGH. Haydn does more than leave me cold, he makes me want to scream. The ‘humourous’ elements seem like crude slapstick. A few slow movements are OK, and I’ve heard one mass (can’t remember which) which I loved, but in general his presence on the programme is reason for me to spend the first half of the concert in the pub.

  • Beethoven. Feck me, perhaps he should have a catagory to himself. I hardly need to recommend the symphonies, but I’d suggest the order to acquaint oneself with the most important would be 5, 4, 7, 3 and then 9. Then start with the quartets, and spend a lifetime getting familiar with them.

  • Schubert. Jump straight in with Winterreisse, which both shows the pinnacle of passionate romanticism, and also in its conclusion points the way towards the ambiguity and irony of Mahler. And the Great C major symphony is a wonderful piece, although needs to be played with lightness rather than overblown pomposity.

  • Mussorgsky. He may seem like a digression, but this is because most people know him for two pieces, both in versions which have had Rimsky-Korsakov’s grubby hands all over them. Try to hear the original version of Night on a Bare Mountain, which is far grittier than the glossy sheen of the common orchestration. Later Russian developments make much more sense when you hear how he used the orchestra.

  • Brahms. As I hinted at, I’d suggest avoiding him until you’re ready for some serious effort. On the other hand, you could try the symphonies and find you love them. Different strokes.

  • Wagner. Opera is going to have its own thread, but Wagner is about more than opera. Much more. Like Beethoven, he could have his own thread.

  • Mahler. Once again, where to start?! Probably Das Lied von der Erde, with Kathleen Ferrier, is my suggestion. And the fifth symphony with Bernstein conducting.

  • Shostakovich. OK, so this thread is supposed to be ‘up to 1900’-ish, but I wanted to mention him because of my earlier comments about Mussorgsky. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s 4th, 5th & 6th symphonies, and hear how he moves from ironically-overblown triumphal conclusions to the tragedy of the 6th, and then dive into Shostakovich’s 4th. Through necessity, Russian music developed irony, doublespeak and all sorts of postmodern techniques which still feel so relevant. (I’ll talk about later Shostakovich in the contemporary classical thread.)

Right, well I’ve tried to throw in a few controversial comments to get some responses :wink: …I’, sure I’ll have more to say later on.

Baroque Era:

Charpentier: Midnight Mass

Bach: Suite in b minor
Suites for Unaccompanied Cello
Mass in b minor
Concerto for Two Violins

Classical Era: I dislike it all, except for some Beethoven.

Romantic Era (in the broadest sense):

Schubert: Death and the Maiden

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor
Piano Trio in C Major
String Quartet in A Major

Alexander Borodin: Piano Quintet in C minor

Ravel: Piano Trio in A Major

Sorry for the double post, but add Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” to the Baroque portion.

Just at the end of our acceptable time period:

Suite Bergamasque, Debussy. Contains the overused but still beautifully recognizeable “Clair de lune.”

I can only comment on a few that I am well familiar with, therefore take with a grain of salt.

There’s no way around Bach, and for the sake of keeping the whole list managably small, I’ll just put in another word for Mass in B Minor, St. Matthew’s Passion and the Art of the Fugue (I’m not sure what that would be in English, if it’s not that).

Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine.

G.F. Händel: Music for the Royal Fireworks, Messiah

Henry Purcell: either Dido and Aenaes, or (preferably, in my view) King Arthur. Just because there’s so little English music about.

For all of these, if you can, at least try John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings. Mass in B Minor is so easy to play too slow; I’ve found Gardiner to be most satisfying in that regard.

Otherwise, missing from Mozart’s list is the Requiem, which I personally find about the only really interesting Mozart piece. The rest is, to me, too…how shall I say…itsy-bitsy, light, fairy-dusty twinkling…YMMV, and I’ve definitely over-simplified.

And I’d personally prefer Beethoven’s Sixth to his Ninth, but again, YMMV.

GorillaMan seems to have a good starting list - no surprise there.

I would include Berlioz Symphony Fantastique.

Critical question not addressed yet - which versions?

I love Glenn Gould’s Bach interpretations, knowing full well he played them on a piano, not harpsichord, and much faster than originally intended. But they work. I know that many fine symphony orchestras, philharmonics, etc. have done great recordings.

If I want the definitive recording of X, which should I get - or at least to get a serviceable version? I know there is an NPR Building Your Classical Music Collection book- should a reader of this thread just start there?

Gramophone magazine has an online database of recommended recordings.

Particular ones I’d suggest:

Agreed with Glenn Gould for Bach: there’s a nice set available of both his recordings of the Goldberg Variations, which are utterly different from one another.

Gardiner is a good suggestion for anything baroque.

Bernstein is my definite option for Mahler.

For anything Russian, I strongly suggest Russian orchestras & conductors - nobody else gets it ‘just right’.

The Lindsays are an enthralling, if sometimes infuriating, choice for string quartet repertoire.

Hey ultrafilter (and GorillaMan - now why does it feel like I am trapped in a Saturday-morning cartoon by calling that out?)

Sorry to constantly kibbitz in your wonderful work, uf - but if this website exists as **GMan **points out, should your entry for Classical just be a link to this site?

Nah - some of the recommendations they make aren’t ones that everybody would choose, by any means. Just one example, they don’t list my single favourite CD of all time, Dvorak 7 recorded by Kubelik. They offer some clean-cut sensible Colin Davis version.

I would add some that are so well known and overplayed that they are only enjoyable (for the most part) for people just starting to listen to Classical, but that’s my definition of essential.

Rossini - The William Tell Overture and The Thieving Magpie
Mozart - Eine Kleine Nachtmusic and Piano Concerto in C
Pachelbel - Canon in D
Vivaldi - The Four Seasons
Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Tchaikovsky - The 1812 Overture and The Nutcracker Suite
Strauss - The Blue Danube Waltz
Moussorgsky - Night on Bald Mountain

Of course these works have been recorded so many times, it’s almost impossible to name a definitive version or point to a specific recording and say “that one’s the best.” There are, of course, deservedly famous orchestras and conductors which would probably be a thread in and of itself.

Speaking for Bach’s choral music, I have to agree that Mass in B Minor and St. Matthew Passion are among his best choral works–better than St. John Passion. (Sorry, GorillaMan). I know that since there are so many of them, they won’t get mentioned, but some of Bach’s cantatas are brilliant too–I think Actus Tragicus (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit) is one of the greatest vocal works ever composed.

As for Vivaldi (sorry, my interests are narrow), of course there are the Four Seasons, but his Opus 3 (L’Estro Armonico) is consistently outstanding–works like the B minor concerto still give me shivers after dozens of listenings.

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor
Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia; Polovtsian Dances (preferably with a chorus)
Saint-Saens: Symphony #3 in C Minor (“The Organ”)
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
Mascagne: Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Easter Hymn from the same
Schubert: Unfinished Symphony
Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
Allegri: Psalm LI (Miserere)
Possibly a spot of Paganini too, just so you understand why they wouldn’t bury him in consecrated ground.

Yugggh. Mendelssohn should not appear anywhere in this thread. :wink:

God, no! Terrible, stupid, trivial piece.

A couple suggestions that I haven’t seen mentioned so far:

Edvard Grieg, the Peer Gynt suite (at least no. 1). “Morning Mood” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” are pieces that everyone has heard, but they work well here.

Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals and Danse Macabre. Carnival needs no justification, I think, and Danse Macabre is my favorite classical piece of all time.

Handel, Messiah. The Hallelujah chorus is another piece that everyone knows.

Dvorak, Symphony No. 9. This probably falls in the second tier of essential pieces, but it’s something I enjoy.

Well, at least two that Gorillaman definitely won’t like!

Haydn – Gotta say I love the guy. Not very fashionable, I know, but if you like bright, inventive, fun music, you’ll probably like Haydn. And hey, he does have some nice slow moviements too, for a bit of contrast. Check out his later symphonies (the London Symphonies, in particular) and piano sonatas.

Mendelssohn – Italian Symphony, and maybe the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Palestrina – The Pope Marcellus Mass. Legend has it that this is the piece that saved Western music; probably didn’t really happen that way, but a great piece nonetheless. Also some of the motets (“Tu Es Petrus” is a personal favorite).

Richard Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra – and not just because it’s the theme for 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s a great disc by Herbert von Karajan that includes some other Strauss tone poems.

Smetana – Die Moldau. And actually, the whole “Ma Vlast” cycle is pretty cool.

Which Kubelik - the Vienna Philharmonic one on Decca Legends, or the one with Berlin?

Johann Strauss’s waltzes should make the list, if only for Blue Danube.

The Berlin one. There’s something about the string playing that I’ve never heard anywhere else - raw electrifying sound, no smooth corners, the sound just keeps on building. Like the grittiest Russian recordings, and then some. Really, it’s only the first movement that I’m talking about, the most gripping 15 minutes of playing that I know of.