Top 10 Classical Music CDs – Tony McGregor picks ten must have albums
An idiosyncratic list
In this Hub I present, humbly and with due consideration of my lack of knowledge and expertise in the area, my list of the ten classical albums that I would hate to have to do without, for any reasons.
This is, necessarily, a very personal, and therefore idiosyncratic, list, with no pretensions to anything! It's just a list of some of the classical pieces and favourite recordings from my collection. It is also presented simply in alphabetical order according to the surnames of the composers, except for the first two albums, which are compilations of the works of several composers.
I have been listening to classical music since I was a boy, that is, for close to 60 years. I read about it and try to keep up to date with it, but it is such a vast field, wider and deeper than jazz, that I can't hope to really keep abreast of everything.
You will notice that this list also comprises only those composers from the baroque, classical and romantic eras. I do love many more modern composers and listen to their works also – MacMillan, Part, Gorecki, even Varese, but the discs here are the ones that have taken hold in my heart and mind, they are the ones that I could not, without some difficulty, do without. Those others will no doubt get to that status over time and as I listen to them more.
So the composers whose works I will
list here are Johan Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Antonin
Dvorak and Antonio Vivaldi. You will notice that two of them are
namesakes of mine. I like that! It is also clear that I have a distinct bias in favour of Bach and Beethoven, with three of their works each in the list. I make no apologies. I believe them to be the two greatest composers of western music and so it is appropriate that they are somewhat over-represented.
Right. On with the CDs, and I would ask you to keep my relative lack of expertise in mind as you read!
Adagio and Canon
This album was the very first CD I ever bought, and it has been a favourite since 1982 when I first got it. In fact, when I bought it I didn't even have a CD player yet! I say “first got it” because I have had to get it a second time after my daughter Sarah, who christened it “the yellow CD” when she was still very young and loved it, later borrowed my first copy and refused to give it back to me! It is a compilation of great music drawn mainly from the Baroque era, and includes those two pieces beloved of New Agers, Albinoni's Adagio for strings and organ and Johann Pachelbel's Canon and Gigue in D Major. Along the way there are Vivaldi's concerto “La Notte”, Bach's Air from the 3rd Orchestral Suite (BWV 1068, for those who like to know these things), The Dance of the Blessed Spirits by Gluck ( a particular favourite of mine), and Mozart's Serenata notturno in D Major K. 239. The whole lot is conducted by that sports car fanatic Herbert von Karajan.
Tous les matins du monde
In 1991 a film was made of the novel with this title, about the life of French composer Marin Marais, starring Gerard Depardieu as the composer. It is a wonderful film, made all the more wonderful by the soundtrack music, provided by Spanish viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. Savall's playing is wonderful and the sound of the viola da gamba, which was Marais' instrument also, is very, very hauntingly beautiful. The soundtrack music comprises a number of track composed by Marais, but also a track composed by Savall himself and one composed by Marais' contemporary Jean de Sainte-Colombe. It is a stunning album, not to be missed.
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin
One of the greatest sets of music ever
composed, in my humble opinion, are these glorious sonatas and
partitas composed by Johan Sebastian Bach, the sublime and possibly
greatest composer ever. I have a couple of sets of these, including
one by that incredible young violinist Julia Fischer, but perhaps my
favourite, slightly, is the Yehudi Menuhim set on EMI. I just love
his warmth of tone and the humanity that seems to me to shine out of
his playing. I once had the singular pleasure of hearing him live in
in Hamburg, and the memory of that evening of glorious music will
always stay with me. So that's the set I listen to most. This music
is where that piece beloved of most music lovers is found, the famous
Chaconne from the partita no. 2 in D minor. Ravishing stuff. The accompanying video is the Julia Fischer version of the Chaconne. Beautiful indeed.
Suites for solo cello
Another set of beautiful music for solo instrument by Bach, this time the cello. These six suites are just behind the solo violin pieces for me. I love especially the set on EMI again by Mstislav Rostropovich, who also manages to exude a warmth that enraptures. I have heard other sets by other cellists, but this one really does it for me – I love it. The one drawback in this set is that the suites were definitely composed to be played sequentially and on this set one has to jump between the two CDs to do that, which I find most irritating. But the music is so great that I have learned to cope!
The video of Slava playing the Sarabancde from the first of the six suites is just so exquisite. I hope you find this as inspiring, and beautiful, as I do. It's one of the pinnacles of Western music in my view.
Well, everyone loves the Brandenburgs, I think. This is great classical orchestral music. There are many recordings to choose from, but the one I like best is the one released in 2005 on the naïve label with Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano. This is a double CD set with a third disc containing a DVD of the making of the recording, which is interesting in itself. The players here are immaculate, and Alessandrini's knowledge, empathy and enthusiasm make the works come alive in wonderful new ways. A treat for the ears and the mind. If you like Bach and the Brandenburgs, get this one – its well worth the little bit more it might cost. In fact, if you don't have a complete set of the Brandenburgs, then this is the one to get, as far as I'm concerned.
Actually, even if you do have a set get this one as well. It is definitive in my view.
Beethoven Piano Sonatas
Beethoven's piano works have always fascinated me and in particular the sonatas are very close to my heart. I have a number of different versions of most of them, but the recording I like best is that by Radu Lupu of three of possibly the most popular of them. This recording, on Belart, has number 14, the ever-popular “Moonlight”; number 8, the almost equally popular “Pathetique”; and number 21, the “Waldstein.” Lupu's playing is just magical. Of all the versions I have heard of these sonatas, these are the ones that send shivers down my back. This is true especially of the number 14, the “Moonlight.” This is surely how Beethoven himself must have wanted it to sound.
Couldn't find a video of Lupu playing so settled for this Wilhelm Kempff version of the "Moonlight". Not quite in the same class but good nevertheless.
Symphony Number 5
Beethoven's most famous piece, or is that the 9th? Anyway, whichever is the most popular of this great composer's pieces, this is the one that got my interest in classical music going when I still very young. My father who, as a former naval man knew Morse code, explained the war-time significance of the opening bars. I was immediately hooked by that and later came to appreciate it for more musical reasons. Once had a vinyl LP of it with Lennie Bernstein conducting, I think the NY Phil, and a 45rpm disc included with Bernstein giving wonderful overview of the symphony. The version I like best now, though, is the one with Osmo Vanska conducting the Minnesota Orchestra on BIS (I have downloaded all nine symphonies in this combination from eMusic – wonderful value and wonderful music).
Piano Concerto Number 5
Isn't it a coincidence that my favourite Beethoven orchestral pieces are both labelled number five? Anyway for many years I cherished the version by Wilhelm Backhaus but have recently fallen in love with the version by Artur Pizarro with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras on the Linn label. This is stirring stuff. It is part of the complete piano concertos recorded by this fantastic team and is well worth listening to. This concerto is a wonderful piece of music and keeps me emotionally and intellectually captivated.
This whole set is wonderfully played and the set wonderfully produced. An excellent addition to my collection.
Couldn'd find a video of Pizarro playing this, but here's Pollini. Also a great performance conducted by Claudio Abbado
I have always loved the sonority of the
cello and the Dvorak Cello Concerto has long been a favourite of
mine. Other cello concertos also are great and I love many of them,
perhaps in particular the Elgar, but somehow the Dvorak is special,
perhaps because I had the pleasure of hearing the great Pierre
Fournier play it live in South Africa a long time ago. Indeed the
Fournier version on Deutsche Grammaphon is still one of my
favourites, although I don't have a copy in my collection at the
moment. I have a version by Yo-Yo Ma with the Berlin Phil under Lorin
Maazel which is pretty good. (Why do producers put such strange pictures on the covers sometimes? What on earth has that picture to do with this great music? And as for the cover of the Alessandrini Brandenburgs - well, if someone could explain the meaning of that strange picture I would be grateful!)
That second movement is still one of my most special musical moments, especially the entrance of the cello after the French horn choir (Listen for it at about 1:26 in the accompanying video of Ma playing with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra Festival Casals under Giancarlo Guerrero in 2005). Just a wonderful piece of music.
The Four Seasons
The famous Nigel Kennedy version of Vivaldi's series of little concerti which he recorded in 1989 as both soloist and director with the English Chamber Orchestra is still one of the top selling classical albums and listening to it one can hear why. He has managed to breath a vigour and freshness into the music which is just captivating. Kennedy wrote in the liner notes:”What strikes me about The Four Seasons is how Vivaldi evokes such strong images in such a direct way. The fast passages bristle with energy, the melodies communicate with beauty and simplicity, and the huge contrasts in the music enhance the effect of this on the listener.” It is just stunning music, stunningly played and presented on this CD on the EMI label.
A solid, if not very original, core
So there are my top 10 classical CDs. Perhaps not very earth-shatteringly original, but certainly music that has both entertained and enlivened me over the years, music that I have also learned a lot from. Undoubtedly there is a lot more music out there than these ten. There are no doubt other choices that could be made. But I feel these CDs form a solid core for a basic classical music collection.
I know I will get some brickbats for the lack of Mozart (except for one piece in the first CD on the list) and also the lack of any opera. I have to confess to not being a great fan of either, so I make no apologies. Indeed there is no vocal music in my list at all, and yet I am a great lover of great singing. So I can't really explain why there is none in this list. It has just happened like that.
And if this list causes some lively debate – well, that's what any good list should do, because we each of us have our own opinions about things, and classical music is something we will all have very different views about. And that is as it should be.
Music generally is something one can never know enough about and so I offer my list not as definitive but as a starting point for me and, I hope, whoever reads this list, to learn from.
The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009