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Top 10 Classical Music CDs – Tony McGregor picks ten must have albums

Updated on September 19, 2012

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.

Brandenburg Concertos

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

Cello Concerto

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.

Copyright notice

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


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    • michelerampa profile image

      Michele Rampa 

      4 years ago from Boston, MA

      A beautiful list...

    • profile image

      real musician 

      6 years ago

      this is the cheesiest list of classical music must-haves I can imagine.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Katie - thanks for stopping by and hope you get to like the Bach and Beethoven! No problem with your liking Mozart best! You're in pretty good company, after all.

      Thanks again

      Love and peace


    • katiem2 profile image


      7 years ago from I'm outta here

      No complaints although Mozart is my favorite, I could benefit from other classical music. I love classical music and have leaned toward Mozart all the days of my life. I'm not sure but something about the music is so peaceful and comforting to me. I will make an effort to give those you've hightlighted here today a go. Well, I have in fact given them a go and have much of bach and Beethoven's work mostly collecting dust, oh my I've confessed. I just like Mozart best. I feel as if under a magical peace while listening. We all dance to a different beat I suppose. Love and Peace :)

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Indigo - thanks for the comment and I hope you find the ones you like!

      Love and peace


    • indigored profile image


      8 years ago from The Emerald City

      Evidently I have some shopping to do. I only know two of these pieces by name, a few more by melody. Thanks!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Audrey, you are such a dear person! I am in awe of your being able even to manage the first movement of the Pathetique - I wouldn't past the first bar! My piano playing came to a sad end when I was about 15 or so and I haven't been able to get back to it and now the gout has made it impossible! LOL!

      I did play guitar for many years but even that is getting difficult with fingers that don't do what they're told to do any more!

      But listening to great music is always a joy. Of course jazz is my first love, but the classical music that I mention here and one or two other Hubs is also uplifting to my spirit - in fact I can't live without it, really.

      Thanks for the visit and the comment.

      Love and peace


    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      8 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      My goal when I was majoring in piano was to play all the 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven (I am hopelessly in love with him) :-). The pathetique is my favorite and I do well on the first movement. Alas, it will take me the rest of eternity to complete 2 and 3. Love this hub Tony.

      We share similarities in music taste.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Christine - I thank you for your visit and the comment. Glad you enjoyed!

      Love and peace


    • mulberry1 profile image

      Christine Mulberry 

      8 years ago

      Really enjoyed this one, but I spent way too much time here! Well, I was alternately roused and relaxed so maybe the time was well spent :)

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 

      8 years ago from Great Britain

      A man of great taste, you are, Tony. I have to add some Chopin to my own favourites.

      Thanks for an interesting revue of some beautiful classics.

      peace....... Dim

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks everyone for reading and commenting. Sorry I haven't gotten around to thanking you before!

      Love and peace


    • beth811 profile image


      8 years ago from Pearl of the Orient Seas

      Amazing list! I also have those classical CDs, except #s 2 & 4.

      My teenage daughter loves to play Canon by Pachelbel & I'm very proud of her.

    • profile image

      Hell N0 

      8 years ago

      I've always said that the greatest composers died off years ago. I am a huge fan of classical music. I may make my own list. Only mine would have to be "My Top 100 Works From Bach To Stravinsky".

    • Storytellersrus profile image


      9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      haha, what do you mean not very original? I think it is a great core of music. The Brandenburg I am hearing as I type is a piece I played on my viola when in high school and it was so hard- my fingers could barely go fast enough! Thanks for all the choices. I will have to sit here for awhile and click each YouTube.

      While I sit and enjoy, I meant to ask if, with all your jazz knowledge, you ever heard an album called Bernstein plays Brubeck plays Bernstein or vice versa? I nearly wore that album out as a young girl. My absolute favorite was Brubeck playing "Someday" from Bernstein's West Side Story, but I loved the entire album.

      Also, Nigel Kennedy is incredible.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      9 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Well, Tony I am very impressed with your taste in classical music; actually it's very similar to mine:-). BTW, YoYo Ma (the genius)is playing while I'm writing this. My favorite orchestral instrument is the cello. My favorite periods in music are Baroque, classical and parts of the romantic. My all time favorite composers are Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi and, instead of Dvorak, I have to say Mahler.

      I am familiar with all of the selections here, except the Dvorak. I like Beethoven's piano concertos and string quartets; but prefer listening to his symphonies; my favorites being the 3rd and the 7th. I love Beethoven symphonies because, no matter how often I listen to them, I always hear something new each time. Having been a music student, I can't help analyzing them.

      Your selection of cello solos is amazing! They are absolutely, as you said, exquisite....sad...emotion provoking...but exquisite...Thanks, Tony

    • judydianne profile image


      9 years ago from Palm Harbor, FL

      This is a good list, Tony. Thanks for sharing!

      I love Baroque favorite Handel. My favorite cellist is Yo Yo Ma. Try his album, "Appassionato." Best track, "Cinema Paradiso: Looking for You from Giuseppe Tornatore Suite.


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