Classical Music Request

I would like to expand my knowledge and appreciation of classical music, and therefore I ask you, dear reader, for your recommendations. I use the term "classical" in the broad sense in which it is usually used, referring to music created in the West, from roughly 1600 through 1900 (the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods).

Rather than skewing the results by stating my preferences, I'll just ask that you write a comment with your Top 3 favorites (more or less, if you wish). The only stipulation is that I'd like you to provide the following bits of information for each recommendation:
  1. Composer, title of the piece, and its number or alternate title if it has one
  2. The best recording of the piece you know of, and whatever information is important to know so that I can find it (orchestra, director, etc.)
  3. A description -- short or long -- of why you love it. Is it heroic, or you love the melodies, or the timpanies and horns blast you out of your seat, or it's dark, foreboding and powerful and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up... you get the picture.
Depending on the response I get, I'm hoping to collect all the recommendations and post them as a whole. This could then become a good resource for everyone else, too. I'm curious to see what we come up with, considering the intelligence, generally shared values, and wide range of tastes and experiences the readers of this blog undoubtedly have.

So, start submitting your recommendations!


Stella said...

Okay, here goes (and I doubt I will be able to keep it to anything like three):

1) Dvorak, Symphony No. 9 in e minor, "From the New World"
2) I haven't listened to multiple recordings of this piece -- the one I have is of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and it is just fine.
3) There is no melodist like Dvorak -- he writes stirring tunes that stay in the mind forever. Because his melodies are simple, they are easy to remember, and because they run the gamut of emotions -- from heroicism to meditative wistfulness to joy -- they are a pleasure to hear. I also have a deep love for his 7th Symphony in d minor, but the 9th is probably a better piece for Dvorak 101. I'd recommend purchasing the 9th, and if you like it, the 7th as well as his Carnival Overture (a riot of joy in music if ever there was one).

1) Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5
2) I don't remember which recording I own (I'm away from home and can't check at the moment, I apologize!) but I picked it up fairly inexpensively -- no need to pay $20 for a CD if you don't want to.
3) In this piece, Tchaikovsky will break your heart with the depth of the longing of the music, only to mend it again with bursts of joy in the final movement. It's a beautiful piece to listen to for sheer enjoyment, but it's also great to listen to as an exercise in understanding music, because Tchaikovsky uses the same melodic threads throughout the piece to very different effects. After a few listens, you'll be able to recognize how he alters a theme to make it sound wistful in one movement and triumphant in another. Genius. I also recommend "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," and "The Nutcracker."

1) Felix Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 4 "Italian"
2) I believe I have the recording from Naxos, which is fine.
3) This piece is pure lighthearted joy. You're probably familiar with the opening theme, as it has been used in many a commercial as background music. Well worth listening to the whole thing.

1) Aaron Copland, "Fanfare for the Common Man"
2) Not sure.
3) Despite the title, this piece suggests a man who is anything but common. Trumpets cannot help but sound heroic, and Copland uses them to great effect in this piece. I also love his "Rodeo" suite (you'll recognize it as the music from "Beef. It's what's for dinner.") and "Appalachian Spring."

1) Rachmaninoff, "Variations on a Theme by Paganini"
2) Not sure.
3) This is one of the pieces many Objectivists I know love, and I have come to love it as well for its deeply romantic treatment of the theme. The strings fairly cry out with longing, and his writing always includes gorgeous fireworks for the piano.

I could go on and on, but these are a great start.

C. August said...

Thanks! And Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 is my favorite of all time (so far). Listening to it in the car recently was what got me to thinking about posting this request.

The version I have is by the Chicago Philharmonic, with Claudio Abbado directing.

Stephen Bourque said...

Well, this is a topic that I could go on and on about, so even though my comment is long, I promise I’m being about as brief as possible! (By the way, I’ll spend almost no words beyond mere titles about the particular recordings I have, since it is generally the composer and composition that is most important to me, not the performance. For some people, the opposite is the case, but it’s just the way my brain works.)

I will use the three pieces to showcase my three very favorite composers. You might find my picks interesting, since I’m guessing the last two would not appear on most Objectivists’ lists. Of course, I love all of the composers in Stella’s recommendations, and to her list I would add for your exploration Franz Schubert (certainly the symphonies, but don’t miss the songs and chamber works), Johannes Brahms (everything!), and Jean Sibelius (symphonies). Oh, and Beethoven!

Now, my list:

1 Johann Sebastian Bach, Das Wohltemperierte Klavier
Glenn Gould (piano), CBS Records Masterworks, 1986.
To me, Bach is the supreme musical genius of history, second to none. All of his music is worth exploring: he is to keyboards what Vivaldi is to strings; a single one of his cantatas would represent an accomplishment of a lifetime, and he wrote over two hundred of them; his orchestral suites foreshadow the symphony, which was yet to be invented.

I chose The Well-Tempered Clavier here mostly because it aptly reveals the vastness of his creative mind. It is a collection of twenty-four (actually, forty-eight because he composed two sets) prelude-and-fugue pairs, each pair written in a different major and minor key, ascending the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. I believe Bach’s purpose was simply to go through the exercise of demonstrating the new “well-tempered” scale system, which is similar to the present-day “even-tempered” system and provided several advantages over the mean-tempered systems of Bach’s day. While doing so he penned a masterpiece. It is as if a man, charged with illustrating the viability of a twenty-six letter English alphabet, came up with Hamlet.

The other thing this piece shows is Bach’s contrapuntal genius, which perhaps resonates with the engineer in me. There is something about the fugue form itself that is thrilling and constitutes the perfect mental exercise: following a non-”crow-busting” number of voices in independent but related activity.

2 Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony #5 in D minor
New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (conductor), CBS Records Masterworks, 1989.
This symphony certainly has some modern elements to it, though I would plant it firmly in the realm of Romanticism, which might raise objections from both Romanticists and modernists. Understand that I’m no expert in this, so I take this position because of the symphony's net effect. For instance, if there is chromaticism or tonal shifting in the Largo, it resolves itself into such lyrical beauty, such inexpressible yearning, that it seems (to me) to have more in common with Sibelius than with Schoenberg. The ending of the final movement is so epic, so heroic, I have the odd sensation that if I described it, it would ruin it for you, as if I had just revealed the end of a movie! So I will just leave you with a hint: tympani and trumpets are involved!

Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies are magnificent things, and though not of uniform consistency, all reveal sheer talent. He wrote music for films, a fact that is not surprising because whole stretches of his pieces remind me of really good movie music (and I mean that as a compliment). Unlike Prokofiev, who regrettably died on the same day as Stalin, Shostakovich lived to compose after the death of the dictator who so grievously tormented him. “My symphonies are tombstones,” he said, though it strikes me that this would have been a more fitting description of his fifteen string quartets, which are as bleak and disturbing as you can imagine. I love them, but it’s an acquired taste, sort of the way the music of Bartok takes time to appreciate. I wouldn’t recommend the quartets as an introduction to Shostakovich’s music.

3 Gustav Mahler, Symphony #2
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Georg Solti (conductor), The Decca Record Company, London, 1991.
Gustav Mahler paints on the largest possible canvas: this goes far to explain my love of his music. An opera conductor by trade, he never composed an opera. Instead, he composed the most operatic symphonies in history. His symphonies are behemoths; the range and scope is enormous. His Eighth Symphony is dubbed “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the vast orchestra and chorus that is required to perform it. The Third Symphony runs about an hour and a half, and I believe most of them take at least an hour to complete. The music is lovely and ambitious and intricate, sometimes programmatic (surely those woodwinds are birds in the forest!), and every now and then, even though Mahler’s style is uniquely identifiable, you wonder if Wagner stepped in to help with a passage. And the voices... they are so achingly beautiful, and nowhere better than in the final movement of the Second Symphony. (To me, it surpasses even Beethoven’s Ninth.)

The Second Symphony is my favorite because of this final movement. It is impossible to listen to in the car, not only because it ends with such staggering emotion it would make driving dangerous, but because it drops down to triple pianissimo, almost a whisper, as it builds, over about twelve or fifteen minutes, through a solemn chorus led by a lovely solo female voice, up to a final crescendo - a finale that is almost unbearably victorious. In fact, I have long held that if anyone ever remade a movie of The Fountainhead, the film should end with the last few minutes of this symphony, to accompany Dominique’s rise up the elevator to meet Roark. (And damned if you don’t hear bells just as Dominique would be ascending “above the spires of churches!”)

A final word: It is not lost on me that my taste in music is in some respects exactly opposite that of Ayn Rand’s. Her light-hearted “tiddlewink” music holds no charms for me. I favor immensity, and even darkness if it resolves itself into light. It is not weightlessness I seek in music, but heaviness. A thousand ditties do not equal one epic. But then, I was born and raised in America. Things might be quite different if I had been born a serf of a Tsar or a slave of a Soviet. What in a Beethoven symphony strikes me as inexpressible grandness and heroism may in someone with a different background evoke the tramping of jackboots coming up the stairs.

C. August said...

Amazing, Stephen. Thank you.

Regarding your last paragraph, where you describe "heaviness" or immensity as the thing you seek... I'll know better after I listen to your recommendations, but I like the same thing. I read the Wiki entry on Tchaikovsky's 5th, and when it was play in the US in 1888 or something, the reviews were really harsh, saying the last movement sounded like he had unleashed marauding Cossacks. The thing is, I don't hear that at all. I hear struggle and triumph, and I love how the very end is so full and immense. When I played alto sax in high school (first chair, of course!), being a part of a performance of something like that was just amazing. I distinctly remember that we played the Jupiter movement of Holt's "The Planets" and it was thrilling.

That is all to say that I'm looking forward to listening.

Re: Bach, it's good to have a specific recommendation, because I have tried to get into the prelude/fugues before, and haven't been gripped. It's time for another try.

Stephen Bourque said...

As you listen to the fugues, it is helpful to keep in mind what a fugue is; this will make it much more pleasurable and rewarding.

The whole point of a fugue is that it develops and elaborates upon a single musical idea. The fugue always starts by presenting this main idea, or motif, in exposition: a single musical “voice” at the beginning of the piece that states the theme in the main tonal base (i.e. the key’s tonic). A short time later, a second voice jumps in with the very same theme, but this time shifted to the fifth tone of the key. Then a third voice jumps in, and sometimes a fourth and even fifth. In the meantime, these several musical “threads” that have all been launched continue to explore and elaborate the theme.

This is where my reference to non-”crow-busting” conceptualization comes in. Three or four or five voices is enough to provide unlimited possibilities to the composer, but it is not so many that it overloads the listener. With practice, you can mentally keep track of the individual threads that run “in parallel” - that is to say, “horizontally,” or consecutively in time - and at the very same time enjoy the “vertical” harmonic content. This is the beauty of counterpoint, and the fugue literally assists the listener by starting up each voice one at a time, and with the same pattern, so that your mind can lock on to them.

Have fun listening!

Ed Cline said...

My very favorite classical piece is Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture,” performed by the London Philharmonic in 1946, conducted by Victor de Sabata. It’s purely coincidence, but that is also my birth year. It is a kind of personal overture to my life and how I have lived it.

My second favorite is Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

My third favorite is hard to decide on: Camille Saint-Saën’s “Organ Symphony,” or the No. 3, together with his “Phaëton.” These came out third from a vast reservoir of contenders.

I have little use for “Pop” music, except for a few nostalgic pieces from the last century (all predating 1950, or in the 1950’s). What is being concocted today by so-called “classical” composers cannot be classified as music (they have the same “philosophy” of composition as Pablo Picasso’s after his “blue period”: people call my crap Art, so I'll give them “Art.”) And, the nearest thing to classical composition in our time (post-1960) has been in movie scores, and even that has ceased.

Music is important to my own creative drive. I'll listen to whatever will lock me into a writing “roll.” That depends on the nature of what I'm writing, and could be anything from the Berlioz Overture to “The Kansas City Blues” from the 1920’s.

Ed Cline

Tom Stelene said...

Wow, what a question! Okay, here goes...

1. Sibelius Symphony No. 5 - Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. I'll describe it as Sibelius did: "The gates of heaven open and God's orchestra begins to play." It is majestic, profound and triumphant - but that's typical of Sibelius.

2. Rachmaninov's 3rd Concerto - Ashkenazy with Previn and the London SO. Of all Rachmaninov concerti, I think this set is still the best.

3. Now this is getting tough, so I'll just pick a really good piece from a hat: Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. This is a great concerto and for me the middle movement stands out. It is so serene and gorgeous... that's really all I can say to describe it. I have it performed by Tamas Vasary and Jerzy Semkow with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Enjoy your music quest - and when you sit down to listen, you might want a Punch Chateau L cigar and a glass of Martel cognac to go with the music :)

C. August said...

Ed, I picked up the Saint-Saën and Berlioz works yesterday (Borders didn't have a copy of the Symphonic Dances), and I can see why you like them. They're very good, and likely pieces that I wouldn't have found without your recommendations.

Tom, thanks for the suggestions. I almost bought some Sibelius yesterday, but wasn't sure what to pick. Now I have something to look for.

Though I'm not sure about the cognac.... since the only free time I seem to have to listen to music turned up to 11 is in the car on my slow, crawling commute, a nice stiff drink might not be the best idea!

Jason said...

The first piece I mention, Chopin's "Andante spianato..." was recommended in Ayn Rand's newsletter "The Objectivist" (September 1967). That's how I found out about it.

One of my favorite pieces, and one of the pieces that got me initially "hooked" on classical is Chopin's "Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante". Best performance is by Peter Schmalfuss (8:45 timed version). It's on iTunes. One of the best parts is from the 4:25 mark through 5:00. Lots of great piano rolls and layers, very grand sound (as if something important and serious is happening), precisely layered--a true feat of melody.

A great violin piece is Tchaikovsky's "Chanson Sans Paroles". The best performance is by Itzhak Perlman (though the Artist is Samuel Sanders, who plays the accompanying piano). On iTunes as well. I get the image of an egoistic hero laughing in joyous reverence amidst a great struggle--a tinge of somberness, yet he knows he can't be defeated (and is in love with himself and his life regardless of the outcome) and only gives a brief moment to consider and laugh at the trivial before gaily brushing it from his thoughts.

And a larger body of good classical music is Chopin's Waltzes, No. 1 through 19. For $15ish they are on the album "Ultimate Chopin". Very fast and intense, yet joyously light.