Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part I

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Hearing from your readers is just fantastic. Blogging is obviously sometimes a bit lonely exercise. You write something on your own, and then it’s out there, being read in places as far away as Turkmenistan, Mozambique, or Mongolia (I’m not making this up, the stats for my blog show user access from 157 different countries, including all of the above, and places like Micronesia, Myanmar, or Brunei).

So it is really great to hear back from readers, which luckily happens regularly, and even better if I get questions, because often these turn into blog posts, like for example My Must Have Mozart Albums.

So in this particular case, in my last blog entry about the CPE Bach keyboard concertos, reader Jim S asked me if I could do a similar post to my 25 Essential Jazz albums for classical music.

Sure, here we go!

25 Essential Classical Albums

However, now starts the tricky part. How do you define essential? Are we talking about the musical value of the work, or do you want to be as representative as possible of the 500+ years of what we call classical music today? And obviously, you’ll find many of these lists already online.

I’ve toyed with several ideas and concepts, but discarded all supposedly objective approaches to something purely subjective. Therefore, this list will simply be albums I truly don’t want to live without. Call them “desert island” albums (a cliché I hate, I’d much prefer to take an entire external hard drive to said island).

With this purely subjective list, there will be obvious gaps. Nothing prior to Bach, so the entire early music gets excluded. No Grieg, no Wagner, no Mahler, no Händel, no Debussy, no Ravel, no Haydn? All this doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate these artists (and I’ve written about most of them on this blog already). They are just not as essential to my very personal taste. And if you’re listing only 25 albums you really have to do some tough choices.

Furthermore, I’ve cheated a bit, occasionally I’ve extended the concept of “album” to an entire multi-CD box by the same artist.

So, here we go. I decided to simply go alphabetically.

I’ve you’re following my blog regularly, you won’t be surprised that the entire first part of the blog post is exclusively dedicated the the “big B’s”, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The entire rest of the alphabet will be covered in part II.

 

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos

This first entry is already controversial. The Brandenburgs are essentially music for entertainment. How can I put them in this list and for example, not put Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis? The answer is very simple, I just love them too much. I really never get tired from this music. So all musicologists out there, sorry!

Bach Brandenburg Concertos Rinaldo Alessandrini Naive 2005

I’ve already written about my favorite version here.

 

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Pierre Hantaï

Pierre Hantai Goldberg variations Mirare 2003

This one was easy. No essential classical album list could be complete without this absolute pinnacle of keyboard music.

I’m recommending here Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord, given that this is the instrument for which this was originally written. You’ll find my original review here. if you prefer a modern piano version, go with Murray Perahia, or more recently, Igor Levit (see the review of the latter here).

 

Bach: B-minor mass – Herreweghe

Bach b-minor mass Herreweghe 2011 Phi

Again, another absolute masterpiece, that has to be in every collection. My review of my favorite version with Philippe Herreweghe can be found here.

 

Bach: St: Matthew Passion – Dunedin Consort

Here I could have chosen either the smaller St. John’s passion or the larger St. Matthew’s. I went for the larger one.

Matthew Passion Dunedin Consort John Butt Linnrecords 24 88

You’ll find my review of this truly essential masterpiece here.

 

Bach: Orchestral Suites

No. 5, the last of the great Johann Sebastian. And like with entry no. 1, the Brandenburgs, we’re getting into the “pop music” territory again. I would never claim that the Orchestral Suites (also known as Overtures) are of the same musical value as the b-minor mass for example.

But again, I listen to these over and over again. That’s why they feature here.

I haven’t reviewed my favorite version on this blog yet, so just a quick comment about this album. I usually really like the Freiburger Barockorchester, and this is probably my favorite album they’ve ever recorded. They just get the balance right between swing, brillance, and sheer fun.

Bach: Ouvertüren - Complete Orchestral Suites - Freiburger Barockorchester Harmonia Mundi

 

Now, moving on to the next Big B:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 & 7

Among the Beethoven symphonies, I was very tempted to simply put Paavo Järvi’s complete cycle, that I’ve written about here. However, they actually haven’t been released as a single album yet, and anyhow, I just needed to feature this outstanding album below, as I hadn’t written about it yet:

Carlos Kleiber Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 7 Wiener Philharmoniker Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

Carlos Kleiber, son of famous Erich Kleiber, is one of those conductor legends. Partially this is due to the fact that he has recorded relatively little, so a rarety factor comes into play here. But then again, this album above features in pretty much every “Best Of Classical” list I’ve consulted while doing the research for this post. And honestly, it very much deserves that place. There is really something special about it.

On top of everything else, you’re not only getting the famous “da da da daaaa” 5th, but my personal favorite of Beethoven’s symphonies, No 7.

A true must have.

Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas – Ronald Brautigam

I’ve already mentioned Brautigam and his complete Beethoven cycle in My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists.

7318599920009_600

I know not everybody appreciates the sound of the fortepiano. And if you don’t you’ll find plenty of alternatives in the catalogue on modern Steinways. But I really suggest you check this out. Not only you get outstanding playing, the different sound of the fortepiano opens up an entirely different world.

 

Beethoven: Complete Violin Sonatas – Isabelle Faust

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for piano & violon - Isabelle Faust - Alexander Melnikov - Harmonia Mundi 2013 24/44

Oh no you’re going to say – again Isabelle Faust? Yes I know, I’m a BIG fan. I’m not going to give links here to all the positive reviews I’ve written about her, there are simply too many (just enter “Faust” in the search box on the right, and you’ll see the long list).

But what can I do? She’s done one of the best, if not THE best cycle of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.

What you could argue about, if I choose chamber music from Beethoven, why the violin sonatas and not the string quartets? Well to be frank, I’m still in the process of fully absorbing all string quartets and have yet to make up my mind which version to prefer.

So, only 3 entries for Beethoven, but given that I’ve “cheated” with two complete boxes, I figured we can move on to the composer whose name features in the sub-title of my blog.

 

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 – Leon Fleisher – George Szell

Brahms first piano concerto was my first big love in music. I started out with a decent, but not outstanding version, with Sir Georg Solti, and Andras Schiff on piano, and by now have collected more than 20 versions.

Among the more recent recordings, I really like the version by Riccardo Chailly with Nelson Freire, but when we’re getting a bit back in time, I guess there is simply no beating of George Szell.

The only problem I’m having is, which version? George Szell has recorded piano concerto no. 1 with several pianists, including Rudolf Serkin, Leon Fleisher, and Clifford Curzon, among others.

I guess, overall the version with Leon Fleisher wins by a very small margin, but tomorrow I may well recommend Curzon instead. But I guess I have to decide, so Fleisher it is:

Leon Fleisher: Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven Piano concerto No. 2 Cleveland Orchestra George Szell

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 – Richter – Leinsdorf

Brahms Piano concerto no. 2 Beethoven Sonata No. 23 Sviatoslav Richter, Erich Leinsdorf - Chicago Symphony RCA

Again, for piano concerto no. 2 I could have recommended a lot of albums. I’ve previously written about Emil Gilels,  and could have recommended Gilels with Reiner, or again Chailly/Frere.

But I guess there is something truly special about this particular recording with the great Sviatoslav Richter, that I had the pleasure of hearing live once in a solo recital.

A must have.

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 – Wilhelm Furtwängler

Here it gets complicated. In one of my very first blog posts I’ve written about my quest to find a modern version to replace my love for Wilhelm Furtwängler in Brahms first symphony. I’ve also written about why this symphony is so important to me, so I simply couldn’t keep it of the list.

Therefore, be warned, the recording I’m recommending here is a historic performance, that may not please everyones ears from a technical perspective (musically it is hard to beat though).

Furtwängler has recorded this symphony several times, and my favorite version is either with the Berlin Philharmonic, or with the NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg.

Let’s pick the BPO version here. Unfortunately it is not that easy to find. It can be found on the Furtwängler Anniversary Box, which is worth having:

Wilhelm Furtwängler Anniversary Tribute Deutsche Grammophon

 

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 – John Eliot Gardiner

Brahms 4 is my other favorite Brahms symphony. I really love the variations in the 4th movement!

I could have given a lot of recommendations here, Chailly, Szell again, or as above, Carlos Kleiber.

But let me stick to this version, the 2010 recording by John Eliot Gardiner with his Orcheste Revolutionnaire et Romantique. I know the concept of historically informed performance is controversial, especially for late 19th century works.

Anyhow, I really like what I hear, especially the transparency.

If you want more traditional Vienna Philharmonic sound, just get the Carlos Kleiber instead!

Brahms Symphony No. 4 John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2010

 

Brahms: Violin Concerto – Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust Brahms Violin Concerto Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2011

Yes, sorry, Faust pops up twice in this post, here we go again for Brahms Violin Concerto, as reviewed here. If you want an alternative, just get Jascha Heifetz with Fritz Reiner, or Janine Jansen (see here)

 

To be continued next week…..

All of the albums above that weren’t reviewed previously are obviously full 5 star ratings!

And while I’m preparing part II, I’d love to hear your feedback on the selection above? Am I nuts? What do you think? What are your favorites?

 

You can find the albums here:

 

30 thoughts on “Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part I

  1. Jim S.

    Well, as the guy who created so much work for you, let me say two things. Sorry. 😦 And thanks. 🙂

    I guess I’m not entirely a Philistine as I’ve actually heard of several of these. As promised, I’ll listen and give feedback. But given this rich meal, will take a while to digest.

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    Reply
      1. Jim S.

        Starting with Brandenburg Concertos because, well, why not? You say they’re for ‘entertainment.’ Uh, well, sure. But as opposed to what exactly? What am I missing?

        Also, as a student of music, I’m compelled to read up on these things as I listen. I find it amusing how many times Bach could squeeze the expression ‘Your Highness’ into just one paragraph to the Margrave. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Musicophile Post author

        I meant entertainment as opposed to “high art” like the b minor mass. I’d never put the Brandenburgs at the same level as some other works.

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      3. Jim S.

        So! I listened to the Brandenburg Concertos twice all the way through. (I realize that any of these pieces probably require more than that but if I don’t limit it, I’ll never get through all 25). What can I say? Wonderful music. I appreciated it quite a bit more the second time through. I think this is because the first time I was just trying to take it all in. The second time felt deeper, richer.

        To my surprise, I had a favorite concerto which was No. 6 in B Flat Major. Not only is this a great piece but I think my inclination is in part because of the lesser number of instruments. Less is more for me sometimes and this is slightly bigger than a string quartet. (I will here admit that the harpsichord doesn’t do much for me).

        Anyway, thanks. Time to pick another one….

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Musicophile Post author

        That’s one thing that really makes the Brandenburgs special. They are all very different, and have their own character.

        You may want to try the Orchestral Suites next.

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      5. Jim S.

        So for my next foray, I spent some time listening to Beethoven’s 5th and 7th. The 5th, of course, I’m far more familiar with. Beautiful stuff. Question – you said that the 7th was your favorite but I couldn’t find anything on your site that said why. Could you elaborate? What specifically is it that moves you about it?

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Musicophile Post author

        Tough question! I guess because it is very close in the full romantic power of the 5th, but it is not as overplayed. Furthermore, the second movement is just spectacular. Let me think about if I can give you a bit more detailed answer later

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  2. Nino

    Thank You for this blog. You opened a whole new world for me. I am mainly jazz fan, but after I found this blog my classic collection have rapidly grown. Thank You from Croatia!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. Julie Miller

    Since subscribing, I never miss one of your posts, and often find recordings to expand my collection. Was not surprised to see you share an early and abiding affinity for Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. Twenty versions?! I thought ten was adequate. Would love to see a post ranking your collection of this endlessly engrossing composition.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Musicophile Post author

      Thanks Julie for the kind word. And wow, that could indeed be a nice challenge, comparing all my Brahms 1 concertos.

      The only problem is actually ranking them. I could try giving each of them a star rating, but as I said in my post, whether I truly prefer Szell/Fleisher over Szell/Curzon depends very much on the moment.

      So which one should I rank better? Both a clearly 5 star recordings in my personal rating scale, but putting one consistently better than the other is really tricky.

      Let me think about it.

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      Reply
      1. Jim S.

        Ok, so I’ve listened to the Bach Orchestral Suites. Before I comment, I’ll say that I find myself somewhat inadequate to the task. Ask me to distinguish BB. King from Eric Clapton in tone, style, use of vibrato, etc? No problem. Pick one Springsteen song over another and discuss. Sure. Even Miles’ stuff. But classical? Boy, I feel like a stranger in a strange land. I find myself saying, “Well, I enjoyed that.” But then I can’t really dissect it or perhaps fully appreciate it. It certainly wouldn’t matter which version I’m listening to as I probably cannot distinguish.

        All that said, obviously a great piece of work and one that I’ll return to at some point. (The two listenings aren’t really, I think, sufficient). One thing I’ve found over this and the Brandenburg Concertos is difficulty in listening all the way through. I find that my ear gets tired or perhaps it’s too rich. I heard the Concertos in a “live” recording so I have to assume it’s meant to be heard in one listening. But I’ve found I appreciate these pieces more if I take a break so I come back to them fresh.

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      2. Musicophile Post author

        Jim, honestly I think you’re overthinking the exercise. Just see what you enjoy and what you don’t and don’t feel obliged to listen to an entire Album in a row. Each concerto stands on it own.

        And regarding your ability to distinguish, that will come with experience. I’m pretty sure you weren’t able to differentiate King and Clapton from day 1.

        Right now you listened twice to Bach, I’m sure you’ll notice a difference when you get to Beethoven or Brahms.

        That said, no pressure, you have your entire life to discover all this!

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      3. Jim S.

        Overthinking? Yes, perhaps. I guess that what I wrote was just a window into my reaction. Basically, I want to be able to say more than, I like this, or, I like that. But yeah, it will take a while. I doubt if I’ll ever have the same love for it as you do but I’m certain my musical palette will be enriched by all this music.

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      4. Jim S.

        Oh, absolutely. I’ve been dying to find a way to get into this music. And here it is. I’ll just stop beating myself up about it. 🙂

        Like

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