I Love Reader Feedback!
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.
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!
I’ve already written about my favorite version here.
Bach: Goldberg Variations – Pierre Hantaï
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
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.
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.
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, 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.
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
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:
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 – Richter – Leinsdorf
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:
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: Violin Concerto – Isabelle Faust
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:
- Bach: Brandenburgs: Qobuz and Prestoclassical
- Bach Goldberg: Qobuz
- Bach: B-minor mass: Qobuz
- Bach: Orchestral suites: Qobuz and Prestoclassical
- Beethoven 5 & 7 Kleiber: Qobuz and Prestoclassical
- Beethoven: Complete piano sonatas here (Qobuz) and here (eclassical)
- Beethoven: Complete violin sonatas Qobuz
- Brahms piano concerto no. 1 Fleisher Qobuz
- Brahms piano concerto no. 2 Leinsdorf Prestoclassical
- Brahms 1 Furtwängler Berliner Prestoclassical
- Brahms 4 Gardiner Qobuz or Prestoclassical
- Brahms Violin concerto Faust Qobuz