Category Archives: Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Albums

Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part II

Continued from part I here.

Anton Bruckner: Sinfonie Nr. 4 – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker

The 4th Big B as some call him, Bruckner had to be on my list.

The album I’m recommending nicely enough is a collection of all his relevant symphonies, but I’d really like to focus on Symphony no. 4, my first love, and still my preferred Bruckner symphony.

Günter Wand Anton Bruckner Symphonies Berliner Philharmoniker RCA Red Seal

I’ve written about it previously, and am not going to repeat the entire blog post. As I mentioned there, I’m not listening to Bruckner that much any more, my taste has moved on from the romantic period to much more Mozart and especially Bach, but my Essential Album list couldn’t be complete without Symphony No. 4. Even if I listen to it only a couple of times per year, the broad symphonic sound will always remain close to my heart.

There is especially one part in the first movement, that really give me goose bumps (for 10 other tracks doing the same, check out this blog post), it is a little part that connects two larger sections of the movement, and on the Wand album mentioned here, from 9:48 to 11:02, and has a beauty from out of this world.

 

Chopin: Nocturnes – Moravec

Finally moving away from the letter B, my first Chopin album. Chopin to me is one of the absolute masters of the piano to me. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned any Beethoven piano sonata, as much as I love them, Chopin is still closer to my heart.

And if you only have to have one Chopin album, it should be Moravec’s legendary Nocturnes. Already, to me the Nocturnes are quintessential Chopin, and nobody plays them better than Ivan Moravec.

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

See my full review here.

Not surprisingly, Moravec also shows up in my Top 10 Classical Pianists.

 

Chopin: Preludes – Blechacz

Another Chopin album, another pianist I already featured in my Top 10 pianists. At least you cannot call me inconsistent.

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

See my review here

Obviously, there are many other pieces you could get from Chopin, the Etudes (Pollini), the piano concertos, Benjamin Grosvenor’s beautiful albums, etc. etc.

But really, the Nocturnes and Preludes should be in everybody’s music library.

 

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto – Janine Jansen

Skipping quite a lot of letters of the alphabet, and with this really good composers like Berlioz, Debussy, Dvořák, Fauré, Händel, Haydn (although I was close in adding his Cello concertos), Grieg, Mahler, all of which have composed great music and that I’ll write or have written about. But none of these composers have made it on my, again, extremely subjective list of “essential”, i.e. something I really wouldn’t want to live without. I know, we can discuss this endlessly, but I had to make a choice, and here we go.

So finally an album and piece that I haven’t written about yet.

You could argue, of the great violin concertos, why do I chose Brahms and Mendelssohn, and not Beethoven or Tchaikovsky (or, to a lesser extent, Bruch)? Well, again for the same subjective reasons as above, both really touch me the most.

Janine Jansen Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Mendelssohn Bruch Violin Concertos Decca

I’ve previously praised Janine Jansen’s recent Brahms recording, and am also quite a fan of what Riccardo Chailly has done with the Gewandhaus, be it his complete Brahms symphonies, or the piano concertos with Nelson Freire.

On this excellent album, on top of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, you also get an outstanding version of Bruch, so this really is another must have.

Other music from Mendelssohn I can highly recommend includes his Songs Without Words, and his symphonies no. 3 and 4.

 

Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte – Nézet-Séguin

Moving on to Mozart. And getting into dangerous territory. My favorite pieces of all times are his great DaPonte operas, most of all Cosi, closely followed by Figaro.

Nezet-Seguin Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte Chamber Orchestra of Europe Deutsche Grammophon

However, as mentioned in my review of this album, I still don’t consider myself an opera expert. So take my recommendations with a grain of salt, and I’d particularly appreciate any feedback from any opera lovers about their favorite versions.

That said, this 2013 live recording is great, much better than the more recent, slightly disappointing Figaro.

 

Le Nozze Di Figaro – René Jacobs

Even more difficult territory here, as René Jacobs operas are usually love/hate affairs, i.e. you either love them or hate them.

I personally usually find them really interesting and insightful.

Mozart: Le Nozze Di Figaro René Jacobs Concerto Köln Harmonia Mundi

I also have about 10 other versions, including the classics from Böhm, Muti, Erich Kleiber, but keep returning to this version, as well as the first I ever owned, by James Levine.

 

Mozart: C-minor Mass – Masaaki Suzuki

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

I’ve written twice previously about Mozart’s choral masterpiece, one of the most amazing works of music ever written. And I must admit that Masaaki Suzuki’s recent version really made something very special.

Read my full review here.

You’ll find more great Mozart in my blog post about My Must-Have Mozart albums.

 

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 – Leif Ove Andsnes

Again, jumping a couple of letters ahead, skipping Liszt (although his b-minor sonata was close to making the list), Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, and Prokofiev), directly to Rachmaninov.

And for Rachmaninov, as much as I like quite a bit of his solo piano work, the true essentials are his piano concertos no. 2, and even more so, no. 3

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my post about My Top 10 pianists.

Obviously, there are many other legendary performances of the Rach’s, including Horowitz, and Van Cliburn, but Andsnes and Pappano really stand out.

 

Schubert: The Late Piano Sonatas – Uchida

Moving one letter ahead again, to S.

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert

Schubert’s “late” (all relative, given that he passed away at the age of 31) piano sonatas, D958-960, are absolute masterpieces again. It is not easy to pick my favorite.

Luckily, quite recently I did a systematic comparison of D959, where Uchida, Perahia, and Brendel came out on top.

I’m here rather arbitrarely recommending Uchida, given that her rather exhaustive Schubert box contains 8 CDs for a really low price, you may as well get this directly. You won’t regret it.

 

Schubert: Winterreise – Prégardien – Staier

Schubert: Die Winterreise - Christoph Prégardien - Andreas Staier Warner Classics

A Schubert Lied just had to be in the list, and Winterreise really is such a gem.

As written here, I really like Christoph Prégardien with Andreas Staier, but this is one where one could easily collect 20 and more versions and still discover something new.

 

Schubert: String Quintet – Pavel Haas Quintet

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden Supraphon

As you can see, I really like Schubert. He get’s 3 entries, and I could easily have given him four or five. Luckily, on this album you get two of my favorites, the amazing quintet, and the nearly as outstandingly beautiful Death and the Maiden Quartet.

You’ll find my initial review here. I could have easily recommended the more recent version by the Quatuor Ebène as well, I just find the coupling more attractive of the Pavel Haas.

 

Schumann: Symphony No. 3 – Daussgard – Swedish Chamber Orchestra

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 3 and 4 - Thomas Dausgaard - Swedish Chamber Orchestra - BIS

And last but not least, Schumann.

Given that this is the last entry, you’ll notice the absence of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky (although you’ll find I’ve reviewed quite a bit of Tchaikovsky on my blog), Ravel, Telemann, Sibelius (although his violin concerto was close to making the list), or Vivaldi.

And for Schumann, I didn’t chose his piano concerto, nor his solo piano music, but his symphony no. 3, the “Rhenish”. Moreover, I’m recommending an atypical version, by Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber orchestra. Why? Well, it has often been written that Schumann didn’t know how to orchestrate properly, the balance was supposedly off.

Well, actually, if you listen to it played by a smaller chamber orchestra, like here, or on Nézet-Séguin’s recent recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, another excellent version, you get a totally different picture. Well, obviously the classic recordings of Klemperer, Szell or Sawallisch also have their charm. But for me, a smaller ensemble is what works best.

 

Again, I very much appreciate any feedback!

Thanks again for all of you who already commented on part I, I can assure you, your feedback is always very welcome. Agree, or even better, disagree, and tell me why!

All albums mentioned here are five stars on my personal rating scale.

 

 

You can find the albums here:

Bruckner / Wand: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Moravec:  here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Blechacz: here (Prestoclassical)

Mendelssohn / Janssen: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Cosi Séguin: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Figaro Jacobs: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Mozart / Suzuki: here (eclassical)

Rachmaninov / Andsnes: here (Qobuz)

Schubert / Uchida: here (Prestoclassical)

Schubert / Pavel Haas: here (HDTracks)

Schubert  Winterreise: here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

Schumann / Dausgaard: here (eclassical)

Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part I

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.

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: