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The Center for Literate Values
Recommended Classical Music
Below are a few of our recommendations in the classical vein of music. We are aware that many bright people don’t care to sit through an hour’s worth of Mozart concertos or Schumann piano sonatas. Such tastes are cultivated. Some kinds of classical music are more accessible than others. We have therefore sought to create, not a glossary of great composers, but a very tentative and incomplete list of fine CDs which engage the listener. Some titles have indeed been chosen more because of the performing artist than the composer. Our “target audience” (or supposed reader) is a person who wants to know more about classical music but hasn’t the resources of money and time needed to buy an armload of CDs and wade through them in search of treasure. Our thumbnail descriptions after each item are intended to make the search still easier.
Fine Music may well be our lifeline back to Great Letters
“There is no effortless way to learn reading and writing, no effortless way to acquire a literate taste absorbed from hundreds of books. (Books on cassette are no shortcut—not if you understand that pauses for reflection are an integral part of thoughtful reading.) By comparison, exposure to music and to painting is far more likely to make inroads in our sluggardly tribe. One may indeed simply sit and listen, or simply stand and look, without a great summoning of intellectual and spiritual energy. That the session will produce salutary results is by no means certain, of course, for listening to Handel or studying Manet does demand a faint complication of brain-wave activity if it is to produce pleasure. We have all known upright subjects in shoes who seem entirely capable of ‘just saying no’ to this invasion of their private space. Nevertheless, it is a relatively painless invasion, compared to the literary one. To expect a fertile engagement of the intruder does not require the optimism of the literature teacher hoping to inspire his students by reading ‘The Lotos-Eaters’.” ~John Harris, from Praesidium 4.3
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli, Missa Aeterna (Jeremy Summerly and The Oxford Camerata)
Allegri: Miserere (The Tallis Scholars)
Palestrina’s music is said to reflect the growing influence of the cathedral in composition. Many of his pieces are still quite familiar today to Christians of all denominations.
Perotin: Perotin: The Hilliard Ensemble (12th Century)
The French monk Perotin, called Perotinus the Great, composed these lilting, polyphonous devotionals in a fashion which will evoke the Gregorian chant in today’s layman–but Perotin’s music is mystically airy and creative by comparison.
Michael Praetorius: Schütz: Weihnachtshistorie (Heinrich Schütz directing choral compositions of Michael Praetorius)
Though these choral works are dedicated to the Christmas season (and sung in German), they are neither the anodine clichés of our culture nor the jolly wassailing which grandsired some of our best carols. They are formal religious works–but performed with stirring energy as well as dignity.
Two Renaissance Dance Bands; Monteverdi’s Contemporaries (arranged and conducted by David Munrow)
With David Munro’s special genius as their guide, these pieces are necessarily rendered with all of their original verve.
English & Italian Madrigals (Capitol label)
Our recommendation of this rather obscure CD is based on its being performed by the King Singers (whose series on madrigals aired on PBS several years ago) and on its inclusion of the more resourceful Italian with the relatively somber English madrigal. This is surely a recipe for success, despite the absence of reviews on Amazon.
The Italian Lute Song (by Claudio Monteverdi, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Cesare Negri: performed by Ronn McFarlane)
Any lute recording with Ronn McFarlane as the central performer is sure to do full justice to this forgotten but elegant and spirited instrument–qualities of which the Italians were never known to suffer a dearth.
Eliot Fisk: Bell’Italia (selections from Scarlatti, Frescobaldi, and others)
Fisk is perhaps the best known classical guitarist alive today. Any performance in which he participates is of high quality, and the guitar’s many contemporary exponents could scarcely find a better entrance into the world of classical music.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenberg Concertos 1-6 / 4 Orchestral Suites (Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra)
These sets (the first is three-disc, the second two-disc, and the Naxos pair may be bought separately) constitute the perfect introduction to Bach. Most of the pieces are quite spirited: the modern ear in constant fear of boredom will have little to dread if it is chastened by a pre-modern taste for fine harmonies.
Bach, Handel, et al.: James Galway ~ Meditations (RCA label)
Galway’s selections in fact cover the full gamut of classical music, including Massenet and Debussy as well as Bach.
Georg Friederich Handel: Handel–Water Music · The Music for the Royal Fireworks · The Alchymist / AAM, Hogwood (Christopher Hogwood, conductor)
This two-disc set from Decca is perhaps a little more exposure than the novice would want right off the bat; but Handel’s music, vigorous, stately, and “pompous” in a festive sense, offers a very a low risk of terminal boredom.
The Davis recordings, of course, may be purchased independently; the collector’s edition is a set of five which is rather more expensive, but it has received strong reviews for its revival of Eugen Jochum’s renditions of Haydn from thirty years ago.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Mozart: Horn Concertos (Neville Marriner, conductor, and Peter Damm, horn)
In our frenetic times, Mozart may seem too simple–or too purposeful in his complexity–to be real. (This writer, at least, must struggle to appreciate him.) There is a robust clarity to the seventeenth-century horn, however, which renders these pieces pleasantly different to contemporary listeners and well suits the rigors of Mozart’s compositions.
Antonio Vivaldi: Vivaldi–The Four Seasons / Standage · The English Concert · Pinnock (Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert)
The Four Seasons is surely Vivaldi’s most recognized and best loved opus. No apology for changing tastes is needed to engage the contemporary listener here.
Vivaldi’s sounds fill shopping malls at Christmas time (unfortunately). This recording is one big step toward redeeming him for the casual listener. The Renaissance’s clever, delicate precursors to the guitar appear infinitely more festive here than that most familiar of instruments.
Vivaldi, Telemann, et al.: Wynton Marsalis: Baroque Music For Trumpets (Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, and English Chamber Orchestra)
Though Amazon’s reviewers have radically differing estimates of Marsalis’s judgment, the “Philistines” among us (I cheerfully include myself) always find his renditions well worth a listen.
Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (Leonard Berstein conducts)
Six String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet)
With his emphasis upon Hungarian folk music, Bartok is at once a favorite of many casual listeners who find classical music too “stuffy” and a bit of an acquired taste for those who love the classical tradition’s order and subtlety.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Beethoven: 9 Symphonien (Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic)
This five-disc set contains all nine of Beethoven’s great symphonies, performed in mildly controversial style (some consider Karajan’s interpretation too “cold”) but without any notable flaw. You can’t please everyone, especially when rendering the Master! Individual symphonies, naturally, are available in countless recordings, such as:
Frederick Chopin: Rubenstein Plays Chopin Mazurkas
Arthur Rubenstein, one of the twentieth century’s premier pianists, performs all of Chopin’s mazurkas in this two-disc set. The mazurka is a kind of waltz, with all the liveliness of an energetic dance–but also, in Chopin’s hands, capable of poignant melancholy, and of every other mood between joy and brooding.
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic)
La Damnation de Faust (Sir Colin Davis)
Complete Orchestral Works (Sir Colin Davis [conductor], Sir Thomas Allen [baritone], et al.)
The enigmatic Berlioz was both Classicist and Romantic by temperament–which did not render his career particularly smooth. His music elicits thoughtful concentration.
Antonin Dvoràk: Smetana: Moldau/From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests/Dvorák: Slavonic Dances Op.46 & Op.72 (Deutsche Grammophon, Rafael Kubelik conducting)
Dvoràk is among the best known of the nineteenth century’s Slavic composers, and his wonderfully energetic music has lost little of its popularity over the years: his “New World” Symphony remains an all-time favorite. But you will also instantly recognize Smetana’s Moldau in the first CD, one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed for strings.
Felix Mendelssohn: Mendelssohn: Symphonies 3 & 4 / Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic)
These are the Scotch and Italian Symphonies, respectively–the former magnificently moody (everybody has heard the Fingal’s Cave Overture, though few realize it), the latter joyfully spirited. Very accessible to beginning listeners.
Nokolai A. Rimsky-Korsakov: Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade; Capriccio Espagnol; Russian Easter Overture (EMI label)
This is one of those works whose contents keep cropping up in collections entitled 20 Classics or Classical Favorites for People Who Hate the Stuff. Incredibly vibrant and resourceful (perhaps too much so for a true classicist), these melodies based upon traditional tunes born in remote European villages are rare jewels.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Pytor Illych Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – Complete Ballet (Valery Gergiev, conductor)
This full recording of one of the world’s most beloved ballets is not quite ninety minutes long. All the testimonies we have collected resound with high praise.
Richard Wagner: Wagner: Overture & Preludes (Deutsche Grammophon)
Two discs reduce the extensive operatic works from which these celebrated themes have been drawn to a listening experience requiring no special knowledge of Wagner’s unusual–and highly controversial–artistic objectives.
Verdi, Rossini, et al.: Famous Overtures (Decca label)
We were searching Amazon for Brahms’s Hungarian Dance, and this CD appeared. It does indeed seem to offer a great many favorites (by Wagner, Suppe, and others) which the novice has probably heard and enjoyed many times, but to which he cannot pin a name or period. A two-disc set.
Claude Debussy: Debussy: Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune/Images for orchestra/Printemps (Pierre Boulez, conductor)
This Deutsche Grammophon recording offers many of Debussy’s earlier symphonic works. Iberia and Rondes de Printemps have such exuberance that one can only marvel that they are not better known to the general audience.
***** Jeux, La Mer, Nocturnes (Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic)
Debussy’s later orchestral works are represented here. Their interlaced melodies are not as instantly appreciable as The Afternoon of a Faun‘s theme, but they richly reward each new listening session with their extraordinary depth.
***** Debussy: The Complete Works For Piano (from the recordings of Walter Giesking)
There seems to be some dispute about whether a German is capable of playing France’s most atmospheric composer. Nationalistic friction aside, Giesking’s recordings are classics. The concentration they require (and reward) is elicited by the composer, not the pianist.
Debussy, Fauré, et al. The Magic Of The Harp (Lily Laskine, harp)
Harpist non pareil Lily Laskine is the main reason for our recommending this braod selection of short pieces, which include works by Schumann and others of earlier generations.
Debussy/Ravel: Debussy/Ravel: Streichquartette (Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton, et al.)
The resemblance between Debussy and Ravel is seldom more striking than in these two little-known but very moving works for string quartet. Never a bore to listen to.
Gabriel Pierné: Cydalise et le Chèvre-Pied (David Shallon and the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra)
There is nowhere in the music of any age a more delightful manifestation of joie de vivre than this highly creative Arcadian symphony. Listening to Cydalise is an excellent antidote to the lethality of daily routine.
Maurice Ravel: L’enfant et les Sortilèges (André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra)
This is often called a children’s operetta–for reasons not altogether clear, and entirely unjustified unless vibrancy and mystery are the exclusive province of pre-adults. To be sure, a child is at the story’s heart… and talking trees and squirrels and insects and furniture. So be warned, sober adults!
Geoffrey Burgon: Brideshead Revisited: The Television Scores of Geoffrey Burgon
In another era, Burgon would surely have been an acknowledged classical master–yet the popular packaging of his music in TV serials like Brideshead Revisited cannot conceal the extraordinary beauty of his compositions. The opening theme for the serialized John LeCarré novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, may be one of the most exquisitely devotional pieces written since Bach.
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring; Rodeo; Billy the Kid (Stephen Gunzenhauser, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra)
A very affordable Naxos recording, this album (like any of Copland’s music) features pieces you’ve probably heard all your life without knowing that they were written by one of America’s greatest composers to celebrate his nation’s robust optimism.
Sergei Prokofiev: Sergei Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kijé/Cinderella/The Love For Three Oranges (Loris Tjeknavorian and the Armenian Symphony Orchestra)
This is the most obscure CD by far which we have located and elevated to a recommendation… but the Lieutenant Kijé Suite is lots of fun for the newcomer to classical music–is, indeed, perfect for youngsters whose attention may waver.
Ottarino Respighi: Symphonic Poems (Enrique Batiz and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)
Respighi (pronounced res-PEE-ghee) has been said to have written what he thought would please the audience. While this is no way to win esteem among professional musicians, the casual listener may welcome the approach. Perhaps more intricately engaging than deeply profound, Respighi’s music is a good accompaniment to light chores or daydreaming.
William Grant Still: Works By William Grant Still (New World Records)
Harp, flute, violin, piano… not the instruments most Americans would associate with a composer of African descent. But Still’s work proves that no essential paradox exists.
***** Still: Symphony No1; Ellington: River (Neeme Jarvi, conductor, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
The so-called “Afro-American” Symphony No. 1 is Still’s most famous, revealing the influence of Gershwin (but also a stunning degree of creativity). This CD also features symphonic compositions by Duke Ellington. Why do we so seldom hear that these exist?
Igor Stravinsky: Stravinsky: Firebird; The Rite of Spring (Alexander Rahbari, conductor)
Stravinsky will shock the preconceptions of young novices whose exposure to symphony and orchestra conjures up echoes of Beethoven. Modern music is as exotically different from the traditional as modern art. There is astonishing vigor and color here, however, even at the cost–sometimes–of melody.
Anúna (performed by the Irish choral group Anúna)
Included here because the group is much the most “scholarly” and meticulously rehearsed of today’s many popular Irish performing companies… the album’s repertoire delves back into the Middle Ages. No stomping feet and scraping fiddles.
The Very Best of James Galway (RCA label)
Anything by legendary flautist James Galway is worth the price of purchase. No one has done more in our time to popularize the classics in a tasteful, reverent manner. This recording has everything from Pachelbel’s Canon to a recording of Danny Boy performed with The Chieftains.
The Scottish Lute (Ronn McFarlane, lute and mandora)
If you have ever actually strolled the Scots Highlands, you have heard these tunes before in some corner of your subconscious mind: never boisterous, but never disheartened.
Japanese Melodies for Flute and Harp (Lily Laskine, harp, and Jean-Pierre Rampal, flute)
Our recommendation is not based (yet) upon a hearing of this enticing disc, but upon the very high quality of the performers involved in its creation.