Looking for enchanting, obscure works of classical music.
July 19, 2010 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Looking for enchanting, obscure works of classical music.

I consider myself something of a classical music afficionado. I'm not musically trained, but I've been listening to it for many years and have developed something of a layman's knowledge of it.

I am, of course, familiar with all (?) of the major/popular works, but I know there must be a whole world of stunningly beautiful yet unjustly obscure works that I'm missing out on. What are some of the best hidden gems?

(This question was inspired by my recent discovery of Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony" - not the most obscure piece ever, but I hadn't heard of it before and was mesmerized by it. As I said, I've been listening to classical for a while, so suggesting Bruch's violin concerto or Bolero isn't going to be very helpful. FWIW, my tastes lean toward late Classical and Romantic.)
posted by resiny to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Dvorak piano concerto. Reger Bach variations. Kraus violin sonatas. Dussek piano works.
posted by Namlit at 11:29 AM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: Maybe not that obscure for you, but Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. Haunting, not enchanting. No classical collection is complete without it.
posted by elendil71 at 11:29 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Maggini Quartet does beautiful work with little-known British chamber pieces. You might try their disc of Ralph Vaughan Williams' string quartets.
posted by Iridic at 11:43 AM on July 19, 2010

My husband is a classic music lover, and his favorite is Rameau.
posted by wwartorff at 11:44 AM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: J. F. Rebel's Les Elemens, particularly the introduction.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:56 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Dvorak and his son-in-law Josef Suk wrote a bunch of pieces for women's choir + piano with 4-hands that are beautiful and enchanting. It's my favorite morning music. I can't seem to find the exact cd that I have, but amazon has these.

Not sure how obscure these are but I also love Mahler's Songs of the Wayfarer, Kalinnikov's Symphony No.1, and "Je crois entendre encore"from Bizet's the Pearl Fishers. Also, this is probably more world than classical but I love Mariana Sadovska, one woman and her harmonium.
posted by Katine at 12:05 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: oh, sorry, just noticed your preference for a later period..my favorite in your vein is Kreisler, both performing and composing in his own right.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 12:09 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: Choral fan here: Kodaly's Te Deum is one of my favorite pieces. Also, I LOVE David's Lamentation by Billings, but haven't yet come across a recording that quite does it justice.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:12 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: I thought I was well-versed in classical music, but when I started taking musicology classes in college I was pretty floored at what I learned from even the ones with which I was already familiar.

Have you listened to all of Orff's Carmina Burana -- not just the opening/closing "O Fortuna" movement? (I like the Atlanta Symphony/Robert Shaw version.) Same with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, Beethoven's 9th (you think it's cool, but really it's just utterly unbelievable), Handel's Messiah, Bach's cello suites, Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations and Mass in B Minor. Take some time to sing along if you can, in tune or not. You can find cheap scores at used bookstores or even for free on the Web.

The thing about these is that they just have so many ins and outs that you don't always catch, and they make so much more sense if you learn a bit about the history. The Mass in B Minor, for example, was composed in parts over quite a long period, so instead of having regular four-part voicing, it splits into four, five, six and eight vocal parts. (And if you're a second-soprano... oy.)

Strauss' Four Last Songs (Vier lezte lieder) -- good lord, ridiculous. Someone just linked the Jessye Norman version in a post about her on the blue, but I prefer the Renee Fleming/Christoph Eschenbach/Houston Symphony version. Again, I was even several years into classical voice study in a music school, and when I heard it on the radio... FLOORED.

You might check in with the Exploring Music program on public radio.

How about looking for performers new to you?

Durufle Requiem
Rachmaninoff Vespers
Villa-Lobos -- Bachianas Brasileiras, known especially for no. 5's Aria, but there are nine in total, I think.
Glass - Violin Concerto
Dvorak - Serenade for Strings (hey, Tchaikovsky had a good one too!)
Bernstein - Candide
Biebl - Ave Maria (Chanticleer version is fantastic)
Gorecki - Symphony no. 3 and Totus Tuus
Mahler - Ruckertlieder (try "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen")
Arensky - Serenade
Grubtsov - Ne riday Mene, Mati
Vaughan Williams - Three Shakespeare Songs
Britten - Hymn to St. Cecilia and Rejoice in the Lamb (oh my lord, the texts on these are just crazy awesome)
Brahms - Liebeslieder Walzer (and Neue Liebeslieder)
Charles Ives was kind of a ridiculous experimenter. At first listen you think he's just messing with you, but after a while you see how much fun he's having. I love some of his songs, like "Charlie Rutlage" and "General William Booth Ascends to Heaven."
Debussy -- Trois Chansons
posted by Madamina at 12:20 PM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

Have you listened to all of Orff's Carmina Burana...?

This is a good point - many of the pieces you're familiar with and like may also have great movements that you're not as familiar with.

Example: I always liked (but didn't love) Schubert's Great C Major symphony, but the second movement blew me away when I heard it by itself recently.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:38 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

John Field's Nocturnes.
posted by Dr.Pill at 12:41 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've long been partial to the piano music of Eric Satie, particularly as performed by Aldo Ciccolini. Luminous, and sometimes transcendent - you may recognize them from various film scores.
posted by dbmcd at 12:58 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: Some of my favourite lesser-known works:
  • Stravinsky — Symphony of Psalms
  • Berlioz — Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts)
  • Barber — First Essay for Orchestra
  • Hindemith — Symphonie Mathis der Maler
  • Vaughan Williams — Symphony No. 9
  • Shostakovich — Symphony No. 15

posted by Johnny Assay at 12:58 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You said you like late classical and romantic, but I'm going to give you mostly 20th century pieces that I think you'd really love, given your preference for that time period.

Some of my favorites:

Steve Reich - Music for 18 musicians, Electric Counterpoint, Different Trains
John Tavener - The Protecting Veil
Toru Takemitsu - I Hear the Water Dreaming, Quotation of a Dream
Bernstein - Symphony 1 + 2, Chichester Psalms
Britten - String Quartets, Cello Suites, Serenade for Tenor, Horns and Strings
Bartok - Contrasts, Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion, + Celeste
Roy Harris - Symphony No. 3
George Rochberg - Slow Fires of Autumn
Arvo Part - Fratres, Alina, Tabula Rasa, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Copland - Symphony 3, Appalachian Spring (original ballet version for 13 instruments)
Jennifer Higdon - Concerto for Orchestra
Christopher Rouse - Symphony 1+2, Flute Concerto
Lee Hyla - We Speak Etruscan, Trans
Richard Danielpour - American Requiem, Celestial Dances
John Corigliano - Phantasmagoria, Symphonies 1+2
Ligeti - violin concerto, atmospheres, a cappella works
Michael Torke - Adjustable Wrench
Samuel Barber - Knoxville Summer of 1915, violin concerto
Thomas Ades - Powder her Face, America
John Adams - Lollapalooza, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Book of Alleged Dances
Alfred Schnittke - string quartets
Peter Schulthorpe - string quartets (especially No. 2)
Gorecki - Symphony 3
Charles Ives - the Unanswered Question, Symphony 2 + 4
Berg - Violin Concerto
Milhaud - Creation of the World
Shostakovich - Prelude and Scherzo, string quartets
Paul Creston - symphonies, Saxophone Sonata
Messian - Quartet for the End of Time
Morton Gould - Tap Dance Concerto
Irving Fine - Alice in Wonderland
Jonathan Elias - the Prayer Cycle
Peter Maxwell Davies - 8 songs for a mad king
David Lang - Child
Rzweski - The People United Will Never Be Defeated
Frank Zappa - the Yellow Shark
Kevin Volans - White Man Sleeps
Johh Luther Adams - In White Silence
Michael Daugherty - UFO, Metropolis Symphony
Tan Dun - Symphony 1997, Water Passion, Ghost Opera
Julia Wolfe - String Quartets
Osvaldo Golijov - The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Bling
Eric Whitacre - Choral Works, Ghost Train
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:02 PM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Are you familiar with Josef Suk? If not, try Op. 16 - Podháka (Fairy Tale), for example: I, II, III, IV.
John Field's Nocturnes (as mentioned above)? Try No. 8 in E minor, H. 46.
Arnold Bax? Try Tintagel or The Garden of Fand.
Georges Enescu? Try his Octet, Op. 8: I, II, III, IV.
Hindemith's viola sonata Op. 11 no. 4? (I, II)
posted by misteraitch at 1:14 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: First, can we get a little feedback and maybe some more information about what you like? At this point we're still sort of stabbing in the dark at things that are the least bit obscure and that might tickle your fancy based on some very broad limits. Some narrower limits would be helpful for pointing you toward some good stuff. You don't even have to be very technical with the terminology that you want to use - just give us the sense of what sounds you like, which instruments you prefer, what emotion you like to have come through the music, etc.

That said, here's my stab:

Wind Ensemble doesn't really get a ton of play on the radio, so you may have missed a lot of things that come from that repertoire. I'd consider exploring some of what that world has to offer based on your tastes in music.

Hindemith's Symphony in Bb 1, 2, 3.
Whitacre's October
Hartley's Concerto for 23 Winds
Grantham's Southern Harmony (Movements 1 and 2) (Movements 3 and 4)
deMeij's Lord of the Rings 1 - Gandalf, 2 - Lothlorien, 3 - Gollum, 4 - A Journey in the Dark, 5 - Hobbits.
Maslanka's Morning Star
Shostakovich's Festive Overture

But there is still a lot of great orchestral stuff out there - a lot of which is mentioned above. I'd highly suggest you check out the Gorecki that everyone has mentioned. And for a little Dawn Upshaw tie-in (she's the soloist in most of the recordings that you'll hear) check out Osvaldo Gollijov's Ainadamar which is an opera about the life (and death) of Federico Garcia Lorca! Upshaw plays Margarita Xirgu in the Atlanta Symphony recording.

Janacek's Sinfonietta (Movements 1 and 2) (Movements 3 and 4) - starts with a really great fanfare movement, playful, a very pure sound from the brass. If you like Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man or Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, you'll like the first movement! Then it goes into a much more standard symphonic piece (ok, by 20th century standards).

You should also most certainly check out Hindemith's Mathis der Maler. 1, 2, 3.
posted by greekphilosophy at 2:31 PM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have a soft spot for Honegger's Symphony No. 2.
posted by turaho at 2:49 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: Debussy's La Cathedrale Engloutie "The Sunken Cathedral".

Its not exactly obscure, but I find it incredibly enchanting. Even the name gives me tingles, picturing a whole cathedral at the bottom of the ocean. What happened that it ended up there? Do the fish swim in and pray? Or confess? What would they say?
posted by Admira at 3:03 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not entirely sure it'll be suited to your taste, but one of my "obscure favorites" is Danzi: Bassoon Concertos.

Danzi's Bassoon Concerto No. 2 - I
posted by ob1quixote at 3:52 PM on July 19, 2010

Widor Toccata!
posted by frecklefaerie at 5:15 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sorry, a bit trigger happy. The Widor is totally in the same vein as the Organ Symphony (it's an organ piece.) The toccata is also a bit of a "rite of passage" for organists; the piece is to the organ as the Tschaikovsky violin concerto is to the, uh, violin.

Also check out Motion Trio - Stars. I have no idea how an mp3 of that piece came to be on my playlist, but I discovered it last week on the train to NYC. I found myself in a completely different world watching the rhythmic sunbeams flashing in the windows. The song grabs my heart and makes it ache, but leaves me hopeful.
posted by frecklefaerie at 5:26 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Affairs of the Heart," by Marjan Mozetich is almost too achingly beautiful for me to listen to. Check on the small sample (first track) on Amazon.
posted by grumblebee at 5:38 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: Oh, and I've never heard anything quite like Panufnik's "Sinfonia Rustica" (track five -- listen to the whole sample to get a little taste of how varied the piece is). It's a weird mixture of melodic, dissonant, thumping-ly mechanical and romantic. It always puts me in mind of early/mid 20th-century dystopian fiction, e.g. 1984. I think it's because my dad, a film historian, used to carefully choose music to accompany silent movies he showed to his students -- and I think I remember him playing this piece as his score for "Metropolis." It fit really well.
posted by grumblebee at 5:49 PM on July 19, 2010

If you run out of classical concert music (ha), try some 20th-Century film scores: Miklos Rozsa ("Thief of Bagdad" is utterly charming. If you can find it, listen to "Fedora").

Try Bernard Herrmann's HAUNTING score for "Vertigo." ("Psycho" is also incredible. It's much, much more than just the shower-scene music. The score is entirely played on strings.)

Here's some of Philip Sainton's "Moby Dick" (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) score.
posted by grumblebee at 6:23 PM on July 19, 2010

Verdi's Stiffelio was plagued by censorship in the 19th century and was largely reconstructed from archived manuscripts starting in the 1970s. It's not a bad opera as performed. Rumor has it that Tchaikovsky greatly preferred his Serenade for Strings over the 1812 Overture. You can also grab a copy of Mendelssohn's string octet (mp3) for free.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:31 PM on July 19, 2010

Louis Moreau Gottshalk. American composer during the middle of the 19th Century. If you can find it, read ">"Notes of a Pianist".
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 6:34 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just want to heartily second greekphilosophy's recommendation of Osvaldo Gollijov's "Ainadamar." I've known about this album for ... um ... a few hours. I first heard of it, and Golijov, from greekphilosophy's post in this very thread. I liked the sample he linked to and decided to download it from iTunes.


Check out Gollijov other stuff, too.
posted by grumblebee at 6:58 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: Spem In Alium by Thomas Tallis. I don't know enough about classical music to know if this is considered one of the major works, but I know it's achingly beautiful.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:28 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: greekphilosophy,

I am, as I said, a layman, so I can't give you anything technical. But I feel like there's some amount of similarity in my favorites. I really like stuff along the lines of:

Elgar's cello concerto
Dvorak's cello concerto
Dvorak's piano concerto
Saint-Saens' Organ symphony
Brahms' cello sonatas
Brahms' violin sonatas
Brahms' double concerto
Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture
Vivaldi's concerto for two violins
Bach's Chaconne
Smetana's Vltava
Mendelssohn's violin concerto
Grieg's Peer Gynt suite
Beethoven's Egmont overture

Obviously I could go on and on, but I feel like that list is somewhat thematically linked. I like music that's not just beautiful but also has emotional depth.

Thanks, all, for the suggestions so far. I'll definitely be working my way through these over the next day or two. Pretty much all of you deserve best answer.
posted by resiny at 10:02 PM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: I think you and I have similar tastes, resiny. Here is another one of my favorites:

Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper by Jaromir Weinberger. The fugue is a whole lotta fun to play. I've played the band arrangement of this a million times.

I know you're into late romantics, but the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante is among his more forward-thinking works.

These two are on the sweeter side of things.
posted by frecklefaerie at 8:37 AM on July 20, 2010

Best answer: resiny, do you use last.fm or Pandora, or do you listen to any classical radio stations? Might be worth a try -- I've found quite a few enjoyable "new" pieces that way.

Lots of good suggestions already...here are my two cents:

- Richard Strauss' "Mondscheinmusik" which is the brief orchestral introduction to the last scene in the opera Capriccio. I think this is perhaps one of his most accessible pieces. I don't use the word "gorgeous" very often, but I always find myself using it to describe this interlude. It has a beautiful melody and a rich, soaring sound/arrangement that highlights the horns.

- Clara Schumann's Piano Trio in G minor. I really wish there were more recordings of this. There are a few YouTube samples -- here's a live recording of the lovely second movement (Adagio).

- Elias Parish Alvars (Berlioz supposedly called him "the Liszt of the harp"). You might enjoy the the Double Concerto/Concertino in D minor, op. 91. There are arrangements for two harps or harp + piano -- I can recommend the recording of the harp + piano version that's on the second disc of an EMI album called Harp Concertos (Marielle Nordman, harp and Francois-Rene Duchable, piano).

Here is a YT sample from another Parish Alvars concerto: Concertino, op. 34 with soloist Isabelle Moretti. (And this is very different, but for a pretty little solo piece that sounds almost folk song-like, here's a recent recording session video of the Romance in G major.)

- Rossini (yes, that Rossini): Desdemona's aria "Assisa a piè d'un salice" from his version of the opera Otello. Not sure if this aria counts as obscure and I know this is outside your preferred eras, but I wholeheartedly recommend Joyce DiDonato's recent recording from her album Colbran, the Muse (it's track 12). I'd only been familiar with the typical popular Rossini stuff, and was pleasantly surprised by the entire CD.

- And thirding John Field, the father of the nocturne. Naxos released a few John Field recordings by Benjamin Frith and I can recommend the two volumes of nocturnes and sonatas -- I keep meaning to check out the piano concertos. I also like the selections I've heard from John O'Conor's nocturne recordings.

(Unfortunately the Amazon samples are way too short to hear much of anything, but you can of course try a YouTube search for more. And FWIW, out of the examples you listed, there are a number I don't recognize (perhaps just by name) but I'm a fan of all of the ones I do recognize. The Elgar and Dvorak cello concertos are two of all my all-time favorites.)
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 10:24 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just a quick correction -- I just noticed that for some reason, I identified the above-referenced Clara Schumann Piano Trio clip on YouTube as a second movement "Adagio" but it's actually the third movement Andante (and the second movement tempo isn't even adagio). Sorry for the mix-up! (And I swear I re-read the comment multiple times but somehow missed the doubled, well, "the.")
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 11:50 PM on July 21, 2010

Not sure if it meets your obscurity criteria, but Durufle's Requiem is divine. And less likely to be obscure enough, but at least somewhere below Beethoven in popularity, Rodriguo's Concierto de Aranjuez (particularly the more famous linked Adagio, but the rest is quite good too).
posted by yourcelf at 4:58 PM on July 25, 2010

« Older What to drink with hot/spicy foods?   |   Need a new laptop; too many choices! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.