Help me find the best classical music on CD.
October 9, 2010 3:51 PM   Subscribe

As someone who's just starting to seriously explore classical music, I'd like a reference that surveys the repertoire, puts composers, their works, and specific recorded performances of those works into context, and which preferably discusses specific CD releases of those performances.

I'm aware of the various classical guides from Penguin, Gramophone, AMG, the New York Times, NPR, AMG, Rough Guide, Third Ear, and so forth. But since I'm coming to this as a complete noob, selecting the right one is as intimidating as trying to pick out decent recordings in the first place.

I rarely venture beyond the used bins so it doesn't have to be up-to-the-minute.

If I can get it in an edition I can carry around on my iPod Touch, I'd probably be happy with a dumbed-down "Top [X] Classical CDs EVAR!"-type reference, provided it was put together by a reasonably respectable source.
posted by Lazlo to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The Teaching Company's How to Listen to and Understand Great Music course might help you. If the price is out of reach for your budget, check if it's available at your local library or if your librarian can get it for you via inter-library loan.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:54 PM on October 9, 2010

Have you got a copy of Goulding's Classical Music? He goes through the 50 greatest composers (in his opinion, but they're all pretty much indisputable), discusses their personal lives and the musical advancements they've made, as well as gives advice as to which pieces to explore first.

I don't think he lists specific recordings for the pieces, but it's a really great introduction to the genre, written by a critic who isn't afraid to wear his tastes on his sleeve.
posted by Think_Long at 4:30 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

First off, here are some good guides:

Secondly, "classical music" is a huge field, and to self-educate yourself will be a true test of self-motivation.

So for that reason, I'd recommend a different route than the one you suggest. I'd recommend that you simply listen to a broad sample of music until you find something that especially appeals to you. Then, you could delve further into that composers' work, learning all the time about him, his influences and the broader "school" with which he is associated.

So for example, you could start by simply searching youtube for works by: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and, Stravinsky--pick one and then explore more broadly that particular "school" of composition, which for these composers would be: Baroque, Classical (don't let this name confuse you--this is Classical with a big-"C" :), pre-Romantic, early-Romantic, middle-Romantic, late-Romantic, and Modern.

FWIW, I taught myself about classical music using only a CD player and the Oxford Anthology of Classical Music and that was in the pre-internet era! With the full internet at your disposal, you should be able to satisfy your every curiosity!
posted by DavidandConquer at 4:49 PM on October 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd start with The Vintage Guide to Classical Music by Jan Swafford. It covers about 50 composers. Well-written; very informative without being intimidating. His choices about which composers to emphasize and which ones to spend less time on are pretty close to perfect, considering how compact the book is. He has little sidebars on theoretical points like "counterpoint and polyphony," but they're unobtrusive enough that you can ignore them if you don't want to feel like you're getting a music theory lecture.

So, it'd make a lot of sense to buy that, then get a separate book to pick the specific recordings. The Penguin Guide is pretty standard. Both of those books together will total about $40 from Amazon. That's all you need. Start with Swafford's book to guide you through the whole landscape, and use the Penguin Guide as a reference when you want to buy a specific CD.

If you want something that's idiosyncratic and has a biting wit, get Jim Svejda's Insider's Guide to Classical Recordings. But the Penguin Guide is more comprehensive and up-to-date.

If you want it all in one book (an overview of the composers and their compositions + recording recommendations), get David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music. But if you go for this single book, the recording recommendations are going to be a tiny fraction of what you get with the Penguin Guide.

Goulding's Classical Music, recommended above, is decidedly inferior to Swafford's Vintage Guide. Contrary to the above comment, he does recommend specific recordings, but I don't think the book has been updated since it first came out. And there's the same issue with Dubal -- a book that tries to do everything will skimp on a lot. Most of his choices are fine, but some of them are strange. He ranks the top 50 composers in order and recommends specific recordings for their top 1,000 compositions. That's useful, but he includes some dispensable composers while inexplicably ignoring some essential ones. (For instance, there are no American composers in the book. And why leave out the revolutionary Schoenberg while including people as forgettable as Donizetti, Gluck, Rameau, and Couperin?) You could try this book if you want something fun and gimmicky that assumes you have a short attention span, but don't treat it as the gospel that Goulding presents it as.

Miscellaneous pieces of advice:

- It's fine to be concerned with picking the best recordings, but keep in mind that the composition is the main thing. I've listened to a lot of classical music and have a huge library of it. But if I'm exploring a composer who's new to me? I'm not going to worry that much about getting the perfect CD, because I'm not going to be very attuned to the nuances. It's fine to prioritize getting a bunch of cheap recordings if that'll mean you're exposed to more rather than less music, even if you're getting merely excellent performances rather than the absolute best A+++ performances. Let's face it: the standard for classical performances on CD is astoundingly high -- much higher than the standard for a rock band playing its instruments.

- Expect any given composition to be a bit of a blur at first. The crucial thing is to listen to the same piece over and over till it clicks for you.

- Avoid albums that try to give the absolute best Beethoven album ever! or the best classical music ever! at the expense of giving you single movements in isolation (for instance, the "Allegretto" from Beethoven's 7th Symphony). I'd only get this kind of album if it's something where the artist is doing something inventive, such as transcribing traditional classical music for a guitar quartet.

- This isn't the most popular observation, but it's true: live performances don't add a whole lot to classical music. It's not like jazz or rock, where you're missing a lot of the essential if you only listen to it from your iPod. So, go ahead and stick with recordings, guilt-free! :)

- Here are a few quick, broad recommendations for recordings (sorry this is so cursory and incomplete, but this is all off the top of my head without looking at my iPod -- the ones that have stuck with me for years):

* any Bach played by Andras Schiff on piano
* Bach Cello Suites by Rostropovich
* Chopin (any compositions) played by Artur Rubinstein
* Beethoven symphonies conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (these are somewhat controversial because he plays them very fast and vigorously)
* Beethoven piano sonatas by Wilhelm Kempff
* Mozart symphonies conducted by Charles Mackerras (especially #40 and 41)
* Mozart's piano concertos with Mitsuko Uchida on piano
* Debussy piano music played by Pascal Rogé
* Shostakovich string quartets by the Borodin String Quartet (especially #8)
* any string quartets played by the Tokyo String Quartet or Emerson String Quartet
* anything conducted by Claudio Abbado (especially Brahms's 4th Symphony)
posted by John Cohen at 4:59 PM on October 9, 2010 [10 favorites]

I'm with DavidandConquer here - don't worry too much about the recordings. One thing you might want to do is get a music history textbook that comes with a CD. Something like this (I'm not necessarily endorsing that book, but it's the latest edition of the textbook we used when I took History of Western Music, lo these many years ago). For the most part the recordings that go with a textbook are going to be good, though probably not the best (licensing issues make it pretty much impossible to get the "best" recordings on one CD, regardless). Once you've identified the composers and pieces you like, then it's easy to find beloved recordings of them.

I don't like to get too bogged down with authoritative lists of "the best" stuff; I take recommendations from people I know and trust (either in real life or through their writing or whatever). Everybody is idiosyncratic. Even if you find a source you strongly agree with on best recordings of, say, Beethoven, you might not agree with them on the best recordings of Stravinsky, or Josquin, or Bach, or Copland.

If you listen to the "wrong" recording, the worst thing that can happen is that you won't love the piece as much as you could. Which would be sad, but then you may get the awesome experience of rediscovering a piece years later!
posted by mskyle at 5:28 PM on October 9, 2010

There's a lot of really spot-on advice in this thread, IMO.

As a young'un, I had aspirations of being a professional orchestral musician, and, as such, I have outliers like six different copies of the Mahler 5th symphony in my CD case.

This might sound snobbish and emblematic of everything that's inaccessible about classical music, but if you are just starting out, many of the things that distinguish one recording from another are going to be lost on you. Getting bogged down with whether (for instance) the Seiji Ozawa/Chicago Symphony recording of The Rite of Spring is too fast -- or even trying to discern those details -- is going to be Not Helpful to your listening enjoyment.

I think that for most casual listeners, their enjoyment of a classical recording is going to be affected more by the actual composition, rather than the nuances of the conductor's interpretation, the individual orchestral nuances, or the technical merits of the recording. There are some recordings where even newbie listeners can figure out something's "off" -- think, for example, about the Portsmouth Sinfonia... (See also, here.) But that's a real extreme case.

These are the types of CDs I would avoid: Any "best of" compilation, or recordings which do not identify the name of the conductor or symphony.

I would gravitate towards symphonies/conductors which are "big names" or have reputations as being quality orchestras. For instance, I really like the Cleveland Orchestra recordings from the 1980s because that's the sound I grew up with. You can use some of the guides mentioned upthread to help you hone in on what's a known quantity versus something more sketchy.

If you've already figured out what composers/genres you like, you may wish to try to discern what you like between different recordings. For instance, to my ear, there's a distinct difference in the sound of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, versus the London Symphony. Compare recordings, see what you like -- that's part of what's supposed to make this fun!
posted by QuantumMeruit at 8:00 PM on October 9, 2010

Best answer: Here are some more specific recommendations that I didn't mention in my previous comment. I'm listing these here not just because they’re great music but also because I think they're ideal for someone just getting into classical. Things like Bach's “The Art of the Fugue” and "St. Matthew Passion" might rank high in a lot of standard lists of the greatest classical music, but you probably don't want to start your adventure there. I'll specify a version in parentheses if there's one I strongly recommend.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations (played on multiple overdubbed guitars Kurt Rodarmer). The more traditional version is on piano. More traditional still would be harpsichord. The modern piano didn’t exist in Bach’s lifetime, so the harpsichord is more historically accurate, but most people prefer the piano.

Keith Jarrett (better known for jazz but also fine at classical) playing Handel and Scarlatti “Keyboard Suites” on piano.

Haydn - any of his symphonies numbered 93-104 (a.k.a. the "London" symphonies). (Antal Dorati is a good, solid bet. I also like Solti's version of #104, which many would say is the best out of the 104 of them.)

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto is wonderful if you like clarinet. Gorgeously flowing melodies. The last instrumental music he ever wrote.

Schubert’s Symphonies #5 and 8 ("Unfinished"). (Leonard Bernstein.) You pretty much need the "Unfinished" Symphony in your collection -- incredibly powerful, haunting music.

Schubert’s String Quintet. (This album gives you some of the greatest chamber music of all time -- the Schubert piece -- along with good background music for some kind of charmingly sophisticated brunch -- a piece of the same name by Boccherini.)

Schumann’s chamber music. That's a fantastic live double-album of all his chamber music starring Martha Argerich on piano. The standout composition is the Piano Quintet (that doesn't mean 5 pianos, it means piano + string quartet).

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. I’m not a big fan of “Check out how great I am at violin!” pieces, but this is an exception. You can probably find this recorded by every major violinist.

Mendelssohn’s Octet. Try to find this paired with either his Piano Sextet or his Piano Trio #2. The Octet is some of the very best music I have ever heard in my life in any genre. Listen to it ... and then look up how old he was when he wrote it! Wow.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. (Rostropovich on cello with Karajan conducting. I think they recorded it multiple times -- not sure which version I have. Any performance by Rostropovich is always a good bet.)

Dvorak’s Piano Trios. A “piano trio” means piano, violin, and cello. (Beaux Arts Trio.)

Dvorak’s String Quartet #14 (“American”). One of the very most popular quartets, for good reason.

Brahms’s Piano Concerto #1. (Curzon on piano; Szell conducting.) This is an amazing, epic work, so it’s worth getting even if it’s the main piece on the album.

Brahms’s Cello Sonatas. (Rostropovich and Serkin.)

Brahms’s Piano Trios. (Beaux Arts Trio.)

Brahms’s German Requiem. This has less of a church-y vibe than a lot of choral music, which results from non-religious Brahms putting his own individual spin on a traditionally Christian genre.

Saint-Saëns's Piano Concertos, especially #2, are fun pieces of fluff. They're like a cartoon version of classical music.

Debussy’s La Mer. This has probably inspired 100 years of film scores. If possible, I would get this on a CD that also has his Nocturnes.

Debussy’s String Quartet + Ravel’s String Quartet. These are almost always together on the same CD.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night). This is a widely beloved work that you can find performed by string quartet or orchestra. A startling contrast with his later, atonal work.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (his last name is Vaughan Williams, no hyphen) - Symphony #5. (Andre Previn.)

Prokofiev - piano music performed by Frederic Chiu. I won't claim to have heard all of these, but the ones I've listened to are the closest musical equivalent I know of to a classic gin martini.

Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. Mind-blowing. Often recommended on AskMe.

This would all be considered fairly “conservative,” even though it's as exciting as any music. This basically means I left out the more "dissonant" 20th century stuff. The Prokofiev is probably the most radical music in my list, and even that’s relatively tame. I don’t mean to marginalize the more dissonant composers, but that stuff isn’t universally enjoyable the way Beethoven and Mozart are; and even if you do like it, you’ll still probably want to absorb the more conventional stuff first so you have a solid frame of reference for the weirdness of the 20th century. (If you do want to delve right into the dissonant stuff that a lot of people find hard to listen to, you might want to start with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Bartok’s 6 String Quartets.)
posted by John Cohen at 2:42 PM on October 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

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