Classical music CD library from scratch?
December 12, 2003 4:02 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to build a classical music CD library from scratch? Where the heck do I start? [more]

I've always enjoyed listening to classical music, whether it be orchestral or piano or quartet.
Problem is, I know what I like when I hear it, but I'm terrible at identifying composers.

To me, the idea of buying classical music is somewhat intimidating -- did I get the right composer? Is this the 3rd symphony the one I like, or is it the 5th? And knowing which orchestras/artists are top-notch and which ones are merely passable is even further outside my scope of knowledge. I feel I ought to be wary of "compilation"-type recordings.

I found a starter list here -- does anybody have a good suggestion where to begin? I'm pretty much open to anything, even 'modern' classical composers.
posted by contessa to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Don't forget about your local library! Head there and check out some of the many classical CDs they probably have.
posted by gluechunk at 4:19 PM on December 12, 2003

You might consider spending a few lazy afternoons listening (really listening, not as background music) to the local classical radio station and taking a few notes. That way when you find a performance, performers, or a particular piece that moved you, you'll know the metadata for when you go shopping. It might help you discover what your tastes are, as well.
posted by majick at 4:41 PM on December 12, 2003

Every time I'm exploring a new type of music, I find Amazon's "customers that bought this also bought ..." feature really useful.
posted by fuzz at 4:50 PM on December 12, 2003

Compilations under the Naxos label can usually be trusted, Contessa.
posted by stonerose at 4:54 PM on December 12, 2003

Ditto stonerose. Naxos has great stuff for cheap, and there's the added bonus that it's not under the RIAA. Whoo.

First off, narrow things down by figuring out what era of classical you like. My personal taste is towards early music, meaning ancient to medieval to early Baroque. Strictly speaking, "Classical" refers to the period between around 1750-1820, the age of Mozart and Haydn. Before that was the Baroque, after that was the Romantic (Beethoven being regarded as the bridge between them.)

Try focusing on a specific composer, get a few CDs, and do some reading on him. (Or her -- Hildegard von Bingen makes interesting early listening. :) As you read, take names, get hints, then start spiralling out. When I first started listening to Mozart, I watched Amadeus, then started getting interested in Salieri's obscure work. From his references, I learned about Clementi, and so on. Also take note of performers; if you like a certain recording of Mozart's Requiem for example, and it was performed by Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, look around for other performances by them. (The Academy does great stuff with authentic instruments.)

If you're more into early stuff, composers don't work quite so well, you'll need to go into specific genres of early music. I began with madrigals: English and Italian. I found I liked Monteverdi's work, so I always keep a few Monteverdi discs in my wishlist; but after listening to Quink Vocal Ensemble and the King's Singers do English madrigals, I immediately hunted around for more works by them, and was lead to Florentine vocal and instrumental works of various kinds: canzonets, ballads, even early operas.

Before I go into an over-enthusiastic ramble, I should summarize my own classical CD collection methodology: start focused, then spiral out madly.

Classical Periods
BBC Classical Radio
Early Music FAQ

(Listening to La Dolce Vita right now. :)
posted by brownpau at 5:18 PM on December 12, 2003

Another note: Opera (this, not that) is a completely other animal. My friends who like it tell me it's an acquired taste which takes a different kind of neuron than mainstream classical music. Myself, I don't think I'm missing anything. </lighthearted troll>
posted by brownpau at 5:30 PM on December 12, 2003

You may also try picking up any music history books that come with sampler CDs. If you can find good deals, look for used college textbooks. In college, I had the The Norton Anthology of Western Music - the full set was pricey, but it's a good overview. After taking music history classes, my own library grew by several hundred CDs over just a few years - before, I tended to buy only pieces I had (or was about to) perform.

A good place to order classical CDs on the cheap is the Berkshire Record Outlet. (Be aware they are notorious for being slow to ship.) It's a good idea to go in with some knowledge of what ensembles/performers you like, or at least which labels tend to be consistent with good performances.

I'll concur with Naxos being good - often rare for a "budget" label. Pricier labels that tend to be consistent are EMI, Sony (the "Classics" series are cheaper and usually good), and Deutsche Grammophone. But don't always expect there to be a correlation between price and quality. Also, be aware that some specialty genres (period music, certain instruments) are often almost exclusive to small record labels, so there's a lot you won't find in your local CD shop.

Don't think that 1 CD has to be the end of it for a recording of a particular piece. I myself own multiple performances of pieces (different orchestras, soloists, conductors, years, etc.), because I like something different in each recording.

Above all, if you have a local orchestra, go to a concert! It will likely be staffed by "Friends of the Orchestra" who would be more than happy to talk and give recommendations. (And those of us on stage wouldn't mind seeing some fresh blood, too.)

On preview - brownpau, as an orchestral musician, I'll freely admit I once had no taste for opera... until I started playing in a pit orchestra. I usually don't listen to opera CDs - I prefer to see the show, as it's really the entire spectacle that makes it appealing. My own favorites are the light operas/operettas - they're extremely silly, but tons of fun.
posted by Sangre Azul at 6:04 PM on December 12, 2003 [1 favorite]

Getting down to cases, among the most accesible (easiest to learn to listen to and enjoy) classical composers are: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Maybe start with some nice Chopin nocturnes - the pieces are short and melodically gorgeous, meditative, but with far more strength, tension, structure, and harmonic depth than "smooth jazz" or New Age or most other contemporary type chill-out music.
posted by crunchburger at 6:23 PM on December 12, 2003

Response by poster: This is all so amazing and helpful, thank you everyone! So many useful nuggets of information, this is much less confusing now.

I loooooooooove AskMe!
posted by contessa at 6:29 PM on December 12, 2003

This page by a guy that I used to talk to a few times on the internet has some solid advice on deciding what to buy. Classics Today has reviews of classical recordings and usually they will list a definite recording for a specific work. Of course, if you have a local classical music store, I'd definitely check that out and ask the people there for recommendations. They're mostly staffed by classical music aficionados and they'll be able to recommend their favorites.

I would start with the major composers and their major pieces to build a core library. Then branch out into their less popular works and then the lesser known composers. I would first start out with the major musicians and labels. NAXOS produces a lot of quality recordings but some of them tend to be fairly inconsistent in quality, although their recordings of lesser-known works tend to be top-notch. The major labels are coming out with a lot of budget CDs with slightly older performances by major musicians, but the quality is usually very good.
posted by gyc at 6:35 PM on December 12, 2003

......Acquire a sexual partner/spouse/mate with a big classical collection. Then - enjoy! (the direct approach, which actually compliments all the specific advice offered here)
posted by troutfishing at 7:38 PM on December 12, 2003

Third vote for Naxos. They have starter collections, and they have incredible (and free) booklets of advice.

Troutfishing's idea is good, too, particularly if you can find an orchestral conductor to cuddle. I've heard they like to show their batons.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:32 PM on December 12, 2003

Tim Page, the classical music columnist for the Washington Post has an online chat every couple of weeks that I've found useful. Most of the chat is focused on what's happening in the Washington Area, which is not as useful (I mean, unless you live in Washington), but he's answered all of my questions and is very good at "I like this, what else would I like" sorts of things. He also has somewhere his list of 25 starter pieces to give you an accessable overview of various periods and styles.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:13 AM on December 13, 2003

Eeeeee! Avoid compilations - you're right to be wary! You'll just repeat the material later, and "highlights" of the catchy bits is, in my opinion, a terrible way to listen to classical music. I think they really pollute a CD collection, and as it's a collection you're after, I'd recommend collecting complete works. If you need to investigate before purchases, I'd recommend looking at the Radio 3 listings and having a listen - great way to identify what it is you like.

When all's said and done, I'd start with J.S. Bach's Brandenburg concertos (yeah, strictly speaking baroque rather than classical, but...) Clearly you can't go wrong with Mozart (piano concertos), and Beethoven (symhponies 5 (no shit) and 9) wrote nice catchy tunes though I'm not much of a fan myself. Handel's Messiah is a good beginning if you're a fan of voice. I'm a particular fan of Dvorak - so I can't go without recognising his symphonies. If you were tempted to dip into opera I'd suggest Delibes' Lakme, and if you were after something more modern then the works of Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians is regarded as his definitive work, I think, but I'd go for Desert Music or Different Trains...

Good luck!
posted by nthdegx at 9:38 AM on December 13, 2003

recognising recommending...
posted by nthdegx at 9:40 AM on December 13, 2003

There is an excellent Telarc Disc with Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra -- it has material by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Barber, Percy Grainger, Erik Satie, and Gabriel Faure, and I can't imagine it couldn't find a place in any classical music fan's collection.

I should also point out BCM International, which appears to be four modern composers who are friends. Eric Whitacre's stuff is absolutely awesome, Steven Bryant is a MeFite, I believe, and I've listened to some of his material and it's pretty good as well. I like their balance between accesibility and creativity -- something many modern composers didn't seem to care much about in the 20th century.
posted by weston at 10:15 AM on December 13, 2003

The Reich piece I'm most fond of is Piano Phase, which features two pianists playing the same figure over and over for twenty minutes, slowly drifting out of synchronization and then back in. Electric Counterpoint (which is I think still available on CD with Different Trains) is also cool, it has Pat Metheny playing guitar with himself.

Also, you can't really do without some Copland, and I'll second the Dvorak.
posted by kindall at 10:29 AM on December 13, 2003

The Naxos collection is a good collection. It comes with a thick book explaining and exploring the selections, with recommendations for expanding your classical collection should you particularly enjoy a particular track. It is an ideal first classical CD, in that it gives you a range of material from which to begin exploring.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:00 AM on December 13, 2003

All you need to do is go out and buy every single Philip Glass album there is.

That way you cover traditional symphonies, piano solos, etudes, minimalism, electronic classical, choral works, and opera, all in one go. Can't think of any other composers who covered such a range! :-)

Of course, you might say.. but that means I'd only have one composer! But then you get these nuts who 'only' listen to heavy metal, or 'only' listen to baroque music.. so just listening to one classical composer is no big deal :-)
posted by wackybrit at 4:03 PM on December 13, 2003

I would suggest that you go to a secondhand CD shop with $100 or so and just buy up a load of stock. Many of them mark down CDs month by month when they don't get sold, so you can pick up some of them really cheaply. Play them at least twice; it's hard to work out what you really like on first listening. Then tell us here, or the Washington post guy, or other friends, what you like and we/they will recommend other stuff. Or just scrap that last step, do a little research about musical periods and perhaps also performance practice, and just go back to the same shop to buy more!

Do include some opera, just because you might get the bug and there's nothing like it. Get a CD with a printed libretto and sit down with it. I recommend Puccini for a first go at it.

As for orchestral stuff; get some Beethoven symphonies. They are all wonderful and stirring and speak to both emotion and mind, and are somehow catchy and memorable. How about buying different orchestras/conductors doing the different symphonies, and then you might develop an ear for what kind of interpretation you like?

I envy you starting on this journey....
posted by suleikacasilda at 5:40 PM on December 13, 2003

I second the local library. Once you figure out what you like, head on over to amazon and get it to make recommendations, check out what else people bought, borrow or download the recommendations, if you like them, buy 'em, if not, no harm done. Unfortunately most classical available on p2p networks is the well known stuff and is mp3 format, which I find does a terrible job on it. Ogg is tolerable, but classical, unlike most pop, seems to suffer from compression in strange ways.
posted by Grod at 8:03 PM on December 13, 2003

I'll second or third the warning against "best moment" compilations. Get the real, whole pieces, even if you're getting no-name orchestras with no-name conductors playing them. You can usually get CDs of them very cheap, and half the time they'll be just as good for all practical purposes as the "great" orchestras/artistes.

As to what those pieces are, again, you almost can't go wrong with Dvorak, especially the later symphonies (from five on up, and that means the real numbers, not the fake ones they originally used to make him look precocious) - he knew what he was doing, and still had a good bit of the homeboy in every melody. In fact, it's a general rule of thumb that most composers who did five or more symphonies did their best work in the latter ones, with the exception IMHO being Mahler, who started off spitting fire and then had nothing new to say after the Fifth.

Also, tonight I was marvelling anew at Saint-Saens' 3rd Symphony (the "Organ" Symphony). What a freakin' tour de force. Completely unique in instrumentation, a wildly varied multi-movement fantasia derived from a single theme, a French piece honoring/mocking German forms (fugue? You want fugue? Here, ya happy?), a certifiably 20th-century work written in the 1880s (really, just tonight I was shouting "Sibelius!" "Debussy!" "Prokofiev!" "Dukas!" "Khachaturian!" at different passages, the "references" are so vivid, and there are also definite precursors to the visionary Mahler's 1st, written three years later) and above all, a work with catchy tunes and a great sense of humor. If you're just starting, by all means, start from there.

But also, of course, get the Mahler 1st.

And Sibelius 2nd.

And the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, of course. And Symphonie Fantastique. OK, I'll stop.
posted by soyjoy at 8:28 PM on December 13, 2003

If you feel ok with symphonies, great. However, I prefer the smaller groups, the quartets and quintets, an occasional concerto. Oh, and wine!
posted by mischief at 11:10 AM on December 15, 2003

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