Need classical recs!
February 19, 2007 4:50 AM   Subscribe

I recently started listening to classical music, but my usual means of finding new albums (radio, friends, overheard-at-the-store, etc.) are somewhat ineffective. Need recommendations!

Please recommend me some classical albums! (No disembodied titles or composers, please; I'm more interested in specific performances than specific pieces, as well as compilation albums [single- or multi-performer] and even anomalies like Rachmaninov's "A Window in Time.") I'm quite receptive to everything, though contemporary and classical-era interests me somewhat less than romantic and baroque. Obscure material's fine.

Also, what do you consider the "definitive" recordings of the New World Symphony by Dvorak (I don't like Harnoncourt's version -- part 4 doesn't have nearly enough "oomph") and the St. Matthew Passion by Bach?
posted by archagon to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I like Classical music from time to time, but I'm certainly no aficianado on the subject, however, I've always found a great source for music recommendations.

Maybe start with Beethoven and then follow either "Customers who bought this item also bought" or Listmania.

Good luck!
posted by dropkick at 5:17 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: This might be the first disc on my desert island list.

Have fun.
posted by doowop at 5:35 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: Trying listening to a lecture course by Robert Greenberg from the teaching company. You can buy them at that site, or.. well, there are other ways.

He's a professor of music history and gives great lectures about the history and development of classical music. The lectures are about 1/2 music, half lecture.

After listening to each lecture, you'll have a couple new ideas for pieces or composers you didn't know you liked. I'm listening to the 'How to Listen to Opera' series now. It's really helping me become more of a snob, I love it.
posted by bluejayk at 5:36 AM on February 19, 2007

If you have iTunes, you can preview thousands of classical songs with virtually no effort. Then buy what you want.
Just poke around the iTunes store. Its a good way to get your feet wet without spending any money.
posted by Thrillhouse at 5:49 AM on February 19, 2007

Figure out which composers you want to try, look them up in The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs (or similar publications), and then buy the five-star recordings. No system is infallible, but this one will get you started.

If you don't want to buy the guide, try your library (or there may be a copy in your local record store). If you don't want to buy the recordings, try your library or download them (if you can find them).
posted by pracowity at 6:08 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: The Penguin Guide is great, but can be a little overwhelming, having too much information. You are just getting started and want to find the important composers and works. For that I recommend The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music. The NPR Guide linked on the same page also looks good, but I havent read it. is another great resource, offering similar information to these books.
posted by caddis at 6:21 AM on February 19, 2007

Seconding caddis' suggestions. I have the NPR book from years ago and it's fine.
posted by intermod at 6:26 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: As a latecomer to classical music, and one who likewise had no recourse to reliable recommendations, I can sympathise. I've found it a tricky business, with there being few guarantees that a liking for any given CD would mean I'd similarly enjoy others by the same composer or performers: even now, years later, I still find myself blundering along very haphazardly. If you can try before you buy (at a library, or on-line), then so much the better.

Having said that, here a few specific CDs I've enjoyed:

+ If you like Dvořák, you might also enjoy the works of his student and son-in-law Josef Suk, such as the ones on this 2-CD set.
+ Sibelius! 'Pojhola's Daughter,' the 4th Symphony, 'Finlandia'; the 6th & 7th Symphonies, 'Tapiola'.
+ Works by Ravel and Enescu very beautifully performed by Leonidas Kavakos and Peter Nagy, in particular their rendition of Enescu's 3rd sonata. More by Enescu: his Octet and Piano Quintet.
+ Sergey Taneyev's Piano Quintet & Piano Trio.
+ An obscurer composer, but fine music: Alphonse Biarent's Piano Quintet and Cello Sonata.
posted by misteraitch at 6:42 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: There are also a few performers/symphonies that you can't really go wrong with, just to my taste. I am no expert, though!

Bernstein, pretty much anything. I like how he conducts more bombastic stuff (tends to have huge variations in volume, though, some people find it a tad distracting).

Rostoprovich for cello stuff- I think better than Yo Yo Ma, who is the go-to cellist for most people now. If you can find Rostropovich playing Shostakovich, you are totally golden. (Shosti actually wrote his first cello concerto for Rostropovich, and you can tell when you hear him play it. You can find it pretty easily online, I know Amazon has it.)

New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and sometimes Cleveland -- these are considered the gold star American symphonies. They will tend to have the best conductors and overall sound. They will also tend to make the best recordings with superstar soloists. Look for their recordings of composers/pieces you already know you like.

One more: look for Horowitz playing Rachmaninov, pretty much anything. I think it is absolutely sublime.

These are sort of basic, can't go wrong recommendations. Hopefully you'll find some recordings that you like!
posted by ohio at 6:46 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: I hate talking about 'definitive' recordings of anything, because there's always many ways of performing any piece, but my absolute favourite recording of the St MAtthew Passion is this one.

Things I like about it - nice fast speeds, baroque playing style which still retains the emotional impact of the work, beautiful singing. Just one out-of-tune oboe, in one number, and that's the worst thing I can find to say about it.

I learnt a lot about the kinds of recordings I like by working in a CD shop, but YMMV....
posted by altolinguistic at 7:01 AM on February 19, 2007

The Greenberg lectures are a truly great idea to help you figure out what all you like. And from there, you need to learn about symphonies, conductors and major soloists.

You see, a lot of this is matter of taste, and how you feel about artistic interpretation versus technical accuracy.

Once you figure out what sort of things you like, and who you like them by, you should be able to buy lots of new stuff without issue, just by looking for magic keywords on the disc.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 8:14 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: My favorite baroque findings this year:

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance soundtrack (Re-worked Vivaldi by Mo Ho Baroque and others)
[following link above, wait for intro, click on "Media" and you will find a perfectly legal, free download of the entire thing here]

Heroes - Vivaldi Opera Arias
(Philippe Jaroussky (counter-tenor) / Ensemble Matheus / Jean-Christophe Spinosi (violin))

Baroque Arias 1 & 2
(Bach, Handel, Ahle, Buxtehude etc. by Yoshikazu Mera (countertenor) & Bach Collegium Japan)

Bach Cantatas
(Bach Collegium Japan, conductor Suzuki Masaaki)
posted by ibeji at 8:17 AM on February 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

All you need is Pandora.
posted by matty at 8:31 AM on February 19, 2007

alex ross has a good list to start with, and his blog is a pretty good resource for what's going on in the classical world.

I'll take Richter playing Beethoven's last piano sonata or Mompou playing his own music. Otherwise, I dont pay a whole lot of attention to performance - more depends on what they have at the library.
posted by minkll at 8:46 AM on February 19, 2007

Don't forget that your public library may well have a worthwhile collection of classical recordings -- if you're trying to find out what you like, both in terms of composers and performances, it's a great way of listening to music without having to invest a lot of money. You can then use the insights you gain from your own listening to inform your purchases.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:29 AM on February 19, 2007

Some of my prefered pieces that aren't too well known:

The saddest music I've ever heard, but really beautiful.
Trios Elégiaque - Sergei Rachamaninoff

Everything by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt

A lot of the works of Belgian composer Wim Mertens
posted by maremare at 9:35 AM on February 19, 2007

Oh and of course Bach's Goldberg variations by Glenn Gould.
posted by maremare at 9:38 AM on February 19, 2007

Do an Amazon search on "Glenn Gould" - you will find unmatched piano recordings of Bach. Also, try Corelli if you like Bach.

I often listen to our local classical music station to find new recordings/composers. If I hear something that I like, I go to their web site to find out what I've heard.
posted by Flakypastry at 9:42 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: John Eliot Gardiner's St Matthew Passion is often considered to be the definitive version on period instruments. I absolutely love it.
posted by beniamino at 11:23 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas are a lot of fun, full of acrobatics and fireworks. Glenn Gould compared them to popcorn (ie light and small). He recorded a number of them (there are over 500). This CD will give you a taste. There's also Horowitz's recording. Probably plenty of others.
posted by sleevener at 11:55 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: You might also try listening to a good classical radio station--WQXR, in NYC, is a very well-regarded one and you can listen free over the internet. They play a good mix of things (not just stuff you've heard a million times before) and it will expose you to a number of different performers and composers.

Other classical radio stations I've enjoyed are XM Classics, and I hear WFMT in Chicago is good.
posted by Lycaste at 11:59 AM on February 19, 2007

Best answer: I tend to listen to mostly 20th century music, but here is a random selection of some of my favorite recordings:
-Schumann, Piano Quartet & Piano Quintet, Beaux Arts Trio & friends
-Brahms, piano trios & piano quartets
-Josquin, the L'Homme Arme Masses, the Tallis Scholars
-Richard Goode's recording of the Beethoven Sonatas (the middle sonatas, like the Waldstein, are my favorites)
-Seconding the Glenn Gould playing Bach, but also Andras Schiff playing the English Suites
-Also seconding Aldo Part, particularly choral works.
-Debussy & Ravel string quartets (can't find a link to the recording I have, but there are many excellent ones)
-Philip Glass string quartets, Kronos Quartet
Also, Zelenka, Copland, Shostakovich, and I think it's time for me to stop.
Happy listening!
posted by bassjump at 2:16 PM on February 19, 2007

There are plenty of good podcasts for classical music.

The other thing I might point out is that there are a TON of "budget line" (i.e. $5.99-ish) collections of "the best classical music in the world...ever". It might be worth picking up a few of them just to see which composers you might be into.

Might I suggest (self-plug) The Collections. The site contains sound samples.

Otherwise, you might want to figure out whether you're more interested in solo works, chamber music (typically 4-5 instruments) or orchestral work, which will narrow down the field for you.
posted by softlord at 5:56 AM on February 20, 2007

Best answer: Seeing as how you like romantic and baroque music, you might find that some contemporary composers are actually quite to your liking. I'd recommend:

John Adams, specifically Simon Rattle conducting The Chairman Dances, Harmonielehre, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Adams is probably the contemporary composer with most in common with the Romantics. Check out the lush strings and high drama of The Chairman Dances, in particular.

Also, Oswaldo Golijov's La Pasión Según San Marcos. Golijov is an Argentinian composer and this piece combines elements from Bach with salsa, jewish folk songs, etc. It's thrilling, complexly strucutured and dramatic.

Also, you should take a listen to some Early Music, which is a period outsid of those you listed that often appeals to a common audience with them. Some of my favorites are:

Tallis' Spem in Alium (a motet for 40 voices (!) that the Tallis Scholars do an excellent job with)

The work of Perotin, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble, which specializes in the intricate vocal music that led up to Palestrina and the real birth of Western Classiclal Harmony.

Listening to early stuff like this will really throw the main body of well-known classical music (Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, &co.) into a new light for you.

posted by AtDuskGreg at 4:45 PM on February 20, 2007

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