Classical classics
June 16, 2008 4:27 PM   Subscribe

School me on the classics of classical music. What are the top ten recordings that someone who knows nothing about classical music should own?

I am a musician and a music lover. I enjoy a diverse variety of music, but I know very little about classical. I own one 'Baroque Masterpieces' compilation that has works by Bach, Vivaldi and Handel. I like it, especially the guitar pieces by Bach.

I'd like to explore more classical music, but I have no ability to discern what's good and bad, what I'd like, and what the "classics" of the genre are. I know this question probably has a 100 different answers. I guess I'm hoping to a get a clue on what are the seminal "Kind of Blue," "Giant Steps," "Time Out" and "Head Hunters"-type recordings of the classical realm. I am open to music from any time period.
posted by gnutron to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
Pachelbel's Canon. Unfortunately played at 95% of all weddings, but beautiful on its own.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:41 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think the recordings are necessarily as important as the piece itself when it comes to classical music. Some key pieces worth seeking out :



The Marriage of Figaro


Organ works, particularly the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor

The Goldberg Variations

The St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion

The Brandenberg Concertos

For Bach's choral works, John Eliot Gardiner is an excellent conductor worth seeking out...

that's all for now.
posted by wabbittwax at 4:42 PM on June 16, 2008

Best answer: This book was made for exactly your purpose. He ranks the 50 greatest composers, then ranks each composer's greatest works. You could take his top 10 composers, minus Wagner, Handel, and Tchaikovsky, plus Debussy, and fill in the rest with a couple each from Mozart or Bach or Beethoven. It's all extremely contrived, but it gets the job done.

It's not clear how much you're looking for compositions vs. specific CDs. I'm assuming you mean compositions, since the standard for performance in the classical world is extremely high, and any well-known composition will have a variety of good versions to choose from. To be on the safe side, the Naxos record label is pretty consistent and very inexpensive, and has a very wide catalogue.

The top 10 list could vary a LOT depending on whether you want to focus on official greats, or the most accessible compositions, or a quirkier list. You'll certainly find no general agreement -- there's no equivalent of "Kind of Blue" that everyone would agree has to be on the top 10.

The above book gives a very standard selection of compositions that are both widely recognized as great and fairly accessible to people who are new to the genre.

Here's my idiosyncratic list of starter pieces (this is not at all to diminish these works -- some of them are the very greatest pieces of music ever written by anyone):

1. Mendelssohn - Octet for Strings
2. Bach - Goldberg Variations (not played by Glenn Gould; Kurt Rodarmer has a nice CD where he adapts them to guitar)
3. Brahms - Piano Quintet (he only wrote one)
4. Dvorak - "American" Quartet (No. 14)
5. Schubert - "Unfinished" Symphony (No. 8)
6. Chopin - any piano recital, especially featuring the Mazurkas or Nocturnes
7. Beethoven - Symphony No. 7 (more accessible than some of the other greats)
8. Mozart - any of the more famous piano concertos
9. Stravinsky - Petrushka
10. Debussy - Children's Corner (alternate: for an orchestral piece instead of piano, get La Mer)

That's somewhat arbitrary and in no particular order -- all just off the top of my head. But I'll bet you won't be disappointed if you run out and buy those.

That's a very conservative list, with #9 and 10 being the only ones from the 20th century. If you want edgier stuff, focus on some other 20th century composers from Goulding's book, like Shostakovich (String Quartet No. 8!!!) or Prokofiev.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:50 PM on June 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

I grew up in a part of Europe where classical music was pretty much a part of general education, so I can only answer this by making a comparison: if someone were to say, "I'm interested in the music of the 20th Century, where should I start?" It's a hard question, because there are zillions of places to start - and so many of them worthy of some sort of consideration. And of course, if you're a neophyte, you're not going to care as much about the specific differences in recordings all that much. By that, I mean "Kind Of Blue" is specifically a Miles Davis recording; most truly great classical pieces exist in loads and loads of recordings, a huge number of which may be excellent. You may get picky later, but for now . . .

So the bottom line is, you need an overview before you should even start to consider specifics. It'll save you time, money and open the door widely enough that after a few hours of listening, you'll in a much better place to make decisions about where to go next.

Fortunately, classical music anthologies can be had for very little money. This six CD collection contains a ton of music by most of the greats for under $17, from Amazon:

And many of the conductors and symphonies involved are top rate. Pieces are often truncated, and to be honest, you'll eventually want to toss the whole box in favor of more complete recordings of the parts you like. But it'll be a fine moment when you get to that point!

This one's a bit pricier ($22 for two CDs), but it's really well done for what it is:

The thing with classical music is, everyone's got their favorites. To me, it's 19th and 20th Century Russians and Hungarians - Bartók or Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, though Bach is sublime. And I could ramble on and on about why you must start there - but that's really only my personal bias. Get a good overview, learn a little and then be swayed by the personal opinions of others.

I've also found that when exploring these sorts of musicians, it's great to read a Wikipedia article about them while listening. For me, it helps with the context and I like music a bit more when I feel I have a "set" for the time, place and circumstances in which it originated.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:53 PM on June 16, 2008

Oh, I should mention that my above top 10 list is all instrumental. If you want to try out some stuff with singing, you could freely omit some of the above items and substitute any of these:

- Mozart's Requiem
- Brahms's German Requiem
- Beethoven's Symphony No. 9
- Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.
- Schubert's Winterreise (Winter Journey)

Save the Bach Passions for later -- they're great, but a lot to swallow at first.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:55 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wonderful answers, everyone. Just be clear, recommendations for specific CDs is probably preferred, but recommendations for works in general are still appreciated.

(ie. Now I know that the Brandenburg Concertos are worth listening to...but there's 100 different CD versions, I still have no clue what to buy.)
posted by gnutron at 4:57 PM on June 16, 2008

Do not get CDs that offer isolated movements from larger works. To quote myself from this past thread:

I disagree with those who have recommended compilations. Avoid CDs that extract isolated movements from larger works, e.g. "2nd movement of Symphony X." You're not really hearing the music if you're hearing it out of context. Symphonies are not like rock albums, where there's no problem with listening to individual songs on their own. ...

You'll actually save money by avoiding the compilations that extract Beethoven or Mozart movements, because you'd just end up re-purchasing those movements in context once you got more into classical music. For $20, you could get 3 normal CDs of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, which would serve the same purpose you're describing except that you would be hearing complete pieces of music instead of dismembered ones.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:59 PM on June 16, 2008

Sorry, but there's no real basis for narrowing down the whole field of classical CDs to 10 specific recordings. It all depends on your price range and what's available. What you should do is:

(1) Figure out what 10 compositions you're interested in.

(2) Buy a guide to classical CDs (the Penguin Guide or the book written by Jim Svejda are both great) and go with some of their suggestions. I believe that Goulding's book (the one I linked to above) recommends specific recordings.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:01 PM on June 16, 2008

Response by poster: I hear you Jaltcoh. It doesn't necessarily have to be "these are the 10 best classical recordings EVAR" - I guess it would be helpful for some of you classical aficionados to state "this is the short list of my favorite classical CDs tha I own."
posted by gnutron at 5:05 PM on June 16, 2008

Here's an idea: note the pieces that pop up most repeatedly in this thread (e.g. Mozart's Requiem) or other top 10/100/whatever lists. Then look each piece up on and read the buyer reviews. You should start to get a general idea of which recordings are most loved.

I would say that until your ear gets really, really, really well-trained, you probably won't be able to hear much difference between two good recordings of, say, Beethoven's 9th. So I wouldn't let indecision stop you from listening to it. If you can nail a piece down to two or three popular recordings, just buy one at random. You won't regret it. And if you come to deeply love a piece, you'll probably want to own several recordings of it in the end.
posted by grumblebee at 5:05 PM on June 16, 2008

Best answer: A few essentials (note that Pachelbel is NOT among them!):
Bach: St Matthew Passion, b minor Mass
Handel: Messiah
Vivaldi: Four Seasons
Haydn: String quartets op.76
Mozart: Symphonies no.40 & 41, Requiem, Die Zauberfloete
Beethoven: 9 symphonies, violin concerto
Schubert: Winterreise
Mendelssohn: Violin concerto, symphony no.4
Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty, piano concerto no.1, symphony no.6
Mahler: Symphony no.2 & no.6
Rachmaninov: Piano concerto no.2
Shostakovich: Symphony no.5
Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle

Sorry, that's a few more than 10! I wouldn't worry too much about which recordings to get.
posted by cbrody at 5:05 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Discussions of particular recordings are kind of a minefield in classical music circles; such discussions will go on, and on, and on, and often entail significant passion and vitriol. What wabbittwax wrote is to some extent definitely true: you don't want to get hung up on finding the "definitive" recording of a particular piece, especially if looking for said definitive recording keeps you from listening to the actual music. I think you can trust most recommendations you'll get here, though.

milarepa's suggestion is good. I'd consider getting both Gould's 1981 recording and his 1955 recording. Comparing the recordings will give you an idea of the role an artist plays in interpreting a piece.

Get some Stravinsky. I like Esa-Pekka Salonen's 1990 recording of the Rite of Spring, but I haven't listened to other versions extensively.

You'll need a recording of Beethoven's 9th. Again; I'm no expert, and I haven't listened to many of the hundreds out there, but I very much like this recording.

But, yeah, if you especially like the Bach guitar pieces on that compilation disk, you should probably get a recording of the Goldberg Variations ASAP. Maybe the guitar version that Jaltcoh recommended instead of the Gould(s). And please, stay away from compilations. If you're interested in long-form improvisational jazz, as your question seems to indicate that you are, I'm guessing you'll probably want to hear full works as they were written.

And on preview, Rachmaninov's Piano concerto no.2. That's a must-have...
posted by mr_roboto at 5:13 PM on June 16, 2008

Best answer: 10? Yeeesh. Check out the Basic 88.

If you like to read, Classical Music for Dummies by David Pogue (yes, the David Pogue) is a good intro. The awesome book is The Lives of the Great Composers.

I started learning about classical music 10 years ago, with Lives as my main guide. I took a chronological approach, which I think was a good choice.

Here are the first few major composers and their great works, in chrono order:

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Handel: Water Music, Messiah
Bach: cello suites, Brandenberg concertos, organ works
Haydn: later ("London") symphonies; various string quartets
Mozart: symphonies 39-41, serenade #10 (K 361), eine klein nachtmusik, the opera
Beethoven: piano sonatas, string quartet Op 59 No 1, symphonies 3,5,6,7,9

Plus I gotta add Schubert's late string quartets, the piano quintet ("Trout"), and the octet.

As for which CDs to buy, look for the Naxos label. They're cheaper but still good. They are mainly eastern European recordings; I suppose the musicians and conductors work for less.

I don't know a lot about more modern classical music, but I do recommend you pour a glass of cognac, light a fine cigar, dim the lights, sit back, and fire up Gorecki's 3rd symphony featuring Dawn Upshaw.
posted by neuron at 5:22 PM on June 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ms. Vegetable plays the flute. One of her favorite recital pieces is actually for violin, but it's beautiful - the Prokofiev Sonata.

Is there a music school near you? I suspect any of the librarians or professors would be more than happy to share their expertise (and collections).

Also, The Planets.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:24 PM on June 16, 2008

I would recommend the Brahms Cello Sonatas.
posted by stopgap at 5:55 PM on June 16, 2008

Seconding Naxos. They've been pretty forward-looking in making downloads available, and while it's rare to find a Naxos recording that is a consensus 'best pick' (though for some obscure pieces, they do come up trimps) it's rare to find an outright bad one. You can get a lot of music for not much money from them. (Also: Magnatune.)

If you're going to start with baroque / Bach, then a good way to expand your horizons is through chronological and thematic similarities: you can look at precursors and contemporaries -- Magnatune is very good for this -- and the way in which future generations incorporate or distance themselves from baroque. You can look at the evolution of the set mass, or the solo keyboard piece, or the concerto, etc. Going straight from a Bach piece for solo performance to, say, Wagner, is a pretty big leap.

Stephen Fry's Incomplete And Utter History Of Classical Music is, alas, not available to buy.
posted by holgate at 6:07 PM on June 16, 2008

Best answer: Here's a nice list from wondeful New Yorker critic Alex Ross.
posted by neroli at 6:14 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

On my commute lately I've been listening to Stephen Fry's Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music. It's been pretty interesting thus far. The link is to a paperback version, which doesn't have the best reviews apparently, but if you can somehow find the audio version it's pretty good. At least to me, anyways.
posted by inigo2 at 6:16 PM on June 16, 2008

(And I just saw the end of holgate's post...sorry.)
posted by inigo2 at 6:18 PM on June 16, 2008

Personally, the first thing I think of in the way of instantly-recognizable "classics" is the Peer Gynt suites, surprised it didn't get mentioned yet. Youtube has many versions of this one for example.

On trying to think of my favourite recording, first thing that comes to mind at the moment is Paper Music by Bobby McFerrin. Youtube again gives you some idea what he sounds like with an orchestra.

With the generously broad definition of "classical" that seems to be going, it's got to be a long list. Some of the best very famous composers that didn't get mentioned yet include Pergolesi, Ravel, Scarlatti, Rossini, Monteverdi, Sibelius, Strauss, Dvorak ...
posted by sfenders at 6:34 PM on June 16, 2008

Following up on the Naxos recommendations, I really enjoy one of their Podcasts (warning: iTunes link). They are only about 20 minutes long, but the host usually either reviews a new Naxos release in depth, giving plenty of excerpts, or interviews the composer/performer/conductor, again with plenty of excerpts so you can hear a good portion of the CD before purchasing.
posted by dforemsky at 6:35 PM on June 16, 2008

Just found a feed link for the Classical Music Spotlight podcast from Naxos.
posted by dforemsky at 6:37 PM on June 16, 2008

Best answer: I'm going to add my own idiosyncratic list. You'll notice I skew heavily toward chamber music, because that's my thing. I've included links to specific recordings that I own and love.

Josquin - L'Homme Arme Masses
Bach - Brandenburg Concertos (seconding the John Eliot Gardiner recommendation) or the Goldberg Variations (count me as a Glenn Gould fan, at least for this piece)
Beethoven - Richard Goode playing the piano sonatas. Start with these.
Schumann - Piano Quartet & Quintet
Brahms - any chamber music, especially with piano; or just spring for this set
Shostakovich - String Quartets (start with No. 8)
Phillip Glass - check out these string quartets
Benjamin Britten, Sinfonia da Requiem
Charles Ives, Concord Sonata
Aaron Copland - either one of the ballets, like "Appalachian Spring," or the piano music
posted by bassjump at 6:47 PM on June 16, 2008

Well one question is what KIND of classical music do you want to listen to? There are many axes along which classical music can be categorized.

First two axes:

* Instrumental versus vocal
* Chamber music (small group, e.g., often 1-8 players, dominated by strings) versus orchestras.

All combinations of these two axes are possible, so that you could have only a singer and a piano (as in Schubert's songs) on the one hand, or an entire opera on the other hand.

Within orchestral music, concertos, in which you have one instrument playing against the entire orchestra, feel quite different than symphonies, which use the orchestra alone.

Within chamber music, different sorts of chamber groups feel very different. A piano sonata or violin sonata feels very different from a string quartet, which has the range of a miniature orchestra.

Another important axis is time period:
- Baroque: Think like Baroque architecture, a lot of ornamentation, a lot of polyphony.
- Classical: Think court music, melodic and elegant.
- Romantic: Think sturm und drang. A focus on overtly emotional music.
- 20th century: Both rebellion against melodic rules in the earlier forms, but also
The Baroque and Romantic periods have a fascination with virtuosity that is less pronounced in the classical and 20th century periods.

Also, sacred and secular music can be very different. Although sacred music has been composed to this day, it is probably most prominent in the Baroque.

So saying, "I want to listen to classical music" is like saying "I want to read a book." It's a great start, but you can get a lot more specific. I think it really helps to have a mental map of what's out there. If there's one of these major categories that you haven't explored (sadly, for me there are several), then you're missing a large category of the world's great music.
posted by sesquipedalian at 6:53 PM on June 16, 2008

(Bless you, bassjump, for including Copland and Glass and Shostakovich and Britten and Ives.)
( And Alex Ross' best-seller "The Rest Is Noise" is an excellent introduction to classics that reads like a novel---you'll love it!)
posted by Dizzy at 7:04 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Specific records: Yo Yo Ma's Inspired by Bach cello suites. Wonderfully transcendental!
posted by oxford blue at 7:12 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Once you've found a piece you like, you can learn a lot by comparing versions. It's even better if you can read and download the sheet music.

May I suggest comparing Schubert's Impromptus? Brendel, my favourite, is available on an excellent CD.

Beethoven's symphonies have been overcompared because interpretations tend to be very different and individual. I couldn't stand them until I discovered that Karajan wasn't the only chap who had directed them. If you can't digest them at all, maybe you'll like his fantastic lighter piano concertos nevertheless.
posted by stereo at 7:24 PM on June 16, 2008

A really good way to get an introduction to classical styles, to be honest, is to listen to classical radio stations. You won't hear all that much modern stuff on such stations, but you should get a good feel for which composers and which styles you like. Jot down the pieces and the composers you particularly enjoy; once you've got a feel for which composers and which styles you particularly like, then you can start thinking about specific recordings to buy.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:30 PM on June 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Beethoven's 5th and 7th Symphonies, Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Considered by many to be the definitive recordings of both pieces.

Brahms Piano Quartets, performed by Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, and Jaime Laredo. This includes Brahm's "Werther" quartet, which is... I don't know how to say it, but just amazing. It is intensely romantic, full of pathos, and maybe the most verbal piece of non-vocal music I've ever heard. The music "dates from a period in which Brahms' mentor Schumann was confined to a madhouse and Brahms rushed to the side of Clara Schumann, who he loved but could not approach out of loyalty to Robert." (link). Some say the piece was his way of telling Clara that he loved her but could not tell her that he did, but when she heard it she knew. Or something like that. When you hear it you'll know, too.
posted by alms at 9:01 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

If there is such a thing as a Classical "Kind of Blue" it's might be Gould's 2nd take on Bach's Goldberg Variations. After all, it was recorded in the same room.

Grumblebee's suggestion is a good one. I'd cast my votes for starting with:

Purcell's Dido & Aeneas
Bach's Partitas
Bach's Passion of St Matthew
Mozart's Requiem
Beethoven's Eroica
Beethoven's last piano sonata
Mahler's 9th symphony
Dvorak's American Quartet
Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht
Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Aaron Copland's "What to Listen for in Music" might be a good starting point with recommendations for different styles.
posted by minkll at 9:45 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another way for a neophyte to approach choosing which particular recordings to buy, is to buy into the catalog of a single major orchestra and/or conductor. You could, for example, choose to collect Leonard Bernstein's recordings with the New York Philharmonic, and get, right or wrong, a particular, artistically consistent approach to the major orchestral works. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra runs programs and sells recordings specifically targeted towards new classical listeners, as do other orchestras and philharmonics.
posted by paulsc at 3:51 AM on June 17, 2008

I know of 2 online guides to classical music..

The BBC's Essential Guide to Classical Music
It's not an easy task to condense an overview of the last 900 years of music into a single page guide... The simplest way to get to grips with the the enormity of classical music is by slicing it into time periods, or eras. This is admittedly a fairly crude way of looking at it, and chronological and stylistic eras have a nasty habit of slipping out of synch around the edges, but hopefully this will serve as a starting point for deeper and more detailed exploration.
Classical.Net's Basic Repertoire
The purpose of presenting a "basic repertoire" is two-fold. First, it provides a convenient subset of classical works that a new listener may want to explore to further develop and refine their musical tastes. Second, it provides a "road map" to related works that even a seasoned classical music lover might have missed.
posted by Gyan at 5:29 AM on June 17, 2008

By the way, classical music is HUGE. This question is sort of like saying "I want to start reading books, name the 10 essential ones." There will be plenty of overlap in people's answers, but there's not going to be a ton of consensus. I have over a thousand classical CDs and there are plenty of works listed above that I don't have or am not even that familiar with (just as someone might have read a thousand novels but still not gotten around to War and Peace).

I am not a big fan of single-movement excerpts in general, but if you're just getting into classical music and you want to find out which areas of this immense field appeal to you most, I think it's a great idea to get a few CDs like Naxos's Discover the Classics series as a survey and then start exploring the composers that you like most. The basic-classical-repertoire books mentioned here are good, but it can be intimidating to read about hundreds of works that are all "essential". Get a good sampler, do some listening, and follow your whims from there!
posted by dfan at 6:24 AM on June 17, 2008

One more comment... For figuring out which CDs to buy for a particular composition, Classics Today is a fantastic website. I've used it a lot. Very well written, humorous at times -- not dry. You could answer your whole question just with this website and the book by Goulding that I linked above.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:03 AM on June 17, 2008

If it weren't illegal, I would recommend starting with the 6GB mp3 bittorrent of the complete works of Morton Feldman.

Instead, why not get the London Symphony Orchestra's recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony?
posted by billtron at 8:07 AM on June 17, 2008

The Jacqeline Du Pre recordings of Elgar's Cello Concerto are simply stunning. It's the piece that made her really famous and I believe she recorded it a number of times, most famously with Daniel Barenboim conducting.

I think there's videos of it on Youtube too, taken from an old documentary about her life.
posted by chairmanwow at 8:49 AM on June 17, 2008

if you can, find a cd store that will let you sample a huge stack of cd's, then go in with this list (not just mine obviously but all of the above) and see what appeals and what doesn't - it's a massive genre with a zillion styles and sounds etc

that said, my mom's a music teacher, and if you ask me i feel like there *is* a sort of canon of ~10-20 works that are sort of the equivalent of those jazz albums you mentioned, ie. highlights of the genre that pretty much everybody can get into. i'd recommend these works as being beautiful, easy on the ears, yet having a depth that bears repeated listenings, and will make a good introduction to the various styles of classical music out there.


Bach - Brandenburg Concertos, cello suites
Vivaldi: Four Seasons
Mozart's Requiem
Beethoven's 5th and 7th Symphonies
Rachmaninov: Piano concerto no.2
holst - The Planets
Aaron Copland - Appalachian Spring

and i'd add erik satie's trois gymnopedies, rodrigo's concierto de aranjuez, and the orchestral version of musoursky's pictures at an exhibition, each of which i'm shocked no one has mentioned yet.

plus you should maybe get a couple operas, like puccini's la boheme, bizet's carmen, and (sorry purists!) a "highlights" of wagner's ring trilogy.

these are all highly accessible and popular pieces, and while no classical music snob will be impressed with your vast knowledge of classical by you owning these, you can't go wrong with them, they're all really really lovely pieces of music and they will give you an idea of what your tastes tend towards when you want to explore further.

finally, i'll also add my own slightly idiosyncratic (but accessable) picks that always get compliments, from both neophytes and classical enthusiasts, when i put them on:

the 1-disk "highlights" of maria callas singing lucia di lammermoor
palestrina - stabat mater
and finally bach lute suites: as played by john williams on guitar*

*even if you try nothing else i've recommended, get this one! especially since i see you particularly like guitar works by bach. 50 minutes of solo guitar loveliness!
posted by messiahwannabe at 9:24 AM on June 17, 2008

It seems likely you'll be getting Mozart's Requiem. This is my personal favorite recording of it. It was recorded in a cathedral, so the sound is occasionally a wee bit muddy, but from an interpretation standpoint it's the best I've ever heard.

If you are going to buy a recording of Beethoven's 5th (which you should), Carlos Kleiber is definitely the way to go. If you buy any other version I will be very upset.

Bach's Cello Suites are an eternal favorite. For those, either Pablo Casal's or Yo Yo Ma's recordings would be the way to go.

For most piano stuff, I like either Mitsuko Uchida or Andras Schiff. I personally think Andre Watts is overrated, but that's just me.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is great for anything brass heavy. I studied their recording of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra pretty intensively in high school and really loved it.

This is a pretty good, accessible introduction to Tchaikovsky, recorded by the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Generally speaking, anything orchestral conducted by Leonard Bernstein or Herbert von Karajan is going to be good.

Speaking of Leonard Bernstein: being new to classical music, you might benefit from Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. They were made for kids, so there's a lot of "Can you say consonance?" type stuff, but they provide a good introduction to classical music (especially more modern works) for the novice.

Finally, since you seem to be coming at this from a jazz background, don't forget the Gershwin.
posted by Commander Rachek at 5:35 PM on June 17, 2008

I know this question is asking about specific records, but I think for someone who is just starting out in their love of all things classical, it isn't going to matter all that much what version you get. It's only down the track that you'll probably want to find some really top notch recordings of pieces you love. In the meantime just buy any particular version; it's about experimentation and refined your tastes at this stage.

Keeping that in mind I must encourage you to ignore some other suggestions in this thread: Buy a few compilation 'best of' cds. They are a wonderful way for your ear to become inured to centuries of different styles, different composers, styles, and c. Whence you have listened to them a few times, then go out and by the complete 9th symphony for example.

Listen to a classical radio station; download/buy anything and everything, as you'll knew really know what you'll like. You'll find your tastes will change, often so dramatically. Go to the symphony a few times; I think sometimes we suffer from the 'iPod disease', that is we play music as ancillary to whatever else we're doing. Sometimes it's nice to make it the primary thing of our focus.

I know I'm repeating myself, but everyone needs to do this at least once: in the middle of the night, turn off all the lights and close the curtains—the room should be pitch black. Divest yourself of your clothes. Start playing Yo-Yo Ma's cello suits as loud as you can without the neighbors (philistines) calling the police. Sit/lay down and just try listen. Don't think about whatever problems are otherwise getting you down, don't think about today or yesterday or tomorow and don't even try and think about the music (if, like me, you don't have any formal musical training this will be easier), but just listen.
posted by oxford blue at 6:47 PM on June 17, 2008

I don't have a big list, just came in to mention Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, as they move me as few things have.
posted by papafrita at 4:45 PM on June 18, 2008

One of of our forum members at Beatking. put together A Guide To Getting Classical. You can check it out HERE
posted by DudeAsInCool at 8:27 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

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