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Which Classical Music Recordings Do You Listen to The Most?

Where to begin with a serious appreciation of Bach, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, and other master composers?

PJ Lifestyle Pop Culture Debates!


May 14, 2014 - 2:00 pm


In partnership with the new fiction publishing platform Liberty Island, PJ Lifestyle is going to begin promoting and co-hosting a series of debates and discussions about popular culture. The goal is to figure out what works and what doesn’t so that in the future we can promote and create better fiction and culture of our own. These are public brainstorming sessions for writers and culture advocates interested in developing a more vibrant popular culture. You’re invited to submit your answers to any of these questions — or a related one of your own! — that interests you:

A) in the comments

B) Via email to PJ Lifestyle editor Dave Swindle.

C) at your blog, then let us know in the comments or via email. 

The most interesting answers may be linked, crossposted, or published at PJ Lifestyle. Also check out Monday’s question “How Did Your Music Tastes Change As You Grew Older?,” yesterday’s provocation  ”What Are the Most Overrated Beatles Songs?,” and last week’s writing prompts: 5 Geek Questions To Provoke Debates About the Future of Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

David P. Goldman: Why Does Classical Music Make You Smarter?

What pop culture questions do you want to debate and discuss? Leave your suggestions for upcoming Pop Culture debates also.

Roger Kimball: Not Only My Favorite Interpreter of Bach, But Also My Favorite Pianist


image via shutterstock /  Artem Furman

Updated May 16, 2014: A thoughtful response from Don Sucher who previously had some great things to say about pop music here:

One of the wonders of classical music is how far beyond the written score it can move while still staying entirely true to it.  This is so, not just in the many “styles” of interpreting that score — things that commonly change with time, culture and place — but even in the performances of individual interpreters as they go through life’s experiences.

Probably nowhere can such a change be heard as clearly as when listening to Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Indeed it was his 1955 recording of this then still fairly obscure set of variations that first brought Gould to the world’s attention. And it was with this same series of related pieces, done in a style that at times appears to be a complete repudiation of those early, famed, recordings, that Gould ended his recording career in 1981.

Sony’s remastered 3 CD release of both sets in 2002 (A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981) gives a listener the opportunity to hear this musical change and growth for themselves, and to hear how youthful vigour can lead to one ‘take’ on the music while years of thoughtful meditation — the living of life — can eventually lead to quite another.

In Gould’s case, at least for this listener, the question “which interpretation is better?” can lead to a different answer from one day to the next. But so engrossing is this music in both performances, that simply asking the question (and using that as an excuse for one more careful listening to each!) is reward enough for asking it even if no definitive answer is found.

Large symphonic pieces, too, are open to such changes of interpretation.

This listener has spent endless hours over the better part of his lifetime trying to make the same judgment regarding just two of the many, many available recordings of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the Eroica. And as was the case with the Gould Bach recordings these two favorites are early and later recordings by a single great artist — the Austrian conductor Karl Böhm.

His now hard to find 1962 recording of the Eroica — probably my favorite of all time — with the Berlin Philharmonic, is measured but exuberant. To call it “youthful” would be an exaggeration. (Böhm was 68 years old when it was recorded!), but vigorous it certainly is. Yet when one compares that performance with the more commonly available one he recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic just 10 years later (available on Deutsche Grammophon) it is a revelation. Here vigour, while by no means absent, is modified and restrained by a sense of thoughtfulness and deliberation.  -Changes not uncommon in an artist as he or she ages and grows.

I suppose that to the uninitiated the thought of listening to, much less owning, several recorded versions of any one particular piece of classical music may sound odd. But few would feel the same way about someone having numerous portraits of a single person they love, realizing that each can, and often does, reveal a unique aspect of that loved one’s character – aspects possible hidden in the rest.

Such is the power of love. And such, too, is the power of great art.

PJ Lifestyle Pop Culture Debates Features a new prompt each weekday to weigh the good, the bad, the overrated, the unbelievable, and the amazing throughout the worlds of books, film, and TV. We can't figure out how to build a greater pop culture until we dissect the mess we already have. Want to contribute your perspective to the debate? Email PJ Lifestyle editor Dave Swindle with your take: DaveSwindlePJM [@] Image via shutterstock/ DarkGeometryStudios

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All Comments   (24)
All Comments   (24)
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Some more...

The debut recital of Martha Argerich and her performance with Chailly of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3.

The Violin Quartet no. 13 and the Grosse Fugue of Beethoven performed by the Lindsay Quartet.

A young Perlman with Leinsdorf and the BSO performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto

Eleanor Steber performing Le nuits d'ete by Berlioz with Mitropoulous and the Columbia Symphony Orch.

Te Kanawa performing Strauss' Four Last Songs.

Fischer-Dieskau and Demus performing Schumann's Dichterliebe. Fischer-Dieskau and Moore performing Schubert's Winterreise.

Mintz and Bronfman performing the Franck Sonata for Piano and Violin.

Clara Haskil performing the Schubert Piano Sonata in B flat D. 960

Richter's '58 recital in Sofia including Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

Munchinger and the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester performing Bach's The Art of Fugue.

Milstein performing the Chaconne from the Partita no. 2 in d minor by Bach, and then Segovia performing the same.

Le Sacre performed by the Columbia Symphony under Stravinsky's direction.

Rattle, Auger, Baker and the CBSO performing Mahler's 2nd Symphony.

To echo Spengler's (Mr. Goldman's) point below, none of the recordings mentioned will do these performances full justice, except to spark the immagination. All suggest how good a live performance might have been. In that spirit, listen to any passable recording of the Verdi Requiem, then go hear a performance by a good professional orchestra and chorus. You will hear the work anew. And if the live performance fails to move you, you have no heart.

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41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't listen to a great deal of music of any description these days; it tends to distract me from my work, whether that's engineering or writing fiction. However, I do have some lifelong classical and neoclassical favorites, and I still listen to them now and then with great pleasure:
-- Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations
-- Rudolf Serkin / The New York Philharmonic's recording of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto
-- Yevgeny Kissin / The Moscow Philharmonic's recording of Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto
-- Rafael Wallfisch / The Scottish National Orchestra's recording of Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante
-- Stravinski's Le Sacre du Printemps as performed by the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein conducting
-- Stravinski's Firebird as performed by the New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez conducting
-- Mahler's 2nd ("Resurrection") and 8th ("Symphony of a Thousand") Symphonies, Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
-- The complete Handel's Messiah as performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with an astonishing performance by Kiri Te Kanawa as soprano soloist
-- Earl Wild, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue / An American in Paris
-- Aaron Copland's Appalchian Spring, by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by...Aaron Copland!

There are others.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mahler's 2nd is wonderful. I've always wanted to like the 8th, but just can't seem to make much sense out of it. I've even performed it once, about twenty years ago, with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. It has four trombone parts, and the usual contingent of trombones is three, so they hired me as an extra.

Solti/Chicago is always a good choice. I'm quite fond of Mahler 9 with Giulini/Chicago.

I know the Copland conducts Copland album very well, one of the first I ever owned.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't listen to much recorded music -- I'd rather read through scores at the piano. Music should be a live form of communication; recordings are largely for reference. It's like a recording of a standup comedian. After the first or second listening, there's no surprise and no reason to laugh. Before there were home entertainment centers (or even wind-up gramophones) there was the parlor piano.
That said, a few great documents of musicianship that is now all but lost. Most are more than seventy years old, by performers already in their seventies, reflecting musical education from the lifetime of Brahms.

The Casals recordings from Prades in the 1950s, including
a) the Schubert C major Quintet
b) De Los Angeles/Horszowski in Mozart's "Ch'io scordo di te" Casals conducting
c) Casals/Cortot Beethoven Cello Sonata No 3.

Murray Perahia, Bach Keyboard Concertos (Vol. 1)

Giulini, "Don Giovanni" (prefer the live Rome version with Ghiaurov to the EMI one with Waechter)

Josef Krips "Marriage of Figaro", London Records

Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Luzerne Festival (NOT Bayreuth) Beethoven Symphony No. 9

Budapest String Quarter/Horszowski, Mozart Eb Piano Quartet

Otto Klemperer (EMI) Bach St. Matthew Passion

Vladimir Horowitz, Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas

Casals conducting, Beethoven 7th Symphony (Marlboro Festival)

Bjorling/De Los Angeles/Beecham "La Boheme"

Milanov/Bjorling/Warren "Il Trovatore"

Elizabeth Schwartzkopf/Edwin Fischer Schubert Recital (EMI)

Axel Schotz/Gerald Moore Schubert "Die Schoene Muellerin"

Helmut Walcha, Bach Organ Music

Horszowski, Chopin -- various recordings in scattered collections

41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Horowitz playing Scarlatti is wonderful.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Ghiaurov was awesome.

I heard a nice, funny album, must've been released in the Forties or Fifties, of Gerald Moore talking about that art of accompaniment. He was very funny.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
A dying art form created by old white men, just ask anybody under 40.

If this doesn't raise the hair in the back of your neck, nothing will:

Two great ones at the top of their form.

Same couple in a "Euro-trash" production, an attempt to lure a younger audience to opera. Which may be working.

42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Some art forms are still more glorious in their death throes than others are in their heyday.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I will take Rachmanivov to all of them.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, to pick just one: MS 6974 in the 3 disk Columbia Masterworks collection of Brahms four symphonies performed by the Cleveland Orchestra and directed by George Szell.

This particular disk contains the orchestra's performance of the 2nd Symphony. Brahms at his most beguiling; particularly so given the classical elegance of Szell's interpretation and the technical mastery of his orchestra: a Romantic era work has seldom been better served.

Szell and his orchestra sometimes criticized for their seeming austerity and discipline of interpretation are as relaxed, and indeed joyous, as the music itself. And yet the ensemble manages one of the tightest performances of any orchestra I've heard. The orchestral playing absolutely sings through the apotheosis that is the final movement.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have trouble listening to classic. I had 3 sisters who played piano, quite good actually. They were schooled by nuns, practiced every day. I was sick of classical music, by sheer exposure. Chopin, Beethoven, etc etc. That's why I took to punk, maybe.

The one that got me was Blue Danube, because of 2001 A Space Odyssey.

The best Classical song I ever heard ever? Minuit Chretien sang by my old man at midnight mass one Christmas night. He knew I was there so he busted his ass to get the best performance out. He was a tenor. Sang all his life, until he was 70.

There is nobody out there who can sing it like he did.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am somehow enthralled by two composers I consider to be bookends -- opposite ends on the same shelf.

Anton Bruckner is at the brighter end of the shelf. Bruckner was a devout Christian but a homely little fellow who wanted to be married, but never managed to attract a wife. One of the great masters of harmony and counterpoint, he nevertheless came across as something of a bumpkin to the Vienna cognoscenti. It was like someone from Podunk, West Virginia went to New York and became the composition instructor at Julliard. Pick up Symphony No. 8 performed by Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and give it a listen -- you'll never be sorry. It's how a 19th century provincial Austrian music master says, praise the Lord.

The other bookend, at the dark end of the shelf, is Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet composer who labored for years in the shadow of Josef Stalin, and kept working through the terrors of the Stalin Purges and the horrors of the German invasion, even working as a volunteer fireman during the siege of Leningrad. Obviously not a Christian, the music ranges from sad to despairing. There are fifteen symphonies to choose from, though uneven in quality and broad-ranging in style. The Fifth Symphony is easily his most famous, and one of the best live concerts I've ever heard was in Norfolk, VA, ten years ago when the Israeli Philharmonic played it -- the third movement brought me to tears, and still does when I remember it. But there are other great symphonies. The Fourth Symphony is the most dissonant but also the most exciting -- the Philadelphia Orchestra has recorded it twice (Ormandy in the Sixties and a Chinese fellow in the Nineties, both are wonderful) and it's probably my favorite piece of music. But the Eighth, Tenth, and Twelfth are also great.

Also: I think Khachaturian is unjustly overlooked. His Second Symphony ("The Bell") is an amazing piece of music. Khachaturian's style is one of prolonged dissonance, and his method is to resolve dissonances to other dissonances. It's quite striking. Plus, he was quite a tune smith.

British music is my other love. Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton -- I love them all. Check out the Zinman/Baltimore Symphony recording of the "Enigma Variations". As a trombonist myself, I can tell you that Baltimore in the early Nineties (when this recording was made) had a rocking hot low brass section, one of the best I've ever heard, and Elgar is just the composer to spend those resources on.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Ah, a kindred spirit!

One of the happiest musical accidents in my life occurred about 45 years ago, when, on the recommendation of a friend, I tried to borrow the vinyl album of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony from my college library, so I could listen to it while studying. To my great surprise, the librarian said it was already checked out. Disappointed, I therefore borrowed Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony instead (i.e., the same Eugene Ormandy recording that you mentioned in your post).

It was love at first listen.

Since then, I've listened to the Fourth literally hundreds of times -- including twice in live performance -- and it's become my favorite classical piece of all time. Never have I heard such melodic dissonance (if that term makes sense), or such a wide range of emotions in a single piece. Each of its 3 movements is brilliant and emotional, but it's the symphony's finale that never fails to send chills up my spine.

I just wanted to share these thoughts, because it's so rare to run into someone else who has the same attachment to Shostakovich's Fourth that I do. So thank you for your post!
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
> Ah, a kindred spirit!

So you're the other one!

That Ormandy recording is a landmark. I think Ormandy/Philadelphia were the first ones to record this piece. Do you know the story? In 1935, Stalin had attended a performance of "The Lady MacBeth of the Mtensk District" and did not like it. An editorial appeared in Pravda, "Muddle Instead of Music", thought to have been penned by Stalin himself, that made Shostakovich fear for his life. He instantly yanked Symphony No. 4 from its rehearsals and it didn't see the light of day until the 1960s.

I'm very fond of the Philadelphia Orchestra from that timeframe. Many of the great brass players are gone now. Gil Johnson, the principal trumpet, died a few years back. Last I heard, though, Henry Charles Smith, the first trombonist, is still very much with us. Smith has always been my favorite tenor trombonist; he had perhaps the sweetest, most juicy sound ever to grace a trombone. That's him doing the trombone solo in the last movement. I studied with one of his students, so I like to imagine I picked up some of his DNA. :)

If you don't know the Tenth, give it a listen. My favorite recording of it is Mariss Janssons and Philadelphia. The Twelfth is not very well respected in musical circles, but I like it a lot -- just think of it as film music and you'll be fine. Cincinnati did a fine recording of his last symphony, the Fifteenth, and it finally clicked. The Eighth is another great one; I'm fond of Solti/Chicago but Janssons/Pittsburgh is excellent, too.

Thanks for posting, and keep listening!
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41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
>So you're the other one!

Actually, I personally know of exactly TWO other individuals who revere Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony as much as I do -- so I guess we're up to four!

Anyway, yes, I did know that story of Stalin's suppression of the Fourth Symphony in 1935 after hearing (and not liking) Shostakovich’s "Lady MacBeth of Mtensk". (Oh, by the way, did you know – and as a trombonist you probably *did* know – that some blame Stalin’s distaste for “Lady MacBeth” on his being seated in close proximity to the loud *trombone* section?) Anyway, I was so intrigued by this story that in December 1995 I drove to New York City just to see the Metropolitan Opera perform “Lady MacBeth” so I could judge for myself. And guess what? I didn’t like it either. (Well, except for the wonderful scene in which the wife feeds her husband poisonous mushrooms for dinner and he sings, “Gribi vkusniye!” [meaning, of course, “The mushrooms are delicious!”]. I did like that scene.)

I too am extremely fond of the Ormandy recording from 1961. Although I’ve listened to many other recordings of the Fourth, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s version from 1961 is by far my favorite. I’ve found that other recordings of it are two slow, poorly equalized, and/or muddily mixed, compared to the Ormandy, in which every solo stands out brilliantly. And *thank* you for that info about the trombone solo in the last movement! I agree it’s a great, “juicy” (as you say), almost vulgar solo, and one of my favorite passages in the whole piece.

Finally, thanks also for the other recommendations – you’ve given me enough research to keep me busy for weeks! I’ll definitely keep listening and keep reading your posts.
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41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade".

I first heard it done by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Lawrence Foster, conducting) while I was in the Navy. Nimitz had pulled into Portsmouth and I took the train to London and saw Opportunity.

Having heard it live, I could also use it to test loudspeakers. The sweetness of the violin solo towards the end still brings tears to my eyes.

OOPS. This wasn't a recording...screw it. It was beautiful!
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
That was the piece of music that pulled me into symphonic literature, and after more than forty years of heavy listening, it's still my favorite. I had the immense pleasure of hearing the Pittsburgh Symphony perform it in Heinz Hall last November. Wow! Their principal bassoonist, Nancy Goeres, knocked the second movement solos clean out of the ballpart.

Rimsky-Korsakov's gift was the ability to make a medium-sized orchestra sound huge. Essentiallly, it's the same orchestral scoring as Brahms' 2nd Symphony -- a great piece in its own right, but not an orchestral showpiece by any stretch. But Scheherazade makes an orchestra sound like the Second Coming.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat is the first music I can remember hearing. It's still the one that makes me happiest. (It's pretty obvious that I'm no music sophisticate.)
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
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