Buyer’s Guide: 28 Essential Classical Records
Curious about classical music but don’t even know where to begin? Join the crowd. For the uninitiated, browsing any classical catalogue can feel a bit like doing your own taxes — the only thing you are certain of as your thrash about in the dark is that you are hopelessly over your head, making mistakes you aren’t aware of all the time. It’s enough to keep even the curious at bay.
So let us guide you! Start with beloved masterworks big and small from 14 of the world’s most renowned composers. Even if you are a veteran, there are plenty or reasons to tune in here — these are some of the best interpretations available.
You can probably hum the four-note theme from Beethoven’s Fifth in your sleep. But have you ever sat down and the whole symphony sweep over you? To do so is to feel the indomitable force of Beethoven’s will. The Grosse Fuge, meanwhile, written for just four instruments, remains of the grandest, wildest works ever written. Give yourself over to classical music’s foremost thunderbolt-hurler.
Bach wrote the world’s most glorious, earth-shaking, upsetting, and redemptive church music; the St. John’s Passion, one of his two major Passions, glows with optimism and hope despite its story. His Partitas and Sonatas, meanwhile, spin the world’s creation from just a single violin.
Brahms saw himself as the heir to Beethoven, and his music carries itself with the same existential weight. Start with his Symphony No. 4, called his “Tragic” (and not without reason) and then move onto his flowing, sobbing, storming Piano Quintet.
Schubert wrote music that couldn’t help but brim over with generous melody; he was a romantic, in both the “capital-R” and “lower-case R” senses. He wrote reams of music in very little time 600 songs, nine symphonies, chamber music, operas and more, all in 31 years of life. His eighth symphony, called his “Unfinished” because it’s shorter than most symphonies, is a complex, constantly shifting work, and yet you can hum every second of it. The same goes for his Cello Quintet, which strings out a melody so inevitable and natural-seeming that you will never be able to forget it once you’ve heard it.
The “Missa in Augustiis” (which translates, roughly, to “Mass for troubled times”) has been called Joseph Haydn’s greatest single work. It begins in terror and confusion and lifts you slowly, inexorably, into hope and triumph. Haydn’s piano sonatas functions as a pleasing dash of serenity that chases the fervid drama of the Passion this is music in which every opposing pole is balanced with a smile.
The overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro is an antic, giggly chase through brightly colored halls. Try listening to its first minute and not have your mood lifted; those rapid-fire violin scales, quicksilver melodies, and sudden, shocking jolts are laughing gas for the soul. His Quartets for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello, are more restrained affairs; they glow with a serene, gaslamp-lit beauty.
Schumann’s Manfred Overture is a tragic, intense, and poetic work; taken at the right pace, its searching, expressive opening can pull your insides right out in the best way possible. Schumann’s best music was like that: potent, stormy, wild with feeling. Schumann kept everytyhing up-close-and-personal, and his String Quartet in A major is dreamy love letter, built on a sighing little figure that is meant to spell out the two-syllable name of his wife, Clara.
Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is well-named. Listening to it feels like stepping out into winter sunshine and inhaling pine-needle air; it will give you the same salubrious lift of spirit. It is also, like almost everything Strauss did, massive once you’ve scaled its mountainous heights, you will feel a palpable sense of accomplishment. His violin sonatas were a rare moment where he pared away the instrumental hordes and focused in on two single instruments in dialogue.
French composer Claude Debussy wrote sensual, flowing music that feels evocatively smeared at the edges and perfumed with exotic suggestion. “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun” is orchestral music so snaky and liquid it feels like a genuine narcotic. His String Quartet in F, his only string quartet pulses with furious energy that acts as a vigorous, bracing antidote.
Jean Sibelius, a national hero in Finland, was beloved for his ability to write emotionally direct music on a huge scale. His music, as enormous as it was, spoke intimately to small-scale unspoken yearnings. His symphonies are as finely tuned and crafted as any ever written, and you don’t need to know a single thing about putting notes down on paper to feel it they simply, mysteriously exude mastery.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto starts with one of “those” melodies the second you hear it, some part of your brain recognizes it. The piece is a virtual blockbuster-movie of violin theatrics, and performed by an excellent violinist, is one of classical music’s most reliable thrill dispensers. His Songs Without Words, which were popular items in 19th-century parlors, sparkle with easy conversational charm.
Rachmaninoff is one of classical music’s greatest Weepers. His music is brimming with feeling, so much so that he’s been accused of being maudlin, his works the Steel Magnolias of classical music. But his music moves you without making you feel cheap, and his thundering, extravagant Piano Concerto No. 2 charges right up to the border of cheese without crossing it. His immortal “Vocalise” shows just how durable a powerful melody is centuries later, we’re all still humming it.
The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak composed music that was swooning and pleasant and lovely, and he did it so well that his music escaped being relegated into the “second-rate” bin into which history sometimes unkindly discards its melody-writers. He also had a keen ear for the promise of American sounds: in 1893, he premiered his ninth symphony, called “From the New World,” and it was built on rich bedrock of Native American and African-American spirituals. His “American” string quartet mines the same wellspring, and makes the perfect companion-in-miniature.
Russianness, as we understand it from our music and books, courses hotly through Tchaikovsky’s music: it is mordant, feverish, ecstatic and pained, hurling itself towards impossible emotional extremes. His Symphony No. 6, called the “Pathetique,” is one of his most famous symphonies, and captures all of his gifts in one molten, explosive work. His sweeping piano trios are a nice counterpoint: they sound positively light-hearted by comparison.