Classical Music

Lately, I’ve been feeling the need to expand my music collection to include classical music, but I don’t really know where to start since I am hardly an aficianado when it comes to this genre. I generally know which composers I really like (Debussy, Chopin, Mozart). The problem is choosing from among the zillions of different performances of [insert your favorite composer here]. I really don’t know quality when it comes to buying classical.

So, I am selfishly asking a little help from anyone here who knows his or her way around classical music recordings. Do I buy based on the performer rather than the composer – for example, if I like Bach, how much difference does getting a Bach CD with Glenn Gould make? I’m sure there’s tons of Bach recordings out there – how do I tell what’s quality without having to do a ton of research? Or do I have to do a ton of research?

I guess the another factor with classical music recordings may be the production value of the recording. I dunno. Please help me out! I am especially interested in Debussy and Chopin simply because my piano teacher made me play a lot of that on the piano growing up. Thanks!


8 thoughts on “Classical Music

  1. Dallin,

    I listened to a great deal of classical music when I was a kid. (I know, weird; my interests in pop and rock and everything else came later.) There are some fine, broad collections out there which are helpful to a beginner: Sony Classical, a successor to the CBS Masterworks which I grew up on, has an Essential Classics series which is very good.

    I would discourage you from getting to particular about recordings at first. I mean, read reviews; if a particular recording is notoriously bad, the word will get around. But I think’s it’s important to familiarize yourself with the basic pieces and styles first. You obviously like a lot of clean, formalistic, classical and romantic piano pieces. You can’t go wrong with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s (with Eugene Ormandy as conductor) recordings of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and “Reverie,” featuring the work of Philippe Entremont on the piano. They also produced very good recordings of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz in D-Flat Major,” “Fantaisie-Impromptu,” “Polonaise,” and “Nocturne in E-Flat Major.” As for Mozart, actually I have to say that I think the Amadeus soundtrack is a great introduction. You may also want to check out some Liszt (like his concertos for piano and orchestra), Haydn (his sonatas for piano), and Schubert (his piano trios).

    Most classical music resists truly idiosyncratic interpretations; it’s so singular a creation as pop. Still, when you do run across a real character–like Gould–it’ll definitely influence your appreciation of the piece as a whole. That’s not a warning to stay away from such–I own both the Pablo Casals and the Yo-yo Ma interpretations of Bach’s cello suites, for example–but it’s something to keep in mind.

    Finally, don’t feel like a lack of familiarity with the canon means you shouldn’t dabble in experimental stuff. Without them, classical music would be dead. The Brodsky Quartet recorded an excellent album with Elvis Costello back in the 90s that’s worth checking out. And folk star Edgar Meyer has recorded Bach’s cello suites on a big old double bass. So keep your eye out for that sort of stuff as well.

  2. When I decided to improve my classical knowledge and collection, I bought something like this. It’s a UK CD that you can’t get over here unfortunately, (although Amazon UK will ship it for a price!)but as a compilation (voted by radio listeners) it was a good intro, to classical stuff I wasn’t familiar with.

    As for specifics, I don’t really listen to Debussy or Chopin, but I do think there is a difference between recordings. Choose a performer/orchestra you’re familiar with or who has been recommended. For example, if I was buying cello oriented stuff, I would choose something with either Julian Lloyd Webber or Yo Yo Ma as the cellist.

    If you want to expand your listening to other composers, I’m a big fan of Sir Edward Elgar (Especially Enigma Variations: Op 36 Nimrod) and Ralph Vaughn William (especailly his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending).

  3. I’ll second the “Amadeus” soundtrack as a stellar introduction to Mozart- a carefully and wonderfully selected compilation that will give you a good jumping-off point. From that end, I have found anything with “The Academy of Saint Martin’s in the Field” is a good standard for a quality performance.

  4. My CD collection is about 95% classical and 5% jazz. Heavy on medieval and renaissance, twentieth-century, art songs, chamber music, and solo keyboard; light on opera, orchestral, and non-keyboard solo instrumental. Also very light on “greatest hits” compilations.

    I’m not an audiophile, and don’t pay much attention to the production values of a recording. In any case, some of my favorites are old historical recordings that no amount of re-engineering will restore to the pristine sound of performances recorded with the most recent high-end equipment, some of which (not for that reason), can be quite boring.

    It is recording itself that has gradually homogenized performances over the twentieth-century. With piano, for instance, at the beginning of the last century you had different national schools such that the playing of an Anton Rubinstein in Russia was radically different from say, Artur Schnabel, who was in turn, in a different world from Alfred Cortot. There is a great 100-CD series by Philips, Great Pianists of the 20th century, which collects many performances by these and other greats. With the ending of the cold war, even the distinct Russian school has been somewhat diluted. At today’s international piano comptetitions, aside from a few eccentrics, most people play similarly.

    All that to say that selecting a “best” performance will be based primarily on your personal taste which has to be developed by hearing a lot of recordings. In my teens, I frequented the public library for this purpose, and I still do. I recommend this to anyone without an unlimited budget, who wants to gain familiarity with a wide variety of recordings. Of course, these days, you can also sample excerpts of most recordings on the internet.

    My personal taste tells me, for example, that Murray Perahia’s traversal of the Mozart piano concertos is the version to have, I have to grudgingly admit that a reasonable person could prefer Alfred Brendel. They’re not that different in the end. Also, cost is no indicator of value. Naxos records budget priced CDs principally with lesser known Easten Europeans, often with great performances.

    I may add a comment later with some of my favorite CDs, or some recent discoveries, but first let me chime in on your specific questions: Chopin and Debussy.

    Here I have to disagree with Russell — I would not go for orchestral versions of solo piano works. For Debussy, I would look for recordings by Walter Gieseking, probably mostly in the historical section these days.

    For Chopin, I still can’t get past my affection for the first great Chopin interpretations I grew up with, those of Artur Rubinstein. He never recorded the Etudes, however. For the etudes, my favorite recording has long been Maurizio Pollini, although, you definitely want to hear Alfred Cortot, who plays a lot of wrong notes, but is still more interesting than most performers. Some say that the new standard for the Etudes is the recent recording by Murray Perahia.

  5. Thanks for the suggestions. I suppose that for Debussy, Bill, that is probably what I am looking for. Of primary interest to me is to hear how someone who actually knows what he is doing interpret my favorites since I am, at best, a novice piano player.

    Also, I’d like to keep it simple and work from there.

    I hadn’t thought of Amadeus, but I guess now I’ll check it out. It’s time to rent the movie again.

  6. Where should I start with Yo Yo Ma? I’ll take Russell’s suggestion of the Bach cello suites. What about his work with the Silk Road Ensemble?

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