Where I sit at my desk, typing this piece, I am surrounded by shelves filled with CDs. There are thousands of them. Eleven complete Mahler cycles (and I just ordered another). I don’t know how many boxes of Beethoven symphonies I have. I have literally lost count. Some are filed with Beethoven, some under the name of the conductor, some in my historical bin. Too much. Too much.
Henry David Thoreau famously advised “Simplify. Simplify.” And so, I’ve been cogitating, Marie Kondo style, how to reduce this agglomeration into a fine sauce, into the absolute essentials.
And so, I decided I would pick a single composition and recording from each of the major composers and stack them up in a neat, tiny pile, figuring they would do me for the remaining years of my declining life.
I realized, too, that I had to limit my list. There are simply too many composers out there. Do I really need Hans Pfitzner? Can I do without Louis Spohr, Max Reger, David Diamond? Surely, there is a short list of the pillars of Western art music. If not, I would make one.
If you don’t find Palestrina on this list, or Josquin de Prez, it is not because I don’t value their work. I don’t even include Antonio Vivaldi, although I love his music and probably should include at least the Four Seasons. But I have chosen to start with Bach. He really is the fountainhead of the 250-year project we now call “classical music.” At least, those composers who followed him considered him so.
Each of these winnowed-down composers can enter only a single work on my list, and I have chosen for each of these, a single performance to put in my “keepers” pile.
Here are my suggestions, in roughly chronological order.
Johann Sebastian Bach — Since I want as much of him as possible on my pile, I will add the St. Matthew Passion, one of the greatest works of art ever assembled. It goes on for as much as three hours, depending on whether you’re listening to Otto Klemperer or Riccardo Chailly, who can squeeze the whole thing onto two discs.
For my pile, I’m going with Klemperer, who brings a majesty and awe that few can match. In fact, if I had to have only a single recording on my pile, it would be Klemperer’s Matthew Passion.
(If you find the passion too dour and downbeat, you can substitute the Mass in B-minor. I won’t complain. Klemp is good in that, too.)
George Frederic Handel — If I can have three discs of Bach, I can do the same with Handel. I love the 12 concertos of Op. 6. They come in two forms: currently, the historically informed performance practice, bouncy, quick, staccato versions that dominate the market; and the old-fashioned warm Mitteleuropean version. No one does that anymore.
I grew up hearing violinist Alexander Schneider in New York, and his brand of committed music making. And I have a set of his Op. 6 recordings, with a pick-up ensemble, that it horribly out of date, but glorious. Into the pile.
Domenico Scarlatti — On the shelves are all 555 sonatas, played on harpsichord by Scott Ross. But I hate the clangy, monotonous sound of the harpsichord and prefer my Scarlatti translated to piano. Most pianists now attempt to imitate the harpsichord by using no pedal and dry staccato. I want someone not afraid of using what the piano offers. My favorite used to be Vladimir Horowitz. He is still great. But I have since discovered an even richer performer in Mikhail Pletnev. This is magnificent piano playing.
Joseph Haydn — Papa is hard to narrow down for me. He is one of my absolute dearest composers. But how do you choose a symphony over a quartet? Or a single symphony or quartet over all the others. Haydn’s work is so consistently excellent, it makes it hard to pick one as more essential than another. But there is The Creation. It is unlike anything else, and has the greatest sonic description of chaos ever devised. In his lifetime, The Creation was recognized as his crowning achievement.
I have something like half a dozen recordings of it, including two by Leonard Bernstein, who had a magic sympathy with Haydn always. I will choose his second recording, with Deutsche Grammophon although I think the earlier with the New York Philharmonic is just as good.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — The problem with Wolfie is similar to that with Haydn: consistency. But Mozart is best in opera. I would have chosen The Marriage of Figaro — his most nearly perfect work and the world’s most perfect opera — but instead I pick Don Giovanni, which, although it sags a bit in the second act, has more emotional power and heft.
There are many great performances, and lots by the newer, faster, punchier conductors who follow historically informed performance practice (pardon me while I spit at their feet). And my choice is the recording with Cesare Siepi as the Don, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. What a supporting cast!
Ludwig von Beethoven — I hate to be caught out as predictable, but after considering one of the late quartets, or the Hammerklavier sonata, I realized that there is only one possible choice. I am sorry for it, but I have to pick the Ninth. If I had been really snobbish, I would have suggested the Missa Solemnis, but I don’t know anyone who really enjoys that music. Respects it, yes. Reveres it, even. But enjoys? No. But the Ninth. It was the sign over the door to the Nineteenth Century. Enter who dare. It cast a shade over the next hundred years. You wrote in emulation or reaction against.
I’ve got to fess up to liking the first and third movements more than the second and fourth. The scherzo seems a little thin melodically speaking, and I always have to get through the first half of the finale before hitting the solid core of gold, which starts with the fugue after the Hogan’s Heroes’ march. The Adagio, though, is as sublime as music gets, and when it is done right, the first movement is a vision from Dante: If the conductor lets the tympani roar properly, the recapitulation can rouse the fight-or-flight in you. Too many conductors smooth that bit out, letting the kettle drums murmur underneath the themes. In 1942, Furtwangler unleashed his tympani in a recording that is both the greatest performance and one of the sloppiest and poorly recorded in history. You have to put up with a lot in that historical document (including knowing that Hitler was in the audience), but it is the version I put on my pile.
Franz Schubert — The riches are there: the Unfinished Symphony, the Trout Quintet, the B-flat Sonata, the Death and the Maiden quartet. Heck, the F-minor Fantasie for Two Pianos, the two piano trios, to say nothing of the songs, especially Winterreisse. But the most moving of all, deeply emotional and profound is the String Quintet in C, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music ever — even topping Beethoven’s late quartets. That’s saying something.
Lots of great performances, but my favorite and the one on my pile is by musicians from the Marlboro Festival. Some find it a bit over the top; I find the top cannot be gone over in this music. The disc also gives us The Shepherd on the Rock, sung by Benita Valente and so we have one of the songs, also.
Robert Schumann — Bobbie doesn’t get a lot of props these days, and he can get repetitious. And as he aged, he became outright boring. But in his hot youth, he wrote a lot of the world’s most memorable tunes. For me, what goes on the pile is Carnaval, a series of sort-of variations, a necklace of character pieces for piano.
There are two essential recordings of it: Artur Rubinstein and Sergei Rachmaninoff. When push comes to shove, I’m taking Rach with me.
Felix Mendelssohn — My absolute favorite Mendelssohn is his Hebrides Overture, but it is too short for my pile, and so I pass by his symphonies and, god help us, his tedious oratorios, and pick the most elegant and refined of all the great violin concertos.
I am in luck, though, because Pinchas Zukerman plays the bejeezus out of the concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phil and pairs it with the Hebrides and as a bonus, a rousing performance of the “Italian” Symphony. That’s hard to beat.
Hector Berlioz — This will probably be a controversial choice. How can you not choose the Symphonie Fantastique? It is his signature piece, and under the baton of Charles Munch, it can’t be beat. But my heart belongs to the Requiem. I love it without regard for its faults. It is ingenious, tuneful, and loud. (My college roommate’s brother used to love what he called “the loud classics,” by which he meant things like the 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Fifth, but you can’t get much louder than the Dies Irae in the Berlioz “Wreck.”
And there is one recording above all: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Too many other conductors (I’m looking at you, Colin Davis) attempt to make sense of this irrational music, to tame it and have it make sense. But Ormandy lets it all hang out, and his tenor, Cesare Valletti, is just cheesy enough.
Frederic Chopin — This is a toughie. Chopin wrote mainly short pieces, and so picking just one would be giving him short shrift. I don’t particularly like his piano concertos, and his sonatas are fine, but what he really calls for is a program of mazurkas, scherzos, ballades, waltzes and the bunch.
There are two contenders, almost opposite poles apart, interpretively, but they are the best at getting the spirit of Chopin. Most modern pianists are too dry and all seem to hate the pedal. The older Chopin tradition is closer to what the composer wanted. One could choose the 10-CD box of Artur Rubinstein Plays Chopin, which is a delight. But it is made of his later, stereo recordings, and his older mono ones were more idiosyncratic. Still, it is a great box. But on my pile goes Vladimir Horowitz: The Chopin Collection, with seven CDs. Volodya has all the snap and jump that sit in the music waiting to spring out. It’s a close call. The Rubinstein is more complete, but Horowitz is the only pianist who has ever taken the measure properly of the Polonaise-Fantasie, and so, I’m going with Horowitz.
Franz Liszt — Like Chopin, Liszt is best in the shorter to medium size pieces. I’d want a compilation.
The best Liszt pianist going is Valentina Lesitsa, who understands that Liszt without the theatrics is not really Liszt. Those pianists who try to extract the “music” from the glitz only destroy the essence. The problem is that Lisitsa has not released a really good single Liszt disc; the best is spread out on several. No one does the second Hungarian Rhapsody with as much schmaltz as she does. She is great. But, I have to choose, and so, I’m going with a great 2-disc compilation on DG called Liszt: Wild and Crazy, with the works spread out among more than a dozen great pianists.
Richard Wagner — Oy, Wagner. This is a kind of classical music Everest, not just because the music is great, but because it takes a mountain-climber’s stamina. To a true Wagnerite, the music is transcendental, mythic, epic. To the not-so-convinced, it can seem bombastic, never-ending, and pretentious. I’m with the first group. I’ve attended two full Ring Cycles live, and own six cycles on disc. So sue me.
But I’m not going to take all that with me, and so, Kondo-style, I will divest and choose a single disc. Each of Wagner’s operas contain longueurs, segments of what can seem like filler, as the story is rehashed once again. But the first act of Walküre is a perfectly enclosed whole, musically. Arturo Toscanini recorded Act 1, scene 3 with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior that is, for me, the perfect Wagner recording. The disc also includes the Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
Anton Bruckner — Sometimes, it is hard to tell one Bruckner symphony from another. He had one tone, one message, one purpose in all his music. Symphonies Four and Seven are the easiest to love; Eight is the longest and most sublime; the unfinished Nine is profound. But if I choose just one, it will be Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. It has that fugal finale, and a first-movement ear-worm that you will carry with you for life.
And my recording of choice is with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. No one gets Bruckner quite like the quirky Kna. The disc also gives us Wagner’s Dawn and Rhine Journey, and so we get to cheat a little on our Wagner.
Johannes Brahms — OK, this is painful. Old beard-face is very close to my heart. I’m going to want to add to my pile the DG box of “Complete Works,” but that would be cheating. Brahms is the greatest composer of chamber music since Beethoven and Schubert, and no one has equalled him since. His symphonies and concertos are top tier. But the music that moves me the most, that I could not live without, for it provides me with the deepest consolation is his German Requiem. “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.” It is the most human, compassionate, loving music I have ever heard. I weep just remembering it.
The greatest performance ever recorded, by general acclamation, is that of Otto Klemperer, with the Philharmonia and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Ralph Downes. I’m putting on top of my pile, so I can reach for it first.
Giuseppe Verdi — I’m afraid am giving opera the short stick in this selection. I shouldn’t. And Joe Green is going to take a beating here. Because, although I would love to add Otello or La Traviata to my pile, I’m going to choose instead his Requiem. It is operatic, after all.
Into the pile goes my Barenboim version, with the La Scala orchestra and chorus and Anja Hareros, Elīna Garanča, Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape. It is stunning.
Antonin Dvorák — After Haydn, no composer has been more mentally and emotionally sound and hale than Dvorak. And that has translated, as with Haydn, into a remarkable consistency of quality across genres. You pretty much can’t go wrong with him. I’m going to go against the grain, here, though, and not choose the cello concerto or the New World Symphony, but an old Columbia box of the two piano quartets, the piano quintet and the lovely bagatelles for two violins and harmonium with the Juilliard Quartet and pianist Rudolf Firkusny. This recording is a delight.
Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky — When I was younger, there was a prejudice against Tchaikovsky. My generation preferred irony and detachment. Tchike was all heart-on-sleeve. And besides, he wasn’t German, which meant he didn’t build his symphonies out of tiny germs of thematic material, like Brahms. We were too sophisticated for Tchaikovsky. We were, of course, stupid. Tchaikovsky was a great composer, a brilliant orchestrator, and put more of himself into his best music than almost anyone. For my pile, I’m going to pick his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique.” Everything about it is brilliant, emotionally deep and how can you not love the five-beat “waltz?”
The performance I choose is Bernstein’s from 1987, with the New York Philharmonic, on DG. It is nearly an hour long (most performances run 40-45 minutes), and with anyone else, that slowness would dissipate all the forward motion of the music, but Lenny manages, even at the crawl, to keep the drive going, and the emotion he wrings from the performance is sui generis. Not to everyone’s taste, but it makes the music an experience, not just a pleasant listen.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov — I can’t live without Scheherazade. It is Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest bit of tune-making and orchestrating. It is lush and washes over your ears like gentle surf.
There are some great performances, including Beecham and Stokowski (I have both), but the one I’m gonna keep is Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, not only because it is a delicious recording, but it also includes the most joyous Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture, making it a Rimsky trifecta.
This takes us up to the end of the 19th Century. In the next piece, I’ll clean out my 20th and 21st century clutter.