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Periodically the publishing world throws out a book put together by a critic or writer listing the “best of” or “greatest” and then lists books, recordings, movies, DVDs, TV shows or places to visit. The lists are always a great way to start off a conversation, even if they are always flawed, biased and at best partial.

So it is with Tom Moon’s book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (Workman, $19.95).bookpix

I can’t comment on most of his selections, although it would be hard to quarrel with the idea that you should be familiar with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew  or Jimi Hendrix’s  Are You Experienced.  To say nothing of Duke Ellington’s  Blanton-Webster Band  or Ray Charles’  Modern Sounds in Country and Western.

These are all recordings that anyone with a musical curiosity should know, and probably love. And Moon has a thousand of ’em.

But Moon chooses to include classical music in his selections, too, and there he really seems to miss the boat. It is clear that he is a part-timer when it comes to Bach, Bartok  and Boccherini.

It isn’t that the music he chooses is wrong: You can’t really argue that anyone who loves music should have listened to Beethoven’s symphonies or Bach’s keyboard music. But while his popular and jazz albums recognize truly great performances, his choices for the classical selections are      invariably bland and middle-of-the-road. Safe. Boring, even.

The title of the books is “recordings to hear before you die,” and should be recordings that you grab someone by the lapels over and say, with scary enthusiasm in your eyes, “You gotta hear this!”

That won’t always be the best performance, in classical music, but rather the most grabbing, the one that says something new or different, that makes you rethink the music, or just sit up and take notice.

And the classical catalog is full of such recordings: Not just for classical music snobs, but for anyone who cares deeply about music in general, whether their favorite is Led Zeppelin  or Public Enemy.  These are performances that have appeal outside their narrow intended audiences.

So here are 25 classical recordings you have to hear before you die.

 

gould1. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould, piano  – The 1955 performance by the strange Canadian pianist turned classical music world on its head, with playing faster and slower than anyone else, and with an extraterrestrial energy and clarity that has never been matched, even by Gould’s second recording, from 1981.

 

2. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique,” New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.  – The hyper-emotional Pathetique normally takes 45 minutes to play. Bernstein’s later recording (on DG) takes an hour and wrings from the music the deepest tragedy, perfect accompaniment for a suicide.

 

3. Mozart, Piano Sonatas, Mikhail Pletnev, pianist – Wolfgang’s piano sonatas are normally thought of as his “B” material; not under the hands of crazy Russian genius Mikhail Pletnev. He plays them like his life depends on them – the greatest recording of these works ever.

 

celi4. Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, Munich Philharmonic, Sergiu Celibidache, cond. –  Playing something slowly doesn’t always add weight, but here Bruckner’s most accessible symphony is played with the slow, careful intensity you might expect from someone defusing a bomb.

 

5. Mahler, Symphony No. 4, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg, cond. – Mahler was always over the top, even though many modern conductors rein him in. Mengelberg knew Mahler, heard him conduct, and gives us echt-Mahler, full of its requisite retardandos and portamentos. This is how Mahler is supposed to be played.

 

6. Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Philharmonia Orchestra and soloists, Wilhelm Furtwangler, cond.  – Don’t be afraid of Wagner. If you like Lord of the Rings,  Wagner is just the same thing with tunes. With Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus,  this is the Tristan for the ages.

 

casals7. Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, cond.  – Politically incorrect performances of Bach’s essential concertos, meaty, expressive, lush, vibrant – and a slap in the face to those who believe there is only one right way to perform Bach.

 

8. Bach, Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, Pablo Casals, cello  – Casals singlehandedly resurrected these profound works, where Bach made the single instrument as rich and varied as a full orchestra. He plays them as if he were alone in the universe. Only Casals could do that.

 

9. Beethoven, Diabelli Variations, Uri Caine, piano, with Concerto Koln  – Postmodern Beethoven, with the 33 variations Beethoven wrote turned into marches, show tunes and fireworks. Not for the faint of heart, but explains to a new generation why Beethoven is worth knowing about.

 

10. Schulz-Evler, Arabesques on Johann Strauss II’s “Blue Danube Waltz,” Josef Lhevinne, piano  – The great show-off piece played as no one else has ever managed: You swear on your grandmother’s babushka that there are at least two pianists working up a sweat, maybe three. This is what a virtuoso is.

 

shostie11. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7, Chicago Symphony, Leonard Bernstein, cond.  – Lenny finds the core of this long, often-derided masterpiece, that can turn into shlock in lesser hands. This is one of the most glorious orchestral recordings ever made, blazing with brass and passion.

 

12. Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Concentus Musicus Wien, Alice Harnoncourt, violin, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond.  – Unconventional approach to familiar music turns these little concertos into tone pictures: Vivaldi meant them to create sound images, and here, you hear the dogs barking and the rain falling.

 

13. Barber, Adagio for Strings, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.  – There are people who cannot listen to Samuel Barber’s mournful, tragic piece without breaking into uncontrollable sobs, and Bernstein seemed to feel a special connection to the music, which he plays for all he is worth.

 

kissin14. Chopin, Piano Concertos, Evgeny Kissin, piano, Moscow Philharmonic, Dmitri Katayenko, cond.  – Wunderkind Kissin was only 12  when he recorded these, but it would be hard to find anyone who has better captured the verve and spirit of these Chopin concertos. This is magic.

 

15. Chopin, Nocturnes, Maurizio Pollini, piano  – Pollini finds more pith and mettle in these nocturnes, usually played to bring out their dreaminess. For Pollini, one of the superstars of the piano, they have more shadow and threat, things lurking behind corners, and military bands playing in the distance.

 

gabrieli16. Gabrielli, The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli, various performers  – The assembled brass sections of the Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras play the glorious music of the Gabrielis the way it must sound in Heaven. This is virtuoso brass playing from a legendary album. You gotta hear this!

 

17. Brahms, piano music, selections, Glenn Gould, piano  – Thought he could only play Bach? Gould was at heart a romantic, and his Brahms is subtler, more nuanced, more beautiful than anyone else’s. This playing comes as a complete surprise, and utter joy.

 

rachmaninoff18. Rachmaninoff, A Window in Time, piano music, selections, Serge Rachmaninoff, piano  – The dour Russian was one of the greatest pianists of the century, but his electric recordings are dulled by scratches and boom. These are digitally enhanced Duo-Art  piano rolls, played on a Yamaha Synclavier,  that brings back the luster to his piano.

 

19. Chopin, Sonata No.2 “Funeral March,” Serge Rachmaninoff, piano  – Or you could try the thing itself, un-reconstructed. Rachmaninoff’s take on the familiar sonata is so fresh, powerful and driven, you’ll be shocked to hear it again as if it were for the first time.

 

valentina20. Liszt, Virtuosa Valentina, piano selections, Valentina Lesitsa, piano – Franz Liszt  was a showman, who brought to piano the same sense of spectacle that Spielberg brings to the seashore; Valentina Lesitsa plays them that way, all out, thunder and cannon-shot, fireworks and passion.

 

21. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev, cond.  – Pletnev plays the Eroica like it means something, and replaces tunes and rhythms with the kind of persuasive rhetoric that starts nations marching.

 

22. Wagner, Liebestod, Vladimir Horowitz, piano  – Real virtuosity isn’t just lots of notes real fast, but rather total control of the piano and expression. In Horowitz’s final CD, The Last Recording,  made when the was 86,  the ol’ magician wrings thunder and tears out of the death of Isolde. It becomes our death, too.

 

tureck23. Bach, The Great Solo Works, Rosalyn Tureck, piano  – Too often we think of Bach as mathematical, but he was really a crazy Baroque composer, layering hysterical detail on detail. Tureck plays him that way with the Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother,  and the Italian Variations,  with notes sweeping in like a tidal surge.

 

24. Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, piano and cond.  – Bernstein plays Gershwin’s familiar symphonic jazz almost as if it were Brahms, big, romantic, serious. This is not everyone’s cup of Gershwin, but you simply have to hear it.

 

25. Grieg, Peer Gynt Suite, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Beecham, cond.  – Peer Gynt? Seriously? Hall of the Mountain KingAnitra’s Dance? Beecham plays the music with such suave joy, and with not a single mote of condescension, and revivifies the old chestnut. You’ll tap your toes and sing in the shower.

celibidache conducting

Sergiu Celibidache has become a cult conductor. Perhaps it is because he had a reputation for playing music slower than anyone else. Perhaps it was because he despised recording and refused to authorize CD releases even of his live performances. Perhaps it was because he required of his orchestra unending rehearsals before performance.

The Romanian-born maestro died at the age of 84 in 1996, having left behind a very few studio recordings but a trove of taped concerts, never meant for public release. Eventually, many were released on the Deutsche Grammophon and EMI labels. Those who have heard them either love them distractedly or despise them profoundly. Few are left indifferent.

It took me a while to jump on the Celibidache bandwagon.

I first made his acquaintance with an EMI recording of the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, which he took at the speed of rush-hour traffic. It is a lugubrious affair. Admittedly, he found a great deal of sonorous sheen in the music but little of the fire that we go to Beethoven for.

Celibidache’s stated aims were to make his orchestra sound “beautiful” playing the music, which, as far as Beethoven goes, is fairly irrelevant.

Celi, as he was called, originally replaced Wilhelm Furtwangler as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic after World War II (and a short reign by the unfortunate Leo Borchard), when Furtwangler was under suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. Celi lasted until 1952, when Furtwangler, cleared of the charges, took back the baton.

Celibidache was influenced not only by the conductors he trained with, but by a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism, which reinforced his conviction that music exists only in the moment of its creation, and that recordings cannot capture the electricity of live performance. This was not just a question of technology, but of spirituality. Live music, for Celi, had a spiritual significance, making recordings something close to blasphemy.

It’s hard for me to know if this is true or not. I never heard Celibidache live. I have only the recordings, and most of them are frustrating at best. His tendency to play slowly, and his insistence on the surface sheen of the music, achieved through endless rehearsals, means his performances often lack much in the way of forward drive, and for most of them, any sense that the music might have any deeper meaning than its erotic surface. His Beethoven, in particular, feels neutered.

Yet, it turns out, Celibidache has the measure of at least one composer: Anton Bruckner. And has that measure as no other conductor has. Like Bernstein and Mahler, Celibidache and Bruckner seem to be soulmates. celibidache bruckner 4 cd

Because so many reviewers were raving about Celi’s Bruckner, I bought his EMI Bruckner Fourth on spec. It is a nearly 80-minute Fourth, longer by nearly 20 minutes than even that of Otto Klemperer, a notoriously slow conductor. It absolutely knocked me catawampus.

Bruckner is a composer one comes to late in life. A young man simply will not have the patience for it. The “tunes” are not particularly memorable, and the structure of the symphonies will seem, at a young age, desultory and aimless.

But the problem is that we expect from youth that our music will “go” somewhere, give us some good tunes in the meantime, and surprise us with interesting turns. That pretty well sums up Beethoven.

But Bruckner doesn’t do that, and many poor performances of Bruckner try to make him do that. Instead, Celibidache — and a handful of other great Bruckner conductors — recognizes Bruckner is not a journey, but a place: You enter into his sound world as you enter into a deep forest or a Gothic cathedral and you experience that world in all its corners and cavities.

It is possible to play music very slowly and merely make it dull. Lots of conductors do it in the post-Bernstein era. But it is also possible to do it and keep every musician in the orchestra on the edge of his seat, concentrating fully on every single note as if he were defusing a bomb. This is what Celibidache does with Bruckner. You come away from a performance drained completely. It is an expedition through a sound-universe and you are carrying your own staff and pack.

Such music, played in such a performance, is nearly a religious experience.

You are given a vision of the Burning Bush, the infinite “I am.”

I thought we had long ago left a world that could take a Bruckner without irony. It is that irony that gives Mahler his 20th-century cachet.

But Bruckner gives us a metaphor for the unmediated experience — direct apprehension of the divine. I recognize the irony in my own phrase — and it is the rare musician who can approach the music that way. Just as it is hard to be a true religious believer in an age of irony, so is it difficult to play Bruckner convincingly.

If you have not yet had the pleasure, I recommend to you Celibidache’s EMI Bruckner Fourth. I also recommend his DG Bruckner Eighth, packaged with the Schubert Fifth. It is odd to hear a Schubert B-flat where the slow movement is as long as the other three movements together, but it gives new depth to what has always been a Haydn-ish, breezy symphony. I’m not sure it is appropriate for Schubert, but it is interesting to hear.

As far as the Bruckner Eighth, this is one of the great performances of one of Bruckner’s greatest symphonies — an immense world that seems to extend aurally to the infinite.

I’m probably gushing too much like a schoolgirl, but classical music is supposed to give you a genuine experience, something more than the ordinary, something you will remember for your whole life as a turning point. The Celibidache Bruckner is one of those. Rare, exquisite, raw, profound, strong, lung-shuddering, eye-sobbing. You will feel those Wagner tubas in your sternum, vibrating.