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When piano sonatas first became popular, in the 18th century, they were primarily written for home use, for talented amateurs to play for evenings with the family. Some sonatas were obviously more difficult than others, and a few by Haydn or Mozart, required a professional level of ability, and indeed, were written for the composers themselves to show off their performing abilities. But most were written to be sold as sheet music, and that’s how their composers made their livings. 

At the time, there were no public piano recitals to attend. There were private performances given for the aristocracy. Public concerts tended to feature concertos and concert arias, with maybe a little symphony or two thrown in. But no one bought tickets to hear a piano sonata — why? when you could play them yourself at home after dinner.

Then came Beethoven. 

Piano sonatas also used to run from perhaps 10 minutes to 15 or 20 minutes. Mozart’s C-major sonata (K. 545) comes in three movements. The first runs a tad over two minutes; the second just under four minutes; and the finale about a minute and a half. The bigger sonatas, such as his Sonata in A (K. 331) with the famous Ronda a la Turca, comes in at about 14 minutes, as played by pianist Mikhail Pletnev. 

Then came Beethoven, the revolutionary pounder of the keyboard, who shocked his contemporary listeners with the power, difficulty and length of his piano sonatas. The Appassionata Sonata of 1805 is devilishly difficult and a bit over 21 minutes. 

Then there’s the Hammerklavier Sonata of 1818, which is twice as long (Barenboim’s most recent recording takes 50 minutes) and 10 times more difficult, ending with a giant double fugue that confused his first listeners. What the heck is going on? It’s the original knucklebuster. Just look at that pile of notes:

Things changed after Beethoven. The 19th century saw fewer piano sonatas, but much bigger and more difficult specimens. You could say that Beethoven seems to have presented a challenge to all those who came after him: how to live up to his example. 

And the example he gave was for a longer, more complicated sonata — a kind not to be played by prosperous daughters of the middle class after dinner, but by traveling virtuosi giving piano recitals to a paying public. Franz Liszt began the practice, but the long, knucklebusting piano sonata was established. 

There were less ambitious works written, and the standard for most of the 19th century was the character piece, not the sonata. These were short catchy pieces sometimes singly and sometimes strung together in a suite, such as Schumann’s Carnivale or Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons

This was the heyday of Chopin’s waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises, of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, of Brahms’ intermezzi and capriccios. 

And when there were sonatas, they went big. They became symphonies for the keyboard. 

I’ve chosen six of these knucklebusters as exemplars. There were more, but they haven’t joined the repertoire of regular performances. But these six as regulars of the recital hall. 

I’ve also appended a list of my favorite recordings of these sonatas. Notice, I did not say “best.” There are too many CDs out there and I haven’t listened to them all (although I have come close with the Hammerklavier — I once owned 21 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and another five sets of the late sonatas by themselves, so I’ve heard quite a few). I’ve only listed recordings I have listened to. 

Beethoven Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, opus 106, “Hammerklavier”

Beethoven was at the height of his fame after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony, but the years that followed were thin ones for the composer. He was tied up in endless legal difficulties over his nephew, Karl, and was suffering from endless bouts of gastritis. He produced little between 1813 and 1818. But then came the final flourishing of late quartets, late piano sonatas and, of course, the Ninth. 

The first big explosion was the “Hammerklavier” sonata, that giant monstrosity of pianistic torture. It begins with a grand military fanfare, makes fun of the same in the teensy second movement, reaches the heart of things in a 20-minute adagio and concludes with a monumental fugue which demonstrates every trick in the book of fugue writing —- play the tune upside down, play it backwards, slow it down, speed it up, slow it down upside down, speed it up backwards and end it all with an explosion of hiccups and trills. 

It was the longest piano sonata written to that point and still one of the most challenging. 

It is the adagio that holds the key and the emotional power of the sonata. It has been called a “mausoleum of collective sorrow,” and “the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy, and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe.” It is that rare sort of music that you inhabit rather than simply listen to. 

My favorite recording, since I first heard it 50 years ago is also the first recording made, in 1935, by Artur Schnabel. It has been in print since it was first made and despite being in rusty sonics, comes across clearly as music of the most profound sort. 

If you want more modern sound, I recommend the 1970 recording by Rudolf Serkin. In completely modern sound, I love — especially the adagio — by Daniel Barenboim in his 2012 release of the complete sonatas. 

Schubert Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, op. posthumus, D. 960

When Franz Schubert reached the age when Mozart had died, he’d been dead for four years already. Mozart died at age 35 and mourned as a genius who died too soon. Schubert died at 31 and we can only mourn the lost of what he could have written in those missing four years, to say nothing of what we could have had if he had lived a normal life span. 

As it was, in the last year or so of Schubert’s life — when he knew he was dying — he produced a stunning series of works of such profound depth and beauty, it can only be called a miracle. There were the final three string quartets, the C-major Quintet, and the final three piano sonatas. If all we had from Schubert were these works, he would be given a first-class ticket at the front of the bus with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. 

The final sonata, in B-flat, is one of the longest written by that time, rivaling Ludwig’s “Hammerklavier.” It, too, has a central slow movement of intense emotion. Arthur Rubinstein, who played the sonata as well as anyone ever has, said of the adagio, “This movement is like death. There is nothing else as close as this music that shows us what death feels like.”

Rubinstein recorded it twice, only a few years apart, but it is his first, from 1965, that I think is the best ever. There is a gracefulness and a humanity in the playing that is uniquely Rubinstein’s. 

There are tons of other performances, from everyone from Horowitz (a bit clangy) to Alfred Brendel (a bit stodgy). But I also recommend the versions by Radu Lupu and by Mitsuko Uchida. 

 

 Liszt Sonata in B-minor

Franz Liszt is the guy who invented the piano recital: people paying good money to hear a pianist on stage all by himself, amazing them with his showmanship and technical brilliance. Liszt was the equivalent of a rock star in his day. Oh the women! Oh the humanity!

A lot of what Liszt wrote is surely just showboating — “Look what I can do!” But he wanted to establish his bona fides, also, as a great composer, and among those things he wrote of more serious intent is his gigantic Piano Sonata in B-minor. 

Written in 1853, it divided the listening audience in two, half hating, half loving it. Brahms fell asleep while hearing it. The critic Eduard Hanslick said “Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.” Another German critic, Otto Gumprecht, referred to it as “an invitation to hissing and stomping.” 

Liszt sent Clara Schumann a copy of the sonata. In her diary she described the sonata as “a blind noise … and yet I must thank him for it. … It really is too awful.” 

Yet, the more avant-garde audiences found it thrilling, adventurous and exciting. Richard Wagner loved it. And today, it is a staple of the concert repertoire. I have heard two great live performances of it, first by Emil Gilels and more recently by Andre Watts — both overwhelming experiences.

My favorite performance is by Ukranian pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Too many upstanding and earnest pianists have attempted to overcome the showmanship and flash in Liszt to, supposedly, “find the music.” But Liszt without the dash and flash isn’t really Liszt. The exhibitionism is built into the score, and Lisitsa’s Liszt (not just in the sonata) is the perfect presentation of what Liszt is supposed to be. It’s louder, faster, more dazzling. (Hence, Lisitsa is sometimes pooh-poohed by the snobbier critics).

If you don’t mind a slightly older audio sound, you also can’t go wrong with Vladimir Horowitz, who also knows what this music is about. Finally, I treasure the CD of Watts playing the sonata, with panache and taste, which reminds me of hearing him do it live. 

Brahms Sonata No. 3 in F#-minor, op. 5

We think of Brahms as the old man with the beard spattered with cigar ash, but he was young once, full of piss and vinegar, and at the start of his career he wrote three monumental piano sonatas, opuses 1, 2, and 5. Each busting knuckles with the best of them. They are big, even by the standards of the time. 

The third is the one that caught on. He wrote it in 1853, the same years as Liszt wrote his sonata, and when he was just 20. It is vast, passionate, and gawky. It’s aggressive opening uses the whole length of the keyboard from booming bass to tintinnabulating treble. The second movement is tender andante inspired by a poem about pale moonlight and love. A rumbling scherzo follows and then an extra movement thrown in — a “recollection” or “remembrance” (“Rückblick”) that recalls the sweet andante with sweet nostalgia. (Did I mention that through all five movements, there is also a subtle recollection of the Dah-dah-dah-Dum of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — a ghost in the mechanism). Finally, an agitated rondo finale. The contrast between the more assertive segments and the more quiet, thoughtful parts give this sonata a sense of encompassing the range of human thought and emotion. 

No one plays Brahms better than Arthur Rubinstein. Period. Brahms is his mother tongue and compared with him, every other pianist, no matter how good, is speaking a second language in Brahms idiosyncratic keyboard style — the opposite of the natural pianism of, say, Chopin. But Rubinstein makes it flow and sing. 

He recorded it twice. The more recent, from 1959, is in better sound, so it is my first choice, but I have to put the 1949 version in as my second choice. There are many other good recordings of the sonata, but the only one which comes close to Rubinstein (that I have heard) is by Helene Grimaud. 

Ives Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass. 1840-1860” 

England has a centuries-long tradition of eccentrics, but America, in contrast, has its crackpots. Charles Ives was one of them. 

He began writing his second piano sonata in 1904, but didn’t finish it until 1915. I use the word “finished” provisionally, because after it was published, in 1920, Ives continued fiddling with it, rewriting it and republishing it in 1947. It was not performed, in full, before a paying public until 1939. And each performance after was slightly different, partly because there are ad lib sections of the score, and partly because Ives kept jiggering with it. He said it was never meant to be finished, but always to be a work in progress. 

Oh, and it comes with a 120-page preface, called Essays Before a Sonata, in which he discusses not just the music, but the whole of the Transcendentalist movement in New England in the 19th century. 

Ives wrote the work was his “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.”

The first movement, “Emerson,” is quite craggy, but there is humor in the following “Hawthorne,” and quotes from Beethoven’s Fifth, played after dinner on a parlor piano, in “Alcotts,” and finally a quiet, moody reflection of Nature, with a capital “N” in “Thoreau.” 

I got to hear Jeremy Denk play the Concord Sonata at Zankel Hall in New York, in a program that also included the “Hammerklavier.” Back to back in the same recital was more than impressive: It was like watching someone run a marathon in the morning and after lunch complete an iron man competition. It was exhausting. For a recording of the sonata, Denk is my man. 

But I also have a soft spot for a recording I have cherished for almost 50 years, first on vinyl and now on CD — Nina Deutsch in a Vox Box with a host of other Ives piano music. She brings a slightly softer edge to the Ives. And there is the original recording, made in 1949 by John Kirkpatrick, who first championed the piece. 

 

Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, op. 83

Schubert had his final three sonatas; Brahms had his first three. Knucklebusters seem to like coming in threes. Serge Prokofiev wrote his group of three during World War II, and are hence often grouped as his “War Sonatas.” Each is a job-and-a-half to tackle, and any of them could be chosen to represent Prokofiev as a knucklebuster. But the one that has become popular is the Seventh, in the middle of the trio. 

The sonata is usually seen as a reflection on the war, but, like so much Soviet music of the time, it holds an unspoken reference to the terror under Stalin. Prokofiev was friends and working colleague with theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was arrested, tortured and murdered by the NKVD in 1939. Meyerhold’s wife, the actress Zinaida Reich, was stabbed 27 times in her apartment after Meyerhold’s arrest, also by the NKVD. Prokofiev (like Shostakovich) constantly feared they might come for him, also. He wrote a panegyric cantata “To the Glory of Stalin” for the dictator’s 60th birthday, in hopes to be left alone, but also wrote this piano sonata, in a more personal style, to maintain his self-respect. 

The first movement is a rough and tumble Allegro Inquieto. The second movement, Andante Caloroso, quotes a song by Robert Schumann, with lyrics that read, “I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well … everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the song.” It is one of the most beautiful moments Prokofiev ever wrote.

That is all followed by the toccata-like finale, Precipitato, which explodes and doesn’t relent until the final pounding chords. It is an angry, propulsive moto perpetuo, with an obsessive repetition in the left hand of a figure in the odd time signature of ⅞. It beats and crashes over and over till audience and pianist are exhausted. 

I heard Maurizio Pollini play the Prokofiev Seventh in Los Angeles many years ago in another monumental program (which also included all the Chopin Preludes and ended with Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka). Pollini was great. 

But my first choice remains a dark horse: Barbara Nissman, on a disc with all three of the War Sonatas. Nissman makes the music less brutal, more musical, and I have loved this disc since I first got it in 1989. Nissman was the first pianist to record all the Prokofiev sonatas on CD. The first recording of the Seventh Sonata, by itself, was by Vladimir Horowitz, and it is still a show-off piece. And there is also a great recording by Pollini. 

Not on the list

These six pieces hardly exhaust the 19th century’s love of the big and difficult piano piece. I stuck with sonatas. I could have included Schumann’s Fantasie, op. 17, which could be considered a sonata. I could have included Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue, which could also pass as a sonata incognito. Or either of Serge Rachmaninoff’s piano sonatas, which are clearly knucklebusters — but not so firmly established in the repertoire as the pieces I have chosen. Some will complain I didn’t include Alkan, but his music will probably never be generally popular. 

You may have your own candidates, either for compositions or performances. These are mine. 

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. 

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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.

And then, there’s Schubert.

We could name the musicians that rise to the top of the list in Western art music, and it’s an impressive list: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Debussy … But then, there’s Schubert, a name we tag onto the end as almost an afterthought. Oh, yes, then there’s Schubert. Little Franz, the “Schwammerl” — little mushroom. 

I don’t know why he is so often forgotten, or left at the remainders pile. In almost any terms you want to define quality or greatness, he is right there, a shiny, bright face, almost a puppy dog demanding our attention.

Oh, he gets his kudos. No one can talk about lieder, or art song, without putting Schubert’s name at the top of the menu. But, he belongs there with his piano music, his chamber music, his choral music, too. And three of his symphonies have never left heavy rotation in the repertoire. 

Each time I have overlooked his music and hear one of the three late piano sonatas, or the final quartets, I think: There is nothing better than this, not in Beethoven or even in Bach. It is emotionally powerful, harmonically rich and melodically persuasive. And then I find myself in a Schubert-orgy for the next week or so, realizing over again how deeply profound and psychologically acute is his music.

So why is he so often relegated to the also-rans? It was that way from the beginning, when little Franz lived in Vienna under the dark shadow of Beethoven. Schubert wrote thousands of compositions during his sadly short lifespan, but very little was published or performed during his life. Mostly his music was shared with friends at dinner parties — or “Schubertiades” — where he and his musician buddies would gather to play music, hoist a few, and sing along. 

He was little over five feet tall and pudgy, with a double chin and a button nose that held up tiny spectacles. He had a hard time finding his place in society, trying at times to be a school teacher and at other times to earn a living as a music tutor. None of it clicked. 

But from the earliest age, he could write really good music. He wrote his first symphony (now only a fragment) when he was just 14. The official Symphony No. 1 came just two years later and was written for his family to play — everyone in the house played an instrument. 

He was one of the great musical prodigies. We think of Mozart or Mendelssohn — who wrote his famous Octet when he was just 16 — but Schubert composed his first genuine masterpiece, “Erlkönig,” when he was 17.  He wrote well over a thousand pieces of music before he died at the age of 31 in 1828, just a year after Beethoven. Mozart, in contrast, lived to the ripe old age of 35. 

Perhaps Schubert lags in popular estimation because he was such a slipshod worker. He left more unfinished pieces than any other great composer, sheaves of piano sonatas left as torsos, a movement here or there, and other bits left in fragment. His most famous symphony, after all, is the “Unfinished Symphony.” 

And perhaps he lags because his melodies are so memorable, they may be mistaken as facile. Beethoven, after all, hardly ever wrote something you could hum distractedly as you polish the silverware. Da-Da-Da-Dumm is hardly a tune. Schubert is endless song. 

And because we think of melodies as lightweight compared with, say Wagner or Brahms, we may think of Schubert as emotionally trifling. “Wer hat das schöne Liedlein erdacht?” “Who wrote this pretty little ditty?” Couldn’t be more wrong. 

Schubert has perhaps the widest range, emotionally, of any other composer. On one hand, he wrote what has to be the happiest, bounciest, most joyful music ever, the “Trout” Quintet, and the single bleakest, most desolate music ever, the C-major String Quintet. (I’ve written about the “Trout” before.) 

The String Quintet is another beast. Written for two violins, two violas and two cellos, it is most often named, when such lists are drawn up, as the greatest piece of chamber music ever written. My late friend, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was a longtime music critic at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, when he died at the age of 90, had requested the quintet be played at his funeral. The slow movement, in particular, is about the deepest and most profound that music can reach — which is rather deeper and more profound than any words can reach.

Schubert had an intimate relationship with death. He learned several years before his own death that he was suffering from what has been subsequently diagnosed as mercury poisoning (which likely also killed Beethoven), typhoid fever, or tertiary syphilis (mercury was a common treatment for syphilis). He wrote his final works — the final three piano sonatas, the final three string quartets, and the String Quintet, with the full knowledge of his looming extinction. These works, along with his final two symphonies and song cycles, are the height of his achievement. At the same age, Beethoven was just writing his first symphony. One can only imagine what Schubert might have written if he had lived even to Beethoven’s young 56 years old. 

It is a miracle that someone who barely left Vienna during his life, and who had only lived three short decades, could write with such expressiveness about such dark matter. 

Take his final and greatest piano sonata, in B-flat. It opens with a jaunty and optimistic tune that is almost immediately interrupted by a low trill on a G-flat — a note not in the key of B-flat major, but injected from its minor. It is a discordant lowered sixth that resolves to the dominant and leaves an uneasy feeling, as if happiness was being threatened by a baleful presence. That sense of immanent evil or impending doom keeps returning, even as the first movement comes to a seemingly positive conclusion — and then, there’s that threat, that bottom-feeding trill, again. No good will come of that. 

I listen again to a performance of that sonata by Artur Rubinstein, made in 1965, and start sorting through my CDs — I suppose I am about to begin another weeklong Schubert marathon. I’ll certainly go through the quartets and sonatas, even the symphonies. But mostly, I will dive deep into the two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. 

The last is a 24-song cycle setting poems by Wilhelm Müller that tells the tragic story of a man betrayed by his lover; he wanders through town and country dropping deeper and deeper into madness and depression. It would be hard to find a more trenchant exposition of German Romanticism that this song cycle. 

My late wife, Carole, loved to make music with others and often did so. I have no meaningful ability on any instrument, but was once persuaded to join her in singing “Gute Nacht,” the first song of the Winterreise cycle. It is tuneful and although it is strophic, the last go-round switches from minor key to major, with a stroke like lightning. The effect it had on me, in my pathetic attempt to sing to her piano accompaniment led me to attempt to translate Müller’s poems into English. 

The odd thing was that the further I went along, the more I found myself not so much translating as re-imagining. “Gute Nacht” turned out to be a more or less literal translation, beginning with the first stanza:

But by the time I got to the end, the devastating and desolate “Der Leiermann,” in which our protagonist finds himself back in the village listening to a hurdy-gurdy man and imagines his tragedy sung to the accompaniment of the pathetic little squeeze-box, I had left the original behind altogether. Schubert’s music for the entire song never leaves a single A-minor chord played as a slow pulse to the lament. The effect is a complete collapse of our hero’s personality. 

My version of Müller’s poem also left 19th century Germany and shifted to what I thought was the parallel situation in our own time. The whole series of my translations was in itself a metamorphosis from the original style of Müller to my own voice — in other words, I took the poetry seriously and personally, which is what the best art always gives us. 

There are many great recordings of Winterreise available. Among the best are four different versions by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, made with Gerald Moore, Jörg Demus, Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim in turn at the piano. They are all near perfect, but I have always favored the first, with Moore. But my favorite is even older than that one: Hans Hotter with Moore, recorded in 1954. Hotter’s voice is more bass than baritone and gives added heft to the work. 

Other Suggested Recordings

It’s hard to suggest a CD of the “Trout” Quintet: I have never heard a bad one, although the one I love most is by Alexander Schneider with Peter Serkin, David Soyer, Michael Tree and Julius Levine. You can never go wrong with Schneider. 

The three final quartets, including the “Death and the Maiden” and with the String Quintet, are all in a box with the Emerson Quartet and Mstislav Rostropovich on the second cello. Not a shabby addition. 

There is an 8-disc box of piano sonatas by Mitsuko Uchida that is a great performance and a bargain to boot. 

For the symphonies, you can hardly do better than a set by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic, which is currently selling for under $15. But you should also check out two very different ideas of the “Great” C-major symphony (usually listed as No. 9) by Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini. I should have said “Furtwangler vs. Toscanini.” 

But in this short overview, I have not had room for so many masterpieces. I have not mentioned the Arpeggione Sonata, the Fantasie in F-minor for Two Pianos, the Moments Musicaux, the “Wanderer” Fantasy, the Impromptus, or the simply titled, “Three Pieces,” which rank up there with the sonatas. Or the hundreds of other lieder that he wrote, to say nothing of the masses and the choral works. And there are operas, too, with beautiful music, if silly plots that make them almost unperformed anymore. 

There is much music that is meant only to please the ear, and Schubert wrote his share of that, too. But music can plumb the depths of human psychology, and provide a sonic metaphor for the most profound emotions and thoughts — at a depth where thought and emotion cannot be told apart. The best of Schubert’s music takes us there. 

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I’ve gotten an early start on a long day’s driving. It is dawn on the plains of west Texas and as the sun pops its first bright blast over the horizon, Schubert’s Trout Quintet plays on the car stereo.

Its first chord is also a bright blast, beginning like a sunrise, with a skyrocket of an arpeggio on the keyboard that bounds out like that first instant blaze as the edge of the sun explodes on the horizon.trout score 2

And when the quintet’s first melody breaks free, the arpeggio is joined by the string bass descending to rock bottom. It’s like the unfolding of a musical universe. It’s almost like getting out of bed, stretching your arms up over your head and planting your feet firmly on the floor.trout score1

I often find myself whistling along with the music when I’m driving, but with the Trout, I find myself singing along, bellowing like a playful calf.

It’s a different thing altogether. The whistling is just a kind of inattentive tagging along with the tune.

The singing, however, is my physical presence in the music.

Bump-bump-bump-bummmmm, I yell out with the string bass.

It is that deep resonance that gives an anchor to the music. It is like the footings of a skyscraper dug 60 feet into the bedrock.

The Texas hill country glows in the first rays of the sun, each rolling rise of earth catching the light like the drapery on a Greek statue.

There are a few low sunrise clouds, but the sun enters underneath them and the road is so empty, they just undulate as they run up over the hills. There is nothing on the highway for miles, just the occasional transfer truck that you pass.

What gives the Trout its phenomenal sense of emotional rightness is its constant balancing of the upward and downward motion of its melodies, often at the same time, like the bass and piano at the outset.

It’s not often in life that the emotions coincide in such a perfect sense of morning, light, a new day, optimism and hope.

Such is the Texas daybreak; such is the Schubert. It is a sunny quintet, with hardly the whisper of a shadow in its five bright movements. Even the minor-key variation in the fourth movement is dispelled with a major chord — “I was just playing,” its composer seems to be saying.

Yet, the Trout is an anomaly among Schubert’s major compositions. He wrote it when he was only 22 and it spreads sunshine from beginning to end.

Through most of his best music — the late piano sonatas, late quartets and the great C-major string quintet — there is a strain of despair that is heartbreaking. Even in his short piano pieces, beloved of amateurs for a century and a half, there runs a vein of deep melancholy that shades even his happiest moments.

For soon after he wrote the Trout, Schubert knew he was going to die, and to die soon. He had contracted an incurable syphilis, and it left him an outcast. He was dead before he was 32.

That knowledge, along with his poverty and his habitual sense of isolation and loneliness, give the dark tincture to his mature music.trout titlepage

And even the Trout gives expression — although in the most oblique way — to the melancholy that was constitutional in the composer: The earlier song he had written, also called The Trout, was the basis for his variations in the fourth movement of the quintet. The song tells the story of a bright, wily trout — “who gaily shoots past me like an arrow” — who then gets caught by an “cold-blooded” angler. The poet laments the loss of such a happy, bright fish. It is a miniature exposition of the theme, “Et in Arcadia ego.”

Somewhere east of Balmorhea, sunflowers begin showing up on the shoulders of the highway, great yellow clumps of them — sunshine growing from the roadside dirt.

I drive along in the shade under a cloud, but the sunlight rings the horizon with the tawny sand color of dry grass. I am an audience in the shade, but the spotlight is on a stage in all directions.

The rays of the sun break through the clouds in the north, making lines like rain hitting the ground.

There are lots of birds — finches, and swallows and swifts — darting around in the air over the road. I’m one of them.