If one were to assemble a list of anything that he or she would want to have with them on a desert island, there really have to be some ground rules. I have composed endless numbers of these lists for myself, but I always cheated. If it is movies, I treat The Godfather Trilogy as a single entry. If it is music, I consider all of Beethoven's nine symphonies as one. I have been studiously listening to classical music for the better part of 30 years and decided to consider those recordings that I could not do without.
Classical Music possesses a multidimensional character that other genera do not. When one thinks of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations one can consider this compositions place among all compositions, among all Baroque compositions, and among all of Bach's compositions. Additionally, one has the opportunity to consider the performance: was the set played on a harpsichord or a modern piano. Then one can consider a given recording: Wanda Landowska's, Trevor Pinnock's, or Masaaki Suzuki's harpsichord performances; or, Glenn Gould's, Daniel Barenboim's, or Angela Hewitt's on piano. It is this manifold nature that makes the vein of Classical Music so rich and requiring thoughtful consideration. There are a lot of reasons for choosing one recording over another as one's favorite and I will probably employ all of them. These ten single recordings represent my lifetime of listening. They are in no particular order.
Horowitz in Moscow
On April 20, 1986, pianist Vladimir Horowitz performed a recital at Tchaikovsky Hall (Moscow Conservatory), Moscow, Russia. The historical significance of this performance was it was Horowitz’s first public recital in his native country since 1925. The pianist was 82 years old at the time and his return to perform in Russia was considered a national triumph. Aside from the historical significance of the concert, Horowitz’s concert captured arguable the greatest living pianist performing a wide-ranging repertoire at close to the peak of his considerable powers. His recital spans from the Baroque repertoire of Domenico Scarlatti to the Post-Romantic stock of Sergey Rachmaninov. Horowitz’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 330 may be his best Mozart ever. Horowitz in Moscow is a great sampler disc offering a wide variety of musical periods performed on a special day by a superb musician.
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123; Mozart: Mass in C minor, K. 427 "The Great"
John Aler, Tom Krause, Janice Taylor, Sylvia McNair
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Robert Shaw
Beethoven composed his Missa Solemnis between 1819 and 1823, premiering it in St. Petersburg, April 7, 1824. Beethoven considered his Solemn Mass the pinnacle of his creative output. Composer Jan Swafford contends that the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony best represent musically Beethoven’s spirituality; the former being a metaphysical question and the latter its answer – pretty high-browed but still right on the money. This performance is by the Dean of American Choral Conductors, the late Robert Shaw. The power and majesty of the opening “Kyria,” with the fine tenor John Aler and soprano Sylvia McNair alone commands conversion. An added bonus is Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, K. 427, performed with all the gusto of Shaw’s carefully modern interpretation. Telarc would have made this release perfect by including Beethoven’s earlier Mass in C Major, Op. 86, which Shaw later recorded.
There would be no recognition of “Classical” music without Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor, Op. 67. Carlos Kleiber’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has been the gold standard for Beethoven Fifths (and Sevenths) since its original release on vinyl over thirty years ago (originally recorded March 29th and 30th and April 4th, 1974, released 1975). This was the first classical recording I had bought. The LP cover was very cool, finished with a mirror-shiny photograph of Kleiber conducting. The performances are mirror-shiny too. Kleiber extracts the potent essence of Beethoven using the Vienna Philharmonic as his vehicle. The pacing is brisk and urgent. The Seventh is treated likewise, revealing the master’s rhythmic genius in the music Wagner called “the apotheosis of the dance.” If one must own a single Beethoven recording, it should be this one.
Mozart was already ill when composing his clarinet music. The composer is thought to have suffered from rheumatic disease while young that later manifested as post-infectious glomerulonephritis which ultimately led to renal failure. While controversial, Mozart’s final illness was lengthy. During this time of physical stress, the composer created one of his sunniest pieces, the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, published in October 1791, just three month before his death. The concerto was written for clarinetist Anton Stadler, who premiered the piece October 16, 1791 in Prague. The concerto has much structurally in common with the earlier Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K 581. Dame Thea King found a soul mate in Jeffery Tate who conducted the fine English Chamber Orchestra in this performance of the Concerto. King exhibits perfect modulation in the concerto and the necessary sensitivity and emotion in the quintet. King reveals, particularly in the slow movements, the composer’s melancholy, carefully masked by his genius.
Maybe Sir Thomas Beecham’s Boheme with Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles on EMI is better, but Luciano Pavarotti is the tenor (and Rodolfo) of our time just as Vladimir Horowitz was the pianist. And, Mirella Freni is no slouch as soprano in Mimi’s role. Puccini was the master of writing for the voice. Rossini may have been more Bel Canto, Verdi more tuneful, and Wagner more Teutonic (pardon the pun), but it was Puccini who captured the peasant heart, achieving perhaps the highest pinnacle in the mountain range of Italian Opera. “Oh! sventata, sventata” bristles with lyricism as does the following “Che gelinda manina.” Where Björling is more muscular, Pavarotti is “prettier,” possessing a virility tempered with an anima of perfection. It is here where if Puccini had written no other notes for the tenor voice, eh would have certainly made his mark. Freni pillages and burns “Si. Mi chiamano Mimi” with such grace it is easy to “breathe the perfume, petal by petal.” The titanic trio “O soave fanciulla” finishes the listener off before the end of the first act. Puccini looms large during a Tuesdays with Morey” period I had years ago frequently visiting a favorite retired pharmacology professor. The Professor would always say, “Michael, let’s kill Mimi one more time.
George Frederic Handel was a Saxon who became an Englishman to compose Italian Opera, run an opera house, go broke twice, make a third fortune, start a foundation, and end up buried with Kings in Westminster Abbey. I suspect that is how one would define an impresario. The horrible irony about Handel is that in spite of his popularity as a composer in all forms including the concerto grossi, keyboard and solo instrument sonata, choral, opera, and oratorio, Handel is known but for one work. It is in the last category, the oratorio (where opera is musical theater, the oratorio is strictly a concert genera), specifically Messiah for which Handel is remembered. And that is just fine. Save for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Messiah is perhaps the best loved and most performed composition globally. Of 30 performances I personally own, my favorite is the period performance by the Scholars Baroque Ensemble. A stripped-down orchestra and chorus give an amazingly full-bodied performance of the original 1742 composition. The soloists are also part of the chorus, in keeping with the standard practice in Handel's time. This is a superb recording of Messiah, but if inclined, by no means make it your only one to own.
Joshua Rifkin made his musical bones in 1981 with a paper presented at American Musicological Society where first he corrected history by proving that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion premiered 1727 and not the previously thought 1729 and second, by proposing that much of Johann Sebastian Bach's vocal music, including the famous St. Matthew Passion, was performed with only one singer per choral part. Rifkin was unable to finish his presentation because of “strong audience reaction.” Yea, I suspect it was the same “strong audience reaction” Stravinsky experienced at the premier of Le Sacre du printemps in Paris, May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées…a surely bunch, those classical types. Before all of the Bach scholarship, Rifkin recorded a crystalline yet warm collection of Scott Joplin rags released in the 1970s. Before I ever knew of Rifkin’s Bach connection, I opined that Rifkin played Joplin as Bach would have. And that is with love, care, and precision. Rifkin bridges 300 years of music to show the thread, the remnant that exists in and through all music. The sonics of the old LP are close and warm and these characteristics well transferred to CD. There are many collections of Joplin Rag’s, but none transcends that of Rifkin.
What? No Swan Lake? Yep, that’s right. Should one wish to find the essence of Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky in a small space of time, he of she need look no further. Tschaikovsky distilled every dance, ballet, waltz, and symphony into his four-movement string serenade that clocks in at less than half an hour. The late Herbert von Karajan, with the considerable forces of the Berlin Philharmonic, frame perfectly the unabashed Romanticism that emanates from the music as smoldering orange from the winter fireplace in a fine Russian palace. The added bonus is the Dvorák serenade. The Czech sensibility blends with the Tschaikovsky in a brilliantly Slavic eutectoid that rarely forms when two separate works by separate composers are brought together on the same release. This reflects the genius of Herbert von Karajan.
Andras Schiff’s ECM Goldbergs are his second set, the first having been recorded some 20 years before for Decca. Both releases are quite excellent, but I suspect that nothing can replace experience, the experience of recording all of Bach’s and Mozart’s major keyboard music before returning to these 33 variations with opening aria and moving on to the monumental Beethoven. It is hard to deny Glenn Gould’s infamous 1955 set, the first recorded on piano, but these are a frenetic, manic fare. When Gould re-recorded the Goldbergs at the end of his life, his performance reflected all that had occurred in 30 years. So is true with Schiff. These ECM Goldbergs are special, like tempered carbon, hard as diamonds yet the product of thoughtful creative consideration, of better yet, a re-consideration of the past before embarking on his recent set of Beethoven’s sonatas.
There are recorded sets of Bach’s Cello Suites that have much better sonics. There are sets that view Bach from the vantage point of Haydn and those from Vivaldi. But Casal’s 1930s set were the first sound recordings to begin the deluge of recordings described above. It was Casal’s scholarship and technical ability that allowed him to resurrect music old and forgotten as Mendelssohn had done 100 years before him with the Master’s St. Matthew Passion. Casal’s suites, beaming in from almost a century ago, define what depth and density mean when applied to the performance of music and the understanding of that performed. This is music of our collective unconscious, part of all of us.
This review was first published in Blogcritics.org
© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007