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Hidden Classical Gems

September 16, 2010

(Mario Sarto)

If you already know the classical repertoire, none of these are hidden.

If you hate classical music, “You’re in the wrong place my friend, you better leave.” (B. Dylan, a classicist of another sort.)

But if you’ve heard some classical stuff and like it –maybe Beethoven’s 9th , or the 5th, the Brandenburg Concertos, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – this is for you.

These pieces are accessible, with gorgeous melodies. Each is also a gateway to a composer: if you like it, there’s a lot more where that came from.

1. BACH Cantatas– (Cantatas Vol. 22, Tom Koopman) –All of my other recommendation fit on one CD. Here I recommend the 3 CD set as an introduction to this body of work ( 75 CDs in total, and well worth the price!) It starts with “Ein’ Feste Burg” , one of his most famous cantatas. Bach was a Lutheran, and it’s based on a hymn by Martin Luther himself. Which is perhaps why Bach, the hands-down master of counterpoint, outdoes himself on the opening. He gets an astonishing number of things going on at once. These CDs also contain a number of delightful short masses, which are good warm-ups for the B-Minor Mass.

2.MOZART Symphony Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra K. 364 Concertone K.190 (Perlman/Zucherman/Isreal Philharmonic with Mehta.) In the concertante we hear a solo violin and viola, but rather than engaging in pyrotechnics, they converse, in a kind of gentle one-upmanship to see who can come back with the most beautiful melody. Mozart typically handles the music with such grace that he almost slips by you the fact that he’s climbing peaks of exuberance and pits of despair in the same piece. The Concertone is in the same style.

3. BEETHOVEN “HARP” QUARTET  (Tokyo Quartet – a $1.98 download!)–Beethoven’s 16 quartets are one of the great musical goldmines. I listen to them more often than any other pieces, because they are a gift that just keeps giving. But the treasures take some digging. The “Harp,” from his middle period, is the most accessible of the 16. The melodies have the catchiness of pop tunes. If you like this one, then you can try the five early quartets, then the rest of the middle.  Tackle the late ones last. They are spiky and bewilderingly abstruse.  But they’re worth every minute.

4.MENDELSOHN Octet plus String Symphonies (I Solisit Italiani) Mozart is the most famous musical prodigy. Felix was no slouch either. He was a relatively old man of 16 when he wrote this Octet. It has the energy of an adolescent with the skill and knowledge of a seasoned pro. The finale is one of the most exciting movements in the classical repertoire. It’s followed by a couple of the fine string symphonies he wrote –between age 12 and 14. Young composers eat your hearts out.

5.SCHUMANN Piano Quintet Op. 44 and Piano Quartet Op. 47 (Menahem Presssler/Emerson String Quartet) Robert wrote these for his young bride, the piano virtuoso Clara to play. They show great youthful energy, swirling Romantic passion, and best of all Schumann’s fascination with the fugues of Bach.

6. ELGAR Enigma Variations (Sinopoli/Philharmonia Orchestra)-–A complex theme with variations that run the emotional gamut from lighthearted to Elgar’s favorite mood of “nobilimente” in the ”Nimrod” variation. Nobody does that mood better. Each variation describes a friend; the ultimate is about the composer himself. This CD also contains the rightfully famous Cello Concerto.

7. ST. SAENS Symphony No. 3 “Organ” (Barenboim) If a symphony is a puzzle, this is one of the most perfectly constructed in the business. It’s by a French composer, and is like a Gothic cathedral – intricate, complex, grand, but also easy to love at one glance. The pleasure in the form is matched by the drama and lyricism. It’s based on the same theme as Mozart’s final, “Jupiter Symphony.” But St. Saens didn’t rip it off from Mozart.  That theme was popular in the 18th century, just floating around.

8. FAURE Requiem (Robert Shaw/Atlantic Symphony Orchestra)  – When we think of a Requiem it’s something ponderous and grave: the Mozart, or the Brahms. The Faure is the opposite of that: a light and soothing balm for the agitations of grief, with celestial hints of some afterlife, whether heaven or just a future time without grief.

9. BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet Op. 115(The King Gabrieli Quartet) As with the solo instruments in the Mozart above,  the clarinet isn’t there to show off, but just to add its color to the strings. Brahms is famous for evoking a unique “Autumnal” mood. In this late work he burnishes that mood to its  loveliest state in any of his works. A late October afternoon, brilliant foliage, a gentle breeze with an edge of approaching winter.

10. ANTON BRUCKNER 9th Symphony (Von Karayan) This frightening, fascinating work captured me the first time I heard it. If Brahms is tapping into the mother lode of bittersweet, then Bruckner here explores the depths of nostalgia and regret, at times skirting the edge of psychosis. With three movement this symphony is unfinished, except that some have suggested that the long painful dying off of the final third movement is an appropriate elegy for the approaching end of the great era of German, which is to say, classical music. The Russians are coming, and the Germans will be turning to 12-tone composition, and I for one am out of there.

It was a great run while it lasted.


From → Classical Music

  1. John – another fabulous posting from you and I have a question.

    Isn’t there one Mozart composition that top’s a Bach composition for the first place award in the Top Two All-Time Composers?

    So hard to pick favorites.

    May I suggest the Spanish Catalan angel Enrique Granados for Number 11.

    But my real question…who is getting it right today? Today’s maker of the new?

    Where should we look today?


    • Oh, I should have said – the list is basically chronological.

      When I argue with myself about who’s greatest, it’s between Bach and Beethoven. Unless I happen to be listening to Mozart at the time.

      Sadly, nobody I’ve heard is getting it right today in classical music, hasn’t in many decades. I believe that’s because classical culture, starting with the academic scene, is wearing huge blinders, still pretending rock and roll never happened, etc. But THAT is another post (or three.)

  2. What about Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, or Johann Strauss II?

    For “contemporary classical” (is that an oxymoron?) I like former Genesis guitarist, Steve Hackett’s work. Both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Metamorpheus are both brilliant and beautiful imho. Hackett also continues to dabble in progressive rock, jazz, and World Music as well. Have you listened to any of his classical guitar work?

  3. The two compositions that were for me gateways to at least a portion of the classical canon were Symphony No. 9 “From The New World” by Antonín Dvorák and Vltava by Bedrich Smetana. They opened worlds to me after I played them in high school orchesta. (I was on cornet.) And for Mozart, I’d toss in the Symphony No. 40 In G Minor (K 550). This is a great post, and I’m going to have to dig into more of these.

    • J Manchester permalink

      Whiteray –

      The New World and Mozart g minor were on my shortlist – I only left them off because I considered them less hidden. I am not familiar enough with Smetana and will take your suggestion to listen.

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