November 8, 2008
The Ten Greatest Musical Recordings
In the recent Gramophone magazine awards issue, their critics undertake the "hunt for the Gold Disc: the greatest recording since CDs began." They have narrowed it down to ten. Okay, I thought, I can do that too. Therefore, I offer my very eclectic list of what I think are the ten greatest recordings. I warn beforehand that I am not an audiophile. I enjoy good sound, to be sure, but I am mainly a content man, not a medium maven. I also confess that these recordings had an enormous personal impact on me at some point in my long listening career.
1. Of course, we have to begin with Bach. I pass reluctantly by the B Minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion, and choose the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, as sublime and concentrated a meditation for one instrument as has ever been written. On LP, my favorite version was by the great Henryk Szeryng. The transfer to CD by Columbia Masterworks gave it a steely sound, so I now prefer the version by Nathan Milstein on Deutsche Grammophon. These two CDs in DG’s "Originals" series (at budget price) are the desert island discs.
2. Herbert von Karajan was a controversial and much idolized conductor. He made four recorded traversals of the Beethoven Nine Symphonies. I am not going to cheat by selecting a complete set. Rather, I choose his 1963 recording of the Seventh Symphony with Berlin Philharmonic as one of the greats. Wagner said the Seventh was "the apotheosis of the dance." I find it to be rather an outpouring of unmitigated, almost terrifying power. Von Karajan captures and exults in this energy. It turns out this recording is available on an SACD paired with his Eighth Symphony; since you can buy all Seven symphonies new for under $20, think of what else you will be getting. (Really, I’m not cheating.)
3. Günter Wand’s recording of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, captured live on June 24, 1979, with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, is an exhilarating, titanic, visionary interpretation of this work (Profil PH 04058). Wand, one of the great Bruckner interpreters, called the concert "one of the most memorable in my life." When you listen to this, you will know why. Very few things have ever been recorded that capture the kind of profound spiritual communion that is achieved here. This is art serving its highest hieratic purpose — to make the transcendent perceptible. This is, in many ways, a shattering experience. Few things I have heard or experienced in my life have brought me closer to the awesome sense that God in all His majesty and power is near.
4. I have some very simple but sound advice. When seeking out recordings of Edward Elgar’s music, go first to Sir John Barbirolli. No one understood Elgar’s music better. I am tempted to choose his sublime recording of Gerontius as one of my ten, but I turn instead to his glorious performance of the Cello Concerto, with Jacqueline du Pré. This is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest concerto recordings ever made. Du Pré’s playing is exquisite, and the emotive warmth of Barbirolli’s accompaniment is nonpareil.
Also on the disc is one of the finest vocal recordings: Janet Baker singing the Sea Pictures. If her singing does not send chills down your spine, you probably do not have one. The 1965 sound with London Symphony Orchestra leaves nothing to be desired. Believe it or not, you can buy a 30-CD EMI box of Elgar, with many of Barbirolli’s definitive interpretations, including this one (and Gerontius), for around $50 on Amazon.
5. If you want to hear blood pulsing in the veins of music with an unquenchable passion for life, listen to the wild music of Leos Janácek, the greatest Czech composer of the 20th century, and perhaps of any other. On the title page of his Missa Glagolitica, Janácek wrote "God is gone up with a shout." He said, "I depict in it, to a certain extent, the legend which says that when Christ was hanged on the cross, the heaven was torn asunder. Well, I am making both roar and lightening."
The result is a volcanic masterpiece of choral music. If there is divine madness in music, this is it. The finest interpreter of Janácek was undoubtedly Karel Ancerl, with the Czech Philharmonic. His galvanizing recording of the Missa, with the Czech Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, won the 1964 Grand Prix de l’Académie Charles Cros. It was initially issued by Supraphon and has since been licensed to other labels. Snatch it if you can find it.
6. Mozart was a composer of preternatural gifts. It is extremely hard to narrow down the field of great Mozart pieces to a single recording of a single work. Perhaps because I have just seen a Mozart opera, I am going to select Don Giovanni — certainly on anyone’s short list of greatest operas ever written — in the 1936 recording of the Glyndebourne production, conducted by Fritz Busch. I am not being deliberately antiquarian here, and I am not an especial fan of historical recordings. However, Busch, with John Brownlee as the Don and Salvatore Baccaloni as Leporello, magnificently captured what is most important in a Mozart performance — his spirit. The sound on this re-mastered recording on Naxos is startlingly good. This is one of the great opera recordings.
7. In his Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable," Carl Nielsen captured the human spirit rising against all odds to prevail. This work is a towering masterpiece of symphonic drama, visionary music of apocalyptic power. Nielsen wrote: "In case all the world was devastated . . . then nature would still begin to breed new life again, begin to push forward . . . . These forces, which are ‘inextinguishable,’ I have tried to represent." No one has captured the enormous excitement and drama of this music as did Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in this RCA recording from 1966. It is paired with an excellent performance of Symphony No. 2, conducted by Morton Gould.
8. All ten selections of the greatest recordings could easily be made from Schubert’s music alone. However, I choose the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff’s recording of Schubert’s last Piano Sonata, D 960. I have this disc as part of Kempff’s integral recordings of all of Shubert’s sonatas — one of the truly significant recording landmarks. You can buy Sonata D 960 separately on DG for around $14, but the budget box ( 7 CDs) containing all of the sonatas can be had for a mere $50, an astonishing bargain. Kempff’s playing is completely unaffected and highly lyrical. He is a true artist whose humility allows him to enter the spirit of Schubert — cor ad cor loquitor. This is heart-piercingly pure playing of the music of paradise lost.
9. As he was composing his Fifth Symphony, Jean Sibelius wrote, "I begin to see the mountain that I shall surely ascend. God opens his door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony." When I first heard Leonard Bernstein’s recording of this work with the New York Philharmonic many years ago, that is what I thought I heard. It changed my life. It lifted me so far outside of myself, I would never be the same. I was staggered. I had not known human beings were capable of such things. Sibelius grasped the harmony of the spheres and played it for us. I wept for joy. I still can hardly contain myself when I listen to this performance on the re-mastered Sony release of the original 1961 recording. Bernstein never did anything finer than this; he really did not have to. (Do not confuse this with Bernstein’s remake of the Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic, made in the later years when he had become too emotionally self-indulgent.)
10. I see that I do not have any chamber music here. That was not by design. And I am not recommending Sergey Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 30, simply to fill in an omission. It completes the list because it is a great piece of music — as great, I would hazard to say, as Schubert’s Piano Quintet. If you do not believe me, listen to the Taneyev Quartet, with pianist Tamara Fidler, play this supremely passionate work from 1911 on the Northern Flowers label. It comes in a two-CD pack with Taneyev’s complete quintets. This is a Soviet-era recording from 1968 in perfectly good sound. I thought that I surely would be recommending the superstar DG recording with pianist Mikhail Pletnev, which has superb sound. However, the Russians on Northern Flowers won me over with the sweep, commitment, and tremendous character of their playing. This is an enormously exciting performance of a neglected masterpiece.
This top-ten list exercise is somewhat ridiculous, but I hope it provokes in readers a response as to what they have on their list of greatest recordings. This is, after all, about sharing the treasures.
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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