Classically Inclined

 

The BBC airs a long-running program called "Desert Island Discs," on which celebrities choose the 10 CDs that they would want if they were marooned on an island (one conveniently outfitted with electricity and a CD player). Professor of Music Steven Saunders shares 10 of his "desert island discs" for those just beginning a classical CD collection or looking for new recordings to enjoy.

 

1. Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7
Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic; Deutsche Grammophon
One of the most admired recordings of that quintessential classic symphony, Beethoven's Fifth. Kleiber's justly famous 1975 recording offers drama, precision, virtuosity, and lyricism"but most of all, it has an unflagging rhythmic energy that makes this recording riveting, from the famous opening motive to the crashing final cadences.

2 . Frederic Chopin, Etudes, Ballades
Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Arabesque Recordings, The Complete Works of Chopin, Vols. 3 and 10
Nearly all of the world's greatest pianists have recorded Chopin's music, but the recent cycle by American pianist Ohlsson is extraordinary; everything Ohlsson touches seems to turn to gold. When I heard Ohlsson's CD, I felt like I was hearing the Ballades for the first time.

3. Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique
David Zinman, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Telarc
Part of the appeal of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is its extravagant, autobiographical plot line. Berlioz relates musically the story of a young artist's reveries about a woman with whom he is smitten; his drug-induced hallucination of her murder at his own hand; and his vision of his funeral, at which a ghoulish array of "ghosts, sorcerers, and monsters" appear. The key to the work's enduring popularity, however, is the music, which features some of the most stunning orchestral writing ever.

4. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
Pierre Boulez, The Cleveland Orchestra; Sony Classical
Stravinsky's brutal, rhythmically obsessive ballet music for The Rite of Spring set off a riot at the 1913 premiere. The Rite seems milder today, since our ears have grown used to the soundtracks to lots of action and adventure films, yet this 1969 recording helps to convey some of the stark brutality that must have disturbed the original Paris audience.

5. Brahms, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
Claudio Arrau, piano, with Bernard Haitink,
Concertgebouw Orchestra; Phillips
The late Chilean pianist Arrau had an almost supernatural ability to draw unique timbres from the piano"his sound was rich, sonorous, and always reminds me of burnished bronze. I'd single out these recordings of the Brahms concertos as among my favorites in Arrau's commanding discography.

6. Sergey Prokofiev, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Igor Stravinsky, Violin Concerto
Cho-Liang Lin, violin, with Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; Sony Classical
This is one of those rare recordings that has garnered almost universal praise since it was released. The romantic lushness of the Prokofiev concertos is a nice foil to the harder-edged neoclassicism of the Stravinsky. Cho-Liang Lin's performance of the slow movement to the Prokoviev 2nd is achingly beautiful, and the demanding Stravinsky concerto really sizzles.

7. Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine
Jeannette Sorrell, Cleveland Baroque Orchestra and Apollo'sFire; Electra
It's not surprising that Monteverdi's so-called 1610 Vespers occupies a special place in the heart of someone whose research centers on 17th-century sacred music. This opulent work features choral settings of five biblical psalms, interspersed with smaller-scale motets for a few solo voices, a hymn, and a setting of the Magnificat. The colorful music has inspired many fine recordings by the best early music specialists, but this one ranks among the most stylish.

8. Gabriel Fauré, Piano Music;
Vlado Perlemutter; Nimbus Records
I admit to harboring a soft spot for the music of the French composer Fauré (1845-1924). It combines the lyricism of Chopin with the charm and delicacy of French salon music. This sampler CD by Perlemutter is a fine introduction to Fauré's music; it contains several personal favorites including the haunting Fifth and Sixth Nocturnes; the Debussy-like Fifth Impromptu; and the masterful Theme and Variations.

9. Arnold Schoenberg, Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
Gerard Schwarz, New York Chamber Orchestra; American String Quartet; Electra/Nonesuch Records
Even some music aficionados find the music of Schoenberg daunting. His atonal and twelve-tone compositions can seem harsh, acerbic, and bitingly dissonant. For the musically faint of heart, the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra provides a wonderful introduction to the qualities that make Schoenberg great: a remarkable ear for orchestral color and the ability to find exactly the right musical gesture.

10. Michael Tippett, A Child of Our Time
Michael Tippett, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra; Naxos
British composer Sir Michael Tippett's Child of Our Time is one work whose significance has only grown since it was first performed in 1944. Based, in part, on the life of the young man whose murder of a German diplomat in Paris set off the Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom, Tippet's oratorio is an extended reflection on the price of violence, injustice, and bigotry. Cynics may find this hodgepodge of history, literature, politics, and folklore cloying, but for all its idiosyncrasies and unevenness, it moves me every time I hear it.


 
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