Jump to content

A Guide to Getting Classical


Recommended Posts


Like any other area of interest, classical music can be daunting to the novice. It's large, it's unfamiliar, there's too much snootiness, and a lot of it takes place in a foreign language.

But the important thing to remember is that all of that paraphernalia is sitting on top of an experience -- listening to music -- that is exciting, enlightening and uniquely pleasurable.

So the best place to start has nothing to do with status, or big names, or someone else's idea of what recordings someone should own. It has to do with what music you enjoy most.

The best advice for first-time classical record buyers is not to worry about the recordings themselves, but to start with the music. For a piece of music that speaks to you, any recording will do; for a piece that doesn't, no recording is good enough.

Sure, some recordings are better than others, but that's a subject for another day. Some wines are better than others, too, but the first thing budding oenophiles need to know is whether they prefer chianti or sauvignon blanc.

The best way to explore is just to jump in. The sampler collections that are increasingly in evidence are a great place to start. If you're making some tentative forays into opera, start with highlight discs or collections of arias. Check out the classical radio stations.

Then make connections from there (younger readers can think of it as a variation of net-surfing). When you find a composer whose music you like, try other pieces by the same person. If piano music excites you more than string quartets, find out where the good piano music is and stick with that.

Above all, don't be cowed by snobs, connoisseurs or hobbyists. There's no point in listening to music at all if it's not going to be fun.

Here are a few suggested starting points for newcomers to classical music. For each piece there are recordings listed, but they are more by way of ``you can't go wrong with'' than ``you must have''; if you can't get the ones listed here, try something else. There are also suggestions for further listening, by the same composer if possible, in case a piece strikes your fancy.


Bach: Goldberg Variations. A broad compendium of Baroque keyboard styles as Bach helped to define them, the Goldbergs are tuneful, dancelike, abstruse, sublime -- and often all of these at once. Recordings: Andras Schiff on piano (London: 417 116) or Maggie Cole on harpsichord (Virgin: 59045). Further listening: The English Suites, the French Suites, ``The Well-Tempered Clavier.''

Beethoven: Piano sonatas. There's no reason not to start with the most popular ones: the ``Pathetique,'' Op. 13, the gorgeous ``Moonlight,'' Op. 27, No. 2, or the ``Waldstein,'' Op. 53. Their rugged beauty is hard to resist. Recordings: Richard Goode (Nonesuch), Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon). Further listening: Any of Beethoven's 32 sonatas.

Chopin: Just about anything. Try the capacious Ballades, the moody Nocturnes, or the wonderfully varied set of 24 Preludes, Op. 28. Chopin's combination of virtuosity and melodic fantasy is the essence of Romantic piano music. Recordings: Krystian Zimerman playing the Ballades (Deutsche Grammophon: 423 090), Martha Argerich playing Op. 28 (Deutsche Grammophon: 431 584). Further listening: Schumann's ``Carnaval'' or ``Davidsbundlertanze,'' John Field's Nocturnes.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. A linked series of short pieces, exquisitely vibrant, inspired by a gallery exhibition. Recordings: Vladimir Ashkenazy (London: 414 386), Mikhail Pletnev (Virgin: 59611). Further listening: Ravel's brilliant orchestral version.

Debussy: Preludes. Debussy can be dreamy or hard-edged but is always evocative and lovely. Recordings: Walter Gieseking (EMI: 61004), Krystian Zimerman (Deutsche Grammophon: 435 773). Further listening: ``Images,'' Ravel's ``Gaspard de la Nuit.''


Vivaldi: The Four Seasons. Vivaldi's set of four meteorological violin concertos has never gone out of style. Recordings: Vladimir Spivakov with the Moscow Virtuosi (RCA: 60369), Jeanne Lamon with Tafelmusik (Sony: 48251). Further listening: Bach's ``Brandenburg'' Concertos, Corelli's Concerti Grossi.

Mozart: Piano concertos. The exquisite interplay between piano and orchestra and Mozart's characteristic profusion of invention -- with a new tune popping up every few minutes -- make these pieces endless sources of delight. Try the limpid C-Major Concerto, K. 467, or the mysterious D-Minor Concerto, K. 466. Recordings: Andras Schiff and Sandor Vegh (London), Alfred Brendel and Neville Marriner (Philips). Further listening: The Clarinet Concerto, the four horn concertos.

Beethoven: Symphonies. These are probably the most monumental pieces in the repertoire. They're also great entertainment. Start with the famous odd-numbered symphonies, but don't overlook the Sixth Symphony, the ``Pastoral,'' with its musical evocation of an afternoon in the country. Recordings: Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon), John Eliot Gardiner (Deutsche Grammophon), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec). Further listening: Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto No. 4.

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies. Particularly the last three, Nos. 4-6, are repositories of glorious melody, arranged with consummate artistry. Recordings: Mariss Jansons (Chandos), Leonard Slatkin (RCA). Further listening: Piano Concerto No. 1, Violin Concerto, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. I once described Stravinsky's 1913 ballet score as the first great piece of rock and roll, which was silly but not entirely wrong: With its ferocious rhythmic energy and high-impact orchestration, this is still one of the best entrees to classical music for hard-core rockers. Recordings: Simon Rattle (EMI: 49636), Riccardo Muti (EMI: 64516). Further listening: ``The Firebird,'' ``Petrushka.''


Mozart: Clarinet Quintet, K. 581. Dark, supple and supremely graceful, this is one of Mozart's most winning chamber works. Recordings: Gervase de Peyer with the Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon: 429 819), Benny Goodman with the Budapest String Quartet (Angel: 63697). Further listening: String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516, Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478.

Beethoven: String quartets. Beethoven's 16 string quartets are something of a musical diary, working out his ideas about life and music in an intimate setting. Start with the three quartets of Op. 59, then try the earlier pieces of Op. 18 or the five late quartets from his final years. Recordings: Lindsay Quartet (ASV), Alban Berg Quartet (Angel). Further listening: String quartets by Haydn if you like the early pieces better, or by Schumann and Brahms if you like the later ones.

Schubert: String Quintet in C. Even though I know the concept is meaningless, I still consider this expansive, luminous quintet the single greatest piece ever written. Weirder yet, I'm not alone. Recordings: Alban Berg Quartet with Heinrich Schiff (Angel: 47018), Takacs Quartet with Miklos Perenyi (London: 436 324). Further listening: The ``Trout'' Quintet, String Quartet No. 14, ``Death and the Maiden.''


Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro. An opera full of intrigue, romance, surprises and humor, all rendered in superb music. Recordings: Georg Solti conducting (London: 410 150), Riccardo Muti conducting (Angel: 47978). Further listening: ``Don Giovanni,'' ``The Magic Flute.''

Schubert: Die schone Mullerin. Schubert's hundreds of songs are among the profoundest treasures of the vocal repertoire; this magnificent song cycle introduces 20 of the best in a single pop. Recordings: Peter Schreier (London: 430 414), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Deutsche Grammophon: 415 186). Further listening: The cycle ``Winterreise,'' individual songs.

Verdi: La Traviata. An ideal first opera, ``La Traviata'' has love, death, family dynamics and a fount of heart-tugging melody. Recordings: Montserrat Caballe and Carlo Bergonzi (RCA: 6180), Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus (Angel: 47538). Further listening: ``Rigoletto,'' Un Ballo in Maschera.''

Puccini: La Boheme. Like ``Traviata,'' this is another tale of doomed consumptives in love -- just as beautiful, even more overtly heart-tugging. Recordings: Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti (London: 421 049), Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi (London: 421 049). Further listening: ``Tosca,'' ``Madama Butterfly.''

Strauss: Four Last Songs. The last word in soigne elegance from the master of the late-Romantic song, these songs spin out a seemingly endless skein of ethereal melody. Recordings: Lisa della Casa (London: 425 959), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Angel: 61001). Further listening: Earlier songs, ``Capriccio.''

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...
  • 1 year later...
  • 1 year later...

First we need to differentiate the use of the word professional as an adjective v. a noun. Your barista can do his job in a professional manner. Anyone can do his or her job in a professional manner. This is using the word “professional” as an adjective. Just like Schoolhouse Rock: “He was a hairy bear, a very scary bear, we made a hasty retreat from his lair….and described him with adjectives.”



Replying to A Guide to Getting Classical

Learn how to rap fast.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 10 months later...
  • 13 years later...

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Our picks

    • Wait, Burning Man is going online-only? What does that even look like?
      You could have been forgiven for missing the announcement that actual physical Burning Man has been canceled for this year, if not next. Firstly, the nonprofit Burning Man organization, known affectionately to insiders as the Borg, posted it after 5 p.m. PT Friday. That, even in the COVID-19 era, is the traditional time to push out news when you don't want much media attention. 
      But secondly, you may have missed its cancellation because the Borg is being careful not to use the C-word. The announcement was neutrally titled "The Burning Man Multiverse in 2020." Even as it offers refunds to early ticket buyers, considers layoffs and other belt-tightening measures, and can't even commit to a physical event in 2021, the Borg is making lemonade by focusing on an online-only version of Black Rock City this coming August.    Read more...
      More about Burning Man, Tech, Web Culture, and Live EventsView the full article
      • 0 replies
    • Post in What Are You Listening To?
      Post in What Are You Listening To?
    • Post in What Are You Listening To?
      Post in What Are You Listening To?
    • Post in What Are You Listening To?
      Post in What Are You Listening To?
    • Post in What Are You Listening To?
      Post in What Are You Listening To?
  • Create New...