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10 Great Classical Discs


Ralph Graves

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

More from Ralph Graves

We've all done it. We upgrade our A/V system and want to really give it a workout. On goes the "1812 Overture" with the volume cranked to eleven. As a test, that's fine — but how much artillery music do you normally listen to? There's a lot of great classical music out there that will demand the most from your A/V system, and reward you with hours of enjoyable listening in the process.

To follow are some suggestions to check out. It's not a list of the ten best recordings of all time, nor the ten best composers, nor the ten best anything — just ten recordings that are worth checking out because:
  1. They're well recorded, and will sound really good on your system.
  2. The music's accessible and worth listening to even if you're not into classical music.
  3. The music's well composed and worth listening to even if you are into classical music.
These ten releases represent a variety of performers, labels, musical styles and ensembles. Chances are you'll find something to like in our selection. Explore — and enjoy!

Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountains
Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain; Symphony No. 66, Hymn to Glacier Peak; Symphony No. 50, Mount St. Helens; Storm on Mount Wildcat
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz, conductor
(Telarc SACD-60604)
Alan Hovhaness constantly drew inspiration from mountains, writing gentle music that was both monolithic and mystical. "Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain" is the most famous, and lays out the style Hovhaness' other symphonies follow. Lush string harmonies move from beautiful chord to beautiful chord at a leisurely pace; solo lines soar with poignancy. There's a hymn-like quality to Hovhaness' music. His symphonies are not about drama, but rather spirituality.

Conductor Gerard Schwarz has long championed this prolific American composer's music, and uses the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's luxuriant sound to really do these works justice. The Telarc label has always been at the forefront of recording technology, as this audiophile-quality release attests. The CD version of Mysterious Mountains will envelop you with its warm, natural sound. The 6-channel SACD mix, though, pulls you into the center of Hovhaness' mystical soundscape.

Recommended especially for fans of orchestral film scores.

The Perlman Edition: The French Album
Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Havanaise; Chausson: Poème; Massenet: Méditation from "Thaïs"; Ravel: Tzigane
Itzhak Perlman, violin; Lawrence Foster/Abbey Road Ensemble; Jean Martinon/Orchestre de Paris
(EMI Classics 62599)
In addition to having a millennium of music to choose from, the classical listener also has a century of recordings to pick from. Great performances of the past are continually reissued, but many are somewhat limited sonically. One exception is the Perlman Edition, EMI's 15 CD reissue of Itzhak Perlman's recordings made in the 1970's.

The French Album serves as a good entry into this excellent series. It brings together several short pieces for solo violin and orchestra by French composers, and is loaded with familiar tunes (such as Massenet's "Méditation"). These youthful performances by Perlman have a passion and power that can quicken the pulse. EMI returned to Abbey Road Studios to completely remaster these recordings, bringing out the rich sound that was missing from the original releases.

Recommended for those who love a good melody and instrumental fireworks.

Watkins Ale: Music of the English Renaissance
The Baltimore Consort
(Dorian Records 90142)
The Baltimore Consort specializes in "early music" (music written before 1750). Although they use Renaissance instruments and play in a historically authentic style, they're no group of stuffy academicians. The Consort re-create the freewheeling improvisations Tudor musicians brought to the bare-bones melodies printed in 16th-century fake books. The result is music that's just as fun to listen to now as it was 400 years ago. All of the Baltimore Consort's many releases sound great, but familiar tunes (like "Greensleeves") sung in English make "Watkin's Ale" a good introduction to their recordings.

Dorian Records captures the Consort in loving detail, especially Custer LaRue's pure soprano tone. The gut-stringed lutes and viols, coupled with Chris Norman's wooden flute, give the music a warm softness, like that of candlelight. English ballads brought over by early settlers formed the basis for Appalachian roots music. That similarity of sound helps make early music appealing to people who don't otherwise listen to classical.

Recommended for those who like acoustic folk and the intro to "Stairway to Heaven."

Bach: 6 Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007 - 1012
Matt Haimovitz, cello
(Oxingale Records OX2000)
Johann Sebastian Bach's six suites for solo cello are perennial favorites with artists. The single-line melodies are so expertly crafted that they imply their own accompaniment, giving the music a palpable texture. As was standard for the day (ca. 1720), Bach didn't load down the music with a lot of performance instructions. Each player is free to use all his or her musicianship to make an intensely personal musical statement with these suites.

Matt Haimovitz, a former Deutsche Grammophon recording artist, has been sharing his statement in a unique way. The cellist tours the country, playing the Bach suites in coffee houses, pubs, and any other small venue NOT associated with classical music. Without the barrier of concert tradition, Haimovitz has made classical music exciting and relevant to the average listener and turned in some exciting performances in the process.

In keeping with his goal of removing roadblocks between artist and audience, Haimovitz recorded the suites on Oxingale, his own label, in his own way. The suites were recorded over six days in a small Congregational church, with a resulting vibe similar to the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions. Haimovitz sounds like he's playing from the altar, with you sitting in the front row. The HDCD yields a very realistic cello sound, free of any studio artificiality.

Recommended for anyone into acoustic music.

Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus; Robert Spano, director
(Telarc 80588)
Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Sea Symphony" gives your speakers the same workout as the "1812 Overture" but you don't have to wait 20 minutes for the big bang! The symphony opens with a 200-voice chorus singing as loud as possible, "Behold, the SEA!" That last word is the cue for the entire 95 piece orchestra to come crashing in full blast. In the first ten seconds of music, your speakers have gone from dead silence to maximum load. The music immediately backs off to a more manageable level, but the power of the whole ensemble is never far away throughout the symphony.

Vaughan Williams' first symphony is big in every way: big orchestra, big chorus, big tunes, big sound and big themes (the sea as a metaphor for passage into the afterlife). The music rises and swells, evoking images of the sea without cliché. The melodies are broad and modal, reflecting Vaughan Williams' love of English folksong.

Telarc has been recording the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus for years, and that experience shows. Even with just two channels you get a good sense of space and the size of the ensemble. The sound deftly incorporates the ambient resonance of the hall, giving the music the bigness it needs without muddying reverb. This release, which justly won a Grammy in 2002, is also available as a discrete six-channel SACD that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Recommended for those who want to put their system through its paces — and hear some great music in the process.

Darkness into Light: Medieval and modern — a mystical journey
Tavener: Come and do Your will in me; As one who has slept; The Lord's Prayer; The Bridegroom
Anonymous 4; Chilingirian String Quartet
(Harmonia Mundi HMU907274)
The Anonymous 4 is a quartet of women with an unbelievably flawless vocal blend. They've built a career performing a cappella the music of Hildegard von Bingen and other medieval composers, as well as that of contemporary composers, especially those who draw on medieval influences. Darkness into Light brings these two worlds together, alternating between medieval church music and recent compositions by British composer John Tavener. While there's a difference in style, there's an underlying aesthetic that's constant throughout all the selections.

John Tavener (the only classical composer signed to Apple Records, back in 1968) has immersed himself in the music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Tavener's music is serene, spare and profoundly spiritual, with a slight Middle Eastern inflection. His quiet pieces require a purity of tone and absolute accuracy of pitch — challenges easily handled by the Anonymous 4 (and the Chilingirian String Quartet). No driving rhythms, no dramatic changes; just ethereal music that, like the interior of a Gothic cathedral, seems to be sculpted out of the air itself.

One of Harmonia Mundi's strengths is the way it records the unamplified voice. The sound seems to rise and swirl about the room, as it did in the monastery where it was originally recorded. Darkness into Light transparently reveals the subtle inflections of this tranquil music.

Recommended for those who like the calm of New Age music, and others who just want to chill out.

Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 76, Nos. 2-4
String Quartets Op. 76, No. 2 "The Fifths"; No. 3 "The Emperor"; No. 4 "Sunrise"
Alban Berg Quartett
(EMI Classics 56166)
Chamber music (as the term implies) is meant for intimate listening, which makes it well suited to home audio systems. One of the most popular forms of chamber music is the string quartet (two violins, viola and cello). Franz Joseph Haydn didn't invent the form, but he's its first acknowledged master. Mozart dedicated a set of string quartets to his elder contemporary — even Beethoven grudgingly paid him homage. Haydn's quartets are masterpieces of clarity. There's no excessive ornamentation — just simple, good-natured melodies with some clever interplay. The Op. 76 set is a good introduction, and has some familiar melodies. The "Emperor" quartet features a theme and variations on a tune that Haydn wrote: the Austrian national anthem (also famous as a hymn).

The Alban Berg Quartett have been together for quite a few years. Just as an ensemble cast can create a performance better than any individual actor can provide, so too with the Berg. These musicians have an easy give and take that makes the music almost conversational.

EMI has recorded the quartet close, which brings out the details in the inner voices of the music. The instruments, particularly the first violin, sound bright without being shrill; at the same time, the lower registers have a throaty quality common to older violins and violas.

Recommended for those who really like to dig into the music they listen to.

Mozart: Night Music
Eine kleine Nachtmusik; Adagio & Fugue in C minor; Menuet & Trio in C major; Serenata Notturna, Serenade in D major; Ein musikalisher Spaß (A Musical Joke)
The English Concert; Andrew Manze, conductor
(Harmonia Mundi HMU 907280)
In the pre-A/V 1770's, party music had to be provided by live musicians. Mozart's serenades were written specifically for outdoor affairs given by nobility. The music is light, the movements short and simple; perfect background for networking with the Hapsburgs and noshing the 18th-century equivalent of buffalo wings. In addition to "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" (Mozart's best-known serenade), Night Music includes other short pieces designed for an evening's entertainment. The disc includes the "Musical Joke," Mozart's withering lampoon of provincial musicians he was often forced to work with on tour. Bad playing, lost soloists, wrong notes — its all there. Classical isn't always "serious" music!

Andrew Manze is one of the hottest performers on the early music scene, looking at overly familiar classics with a fresh eye. His goal is to revitalize the music by adding back some of the improvisational spontaneity that's been leached out over the centuries. The English Concert backs him with instruments of the period, creating a sound that's more intimate and open than that of a modern orchestra. Plus, the use of gut strings (as opposed to steel) takes the edge off the sound.

Harmonia Mundi's recording captures the ensemble in just the right acoustic space. It's open, but not large; avoiding the too-formal feel a concert hall would give this party music.

Recommended for those who want some light entertainment.

Chopin: Études, Opus 10 and Opus 25
Murray Perahia, piano
(Sony Classics 61885)
Étude is the French word for "study." What kind of piano student Chopin wrote these "study" pieces for isn't clear, as the Études are some of the most difficult piano pieces in the repertoire. Nevertheless, like Mount Everest to a climber, every concert pianist from Franz Liszt on has taken a crack at them, with varying degrees of success.

Murray Perahia's rendition is one of the best of the current crop of artists. His performance is a study in understated virtuosity. There's no frantic keyboard banging here, nor overly dramatic expression. Perahia simply plays, and in the process makes these knuckle-busters sound easy. You get to hear the marvelous music buried beneath the technical challenges. Listen especially for the wonderful interpretation of Étude #3, Op. 10 (you'll know the tune — even if you don't know the name).

Recording the grand piano in a convincingly realistic fashion has been a perennial problem, but as this Grammy-winning release shows, it can be done and done well. The piano sound is clean, with just the right amount of blend between the registers and a really nice resonance.

Recommended for anyone who's taken piano lessons, or enjoys listening to an artist at the top of his game.

Paganini for Two: Works for Violin and Guitar
Paganini: Sonata concertata; 3 sonatas from Op. 3; Grand sonata; Centone di sonate; Cantabile; "Moses" Variations; Moto perpetuo
Gil Shaham, violin; Göran Söllscher, guitar
(Deutsche Grammophon 437837)
Nicolo Paganini, legendary 19th-century violin virtuoso, also played the guitar. His music for these two instruments is challenging to play, but scaled way back from the pyrotechnics that define his writing for violin and orchestra. Paganini was a show-off by nature, and although intimate, this isn't really background music. It is, though, not very deep music, so it's OK just to lean back and enjoy the show.

Gil Shaham has the chops and the attitude to tackle Paganini. He brings a singing tone and expressive manner that really sells these short pieces. Söllscher's finger work is nimble and immaculate, free of the ugly chiffing finger slides that mar many acoustic guitar performances. Shaham and Söllscher interact well, and the music at times takes on the aspect of a conversation between two old friends.

The tonmeisters at Deutsche Grammophon capture the sound of both the guitar and violin in an authentic fashion. It's always fun to sit in on two consummate musicians at play, and the close miking of Shaham and Söllscher puts you right there.

Recommended for anyone who likes their acoustic music with lots of expression.

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