CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Classical Music for $100: Music History Survey

Image by jfl

The omnivorous Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, came up with a list of what CDs one should buy as an introduction to classical music, on a $100 budget. Jens has added two lists of his own, after soundly establishing that such an idea is as impossible as it is fun. In some ways, the reader should examine his own tastes and interests and choose one of these $100 lists according to what he knows about himself. Unable to resist the temptation of compiling my own list, I offer yet another choice for the classical music novice who wants to listen to a survey of all the periods of "classical" music history. (As always, if you buy through the links provided, part of the proceeds goes to support Ionarts.) With a few caveats -- like music history and my own predilections, this list is skewed toward vocal music and sacred music -- here is your whirlwind tour through the halls of time, for the cost of a Benjamin.

available at Amazon
Medieval Music
École de Notre-Dame: Mass for Christmas Day
Ensemble Organum, M. Pérès ($11)

Celebrate the New Year with this exquisite recording, which was re-released this week at an excellent price (slightly cheaper even, by a bit, from ArkivMusic). Since first hearing this disc, shortly after it was first released in 1985, I have recommended it to everyone who would listen as the most beautifully performed and ingeniously programmed cross-section of liturgical music in the Romanesque period. Rather than neatly divided ages of chant and polyphony, forms of the latter are found in written sources nearly as old as those containing the former. A compilation of pieces making up a Christmas Mass, this program mingles chant and polyphony -- ordinary, propers, tropes, parallel organum, and more complicated polyphony, all transcribed from original sources -- in a seamless way. The performances are just as stylish as the musicology behind them.

available at Amazon
Renaissance Music
The Essential Tallis Scholars ($17)

Alex Ross may be content with something less than sonic perfection in his Renaissance polyphony, but it still seems to me that there is no better introduction to the glories of the polyphonic age than the immaculate recordings of the Tallis Scholars. We have written glowingly of them countless times, in concert and on disc. This 2-for-1 package set brings together some of the most gorgeous works of the Renaissance the group has recorded (of a tally of 50 discs over the course of the group's existence). All the big guns -- Victoria, Palestrina, Byrd, Josquin, Lassus, Tallis -- are included, plus some lesser-known names like Rore, Crecquillon, Clemens non Papa, Isaac, Brumel, Cornysh, and White.

available at Amazon
Baroque Music
Vivaldi, Amor Sacro
S. Kermes, Venice Baroque Orchestra, A. Marcon ($16)

This recording stands at the top of the list as the set of tracks summoned up most often from the ether of my MP3 player. The instrumental playing is in the muscular, almost frantic style that Marcon and his small ensemble, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, have made their own. German soprano Simone Kermes has a voice that is well suited to the VBO sound, flexible, agile, accurate, like a laser beam. The four solo motets are a superb selection from the score of possibilities I count in the New Grove works list. While this music was intended to serve the same liturgical purpose as the music found on the previous two choices, it could not be more different in style. The first movement of In furore iustissimae irae (RV 626) grabs you with its searing string sound and organ continuo, percussive string attacks, and incredible vocal embellishments on the return of the A section. In response to God's just anger in the first movement, the brief recitative agonizingly calls on God's mercy, followed up by the slow passacaglia Tunc meus fletus, a weeping, chromatic aria that would soften any irate deity's heart, especially with the beautiful lute realization of the continuo line. With its gasping repeated-note opening motif, performed orgasmically by Kermes (this is probably the sound emanating from the mouth of Bernini's Teresa of Avila -- holy ecstasy), and the cascading scales from the continuo organ, it will make you want to dance. [Read the full review]

available at Amazon
Classical Music
Mozart, Trollflojten (The Magic Flute), directed by Ingmar Bergman (DVD, $25)

Opera should be a part of these $100 packages, but the often prohibitive cost of CD sets of these longer works, especially the good ones, makes them difficult to include. My solution for this list is to include a DVD, priced effectively, of Ingmar Bergman's heart-breakingly beautiful filmed version of Mozart's Masonic masterpiece. It was shot in the Baroque theater at Drottningholm, outside Stockholm. In the film, we observe the opera through the fascinated eyes of a little girl, among other audience members. The backstage glimpses are absolutely charming, such as the singer portraying Papageno, who wakes up from a nap when he hears his first aria's orchestral introduction, runs upstairs, and enters just as he is to sing his first line. At intermission, we see the Sarastro studying the score of Parsifal next to a child actor studying a comic book, and the Queen of the Night taking a few long drags on a cigarette.

available at Amazon
Romantic Music
Chopin, Piano Sonatas 2/3 (inter alia), Marc-André Hamelin ($16)

Chopin has figured in the recital programs and even recordings of Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, but this is the first time that he has devoted an entire disc to the Polish composer and pianist's pianist. Since Hamelin has not played any Chopin on his area recitals, I had not given his interpretation of Chopin much thought until this recent release in Hamelin's fine series of recordings for Hyperion crossed my desk. Not only is Hamelin's playing extremely virtuosic, but here as noted of his recording of the Ives Concord Sonata, he is willing to push that extraordinary technique to the breaking point in the interest of a daring, dramatic interpretation. So while there is plenty of extraordinary Chopin on disc, this is the sort of Chopin that, far from wilting in a wan, tubercular introspection, grabs you by the collar and shouts to the rooftops. [Read the complete review]

available at Amazon
Contemporary Music
D. Lang, Little Match Girl Passion (2007)
Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, P. Hillier ($18)

The New Music at Carnegie Hall project commissioned David Lang to compose a work for Paul Hillier's vocal chamber ensemble Theater of Voices. A regular with the Bang on a Can collective, Lang began with an ingenious idea for a text to inspire a substantial and almost exclusively vocal composition (the four singers also play a few percussion instruments that are sparsely added to the texture), overlaying the story drawn from Hans Christian Andersen's Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne (The Little Match Girl, trans. Jean Hersholt) with the crowd and congregational responses of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. The result, The Little Match Girl Passion, is something like a musical version of the Isenheim Altarpiece, a work of art that somehow joins the anguished misery of human existence -- the heartless, pointless death of a poor little girl on a Danish street on a cold New Year's Eve (and by extension, our existence, all of us) -- to the suffering of Christ and thus to the sublime mystery of God's mercy. [Read the complete review]

Total: $103


Anonymous said...

Or you could just purchase the Norton Anthology of Western Music CDs. It's a good sampling of music history, and introduces the beginner to many periods and styles. Although not all the works are complete, there's enough to educate the curious and give them a jumping off point.

Charles T. Downey said...

That would not be my recommendation. Each of the two volumes of the Norton Recorded Anthology retails from Norton at $85 (for six CDs each). It would be more money, and a lot of the music as I recall it was slightly boring, which to a novice might be translated as "boring as hell."

Anonymous said...

For getting an introduction, it seems anachronistic to recommend CDs in this world of other formats, where one can get one's Franklin to go farther and get more diversity by downloading single movements. And, interestingly, this is more in line with the way the music was enjoyed when it was written (it wasn't rare, for example, for a concert Mozart was conducting to include a movement from one work, a movement from another, a movement of someone else's popular piece, etc.). And, on first exposure, someone may just love the 3rd mvt. of Brahms's 3rd, but having to swallow the whole symphony may be too intimidating, too much, or blunt the experience altogether.

I'll also note that the Hamelin-Chopin was reissued at a lower price in November, so now can be had at arkiv, e.g. for $13.

Charles T. Downey said...

Old-fashioned, perhaps; anachronistic, not quite yet. As for recommending by the track instead of the disc, you are welcome to put together your own such list, but it sounds like a helluva lot more work. Anyway, trying to guess the listener's reaction to each individual movement is probably going to make the decision-making process rather unpleasant.

As for the lower price for the Hamelin at Arkiv, so much the better: now the budget is that much closer to the actual $100 price tag.

Anonymous said...

Well, OK then, how about for half the price, under $50, the following pieces (I think the idea is to include music one knows non-classical listeners have responded to), just as a first stab:

Beethoven 2.III, 9.II, op59nr2.I or IV, op74.I or III, op13.II and III; Mozart K388.II, K378.I, K622:III; Haendel Grand Concertos, Nr. 7; Haydn 73.I; Bach Suite a violoncello 1-courante; Vaughan Williams Tallis fantasia; Rachmaninov concerto 2.I, Barber op. 11.II (either version); Dvorak 9.II (or I); Stravinsky Pulcinella overture, allegro assai or tarantella, Firebird I; Part Fratres; Vivaldi Gloria and one movement from the Cimento; Piazzolla Oblivion; Borodin quartet 2:III; Sibelius 2:I and 5:III; Adams Short Ride, Violin Concerto I or III, perhaps Chamber Symphony III; Mahler 5:IV; Williams Episode I, Cello Concerto, and either Jurassic, Catch Me, or Minority Report; Meyer 1B; Zappa Peaches and Times Beach; Rameau la folia from Platee performed by Petibon; Prokofiev Romeo&Juliet fountain, tybalt, and folk dance; Kapustin concert etude 8 and Ligeti etude I:4; and Lislevand passacaglia after pellegrini, preferably the armoniosi.

Perhaps I'm not the best at picking these since I have limited experience with seeing how "classical" novices react to most of the literature, but I know a lot of these are consistently liked by such people. The point was not to go straight for the pieces experts have identified as the greats, but to try to remember which pieces non-musicians have asked me, over the years, "what's this piece?--it's cool." I've come to understand that, even with a great knowledge of the literature, I'm no better than random at anticipating what pieces any particular person would like, even if I know what other pieces they already like.

Anonymous said...

And a few others I forgot to mention: Rossini overture to Gazza ladra; Mozart overture to D.Giovanni; Bernstein overture to Candide; Gesualdo dolorosa gioia or dulcissima vita from Book V; Mendelssohn String Symphony 8:I; Stravinsky Concerto in re II and III.

Charles T. Downey said...

An interesting selection. Don't forget all the individual links to buy the MP3s!