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Classical music for $100

Tyler Cowen started it with his suggestions on how to put together an introduction-kit for classical music not to exceed 100 dollars. It’s difficult to generalize*, because every newcomer responds to different stimuli: having guided a few friends and acquaintances in their first music-purchase steps, the notable constant was the surprisingly different paths they took. One lovely lass would lap up Bruckner and Prokofiev like nobody’s business and turn the lights out to fully enjoy Lohengrin. Another needed baby-steps through the early romantic repertoire into both directions, only eventually arriving at Bach and Mahler. And the logic/philosophy of science/math types I’ve met best respond to early music, baroque, and strategically placed modernism.
Still, the challenge is fun enough, and with the benefit of the experience of a few years spent slaving at Tower Records, I’ll try to come up with a generic character who has appreciation written all over him or her, but had no proper exposure to classical music. The selection is not supposed to be a survey—much less a representative one—of classical music; merely the most efficient bait.

* I wonder if perhaps it should be pointed out more forcefully that such one-size-fit-all lists are daft, because tastes and preferences really do vary so much more than lists could ever account for.

It's a bit like giving out a fixed list of the the ten "best" medications to prospective patients, sight unseen.

First, a few rules:

1.) Tyler’s fourth point being the most important. “Never buy an inferior recording simply because it is cheaper. In the long run it is more expensive.” Maybe not so much more expensive as “less efficient”. It may leave you unimpressed with Beethoven where Beethoven is truly not at fault. We all hear the same things; it’s only those who have nothing to compare their impressions with who can’t pinpoint the blame correctly, if they don’t like it. That’s not to say compromise of some sort isn’t involved. The below choices may still not be my absolute favorites… but where that is the case the interpretations will still be very good and the couplings and price-point superior to whatever my actual top choice might be.

2.) No box sets. I know it’s tempting when you can get the complete works of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms for $85.93. But it’s useless to the early-comer in classical music. Not so much because it’s quantity over quality (there are some very high quality dirt-cheap box sets out there) but because it’s an overwhelming quantity. The experience will be like an argument without cohesion; a narrative without structure. Even all the Beethoven Symphonies, just five CDs, is overkill. Experiencing this music for the first time is a piece-by-piece event and needs to be as focused as possible. Too many CDs are more a distraction to that end than they are an aid. The Beethoven Piano Concertos is as close as I’ll come to bending that rule.

3.) No harpsichord or organ. Love both, but not ideally suited to the virgin ear.

4.) Pricing as per Amazon. (Hard copy, not mp3, reasonable average between “new” price and official price, where the discrepancy is vast.)

For technical reasons (not purposes of suspense), my choices can be seen after the jump:

available at AmazonD.Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas,
Virgin Classics


available at AmazonS.Rachmaninoff / P.Tchaikovsky, PC no. 3 & PC no.1,
Argerich et al.
Philips / Decca


available at AmazonA.Dvořák / P.Tchaikovsky , Cello Concerto, Rococo Variations,
Rostropovich / Karajan / BPh


available at AmazonL.v.Beethoven Piano Concertos, Triple Concerto,
Pollini / Abbado / BPh


available at AmazonE.Grieg, Piano Concerto, Lyric Pieces,
Andsnes / Kitajenko / Bergen PO
Virgin Classics


available at AmazonLalo, Saint-Saëns, Bruch, Bloch, Works for Cello & Orchestra,
Fournier et al.


available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Goldberg Variations (both versions),
Glenn Gould


available at AmazonW.A.Mozart, F.Schubert, Sonatas for Two Pianos,
Perahia & Lupu


available at AmazonCello Sonatas,
Rostropovich / Serkin


Though, truth be told, if pressed to put a package like that together for someone, I’d probably throw out the Brahms and replace the Gould Goldbergs with Alexandre Tharaud’s concertos italiens.

Total: $102


Unknown said...

Hi Jens,
I found it interesting that you suggested the complete Beethoven symphonies were "overkill" but listed all the piano concerti of the same composer. Any particular reason why?
Christina Reitz

Matt said...

No chamber music?!! :) Great list though. What a difficult task.

jfl said...

Re: Beethoven PCs:

Yes, I kind of wondered about that, too. But I think they're just so darn good. 1, 3, 4, 5...

Partly I because I sense (rightly or wrongly) that the piano timbre is better suited than, say, a violin's, for new ears... and the to-and-fro between tutti and soloist in concertos is immediately gripping; much more so than more structured forms of compositions like symphonies, sonatas, or quartets.

Re: No Chamber Music

Well, not "no" chamber music. There are Brahms Cello Sonatas, right? Works like Brahms' Piano Quartets or a Trout certainly are close in the running... but you can't squeeze everything into $100 and it's not in any way supposed to be representative of all there is out there. There'll be some more in the "Second $100" installment, though. :-)

herman said...

what a strange idea to propose so many cello cd's. The violin cto (Mozart, LvB, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovksy) is the most universally appreciated and disseminated classical music genre, but suddenly we're told "new ears" don't like the sound of the violin (never mind the orchestras behind those solo cellos and pianos feature a lot of violins too). A recital cd with a good violinist and Beethoven's Kreutzer, a Mozart sonata and a Brahms sonata, would be an ideal start.