Listen up!

Six experts pick their classical favorites

Have you vowed to put more Mendelssohn into your mornings in 2003? To get a better take on Tchaikovsky? To brush off Berlioz no longer?

Monitor writer Greg Lamb asked six professional musicians, conductors, and music administrators around the country to name their top five picks for new fans of classical music. While some named specific recordings by a favorite artist, and others reminisced about personal memories attached to their choices, no two picked the same piece.

Douglas Yeo

bass trombonist,

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Claudio Monteverdi:

'Vespers of 1610'

Boston Baroque;

Martin Pearlman, conductor

The sumptuous sound of Monteverdi's magnificent "Vespers" is simply breathtaking. Boston Baroque's performance captures all of the elegance and mystery of this stunning masterpiece, which is played expertly on period instruments - the ancient instruments it was composed for, including cornetto (the precursor to the trumpet) and sackbut (an early trombone).

Hector Berlioz:

'Symphonie fantastique'

Orchestre Révolutionnaire

et Romantique;

John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

This was a revolutionary work in terms of form, message, and orchestration, and when played in its original version with original instruments (the 1830 edition, performed with instruments we rarely hear today, including serpent and ophicleide), the effect is even more revealing. Gardiner's recording is shocking in its clarity and insight, and has the added advantage of being recorded in the venue where the piece premièred, the Old Hall of the Paris Conservatory.

Johann Sebastian Bach:

'Six Suites for Violoncello'

Anner Bylsma, cello

It is difficult to make a single recommendation of the music of J.S. Bach, as so much of his inspired output (his several hundred church cantatas, the monumental biblical "Passions," volumes of keyboard music, and orchestral suites and concertos) represents towering achievements in the history of Western music. But if only one could be had, it surely must be this. By paring musicmaking down to its most essential component (melody), Bach gives performer and listener alike a transcendent look into the soul; Bylsma's interpretation ranks among the finest of many excellent recordings.

Gustav Mahler:

'Symphony 5'

Vienna Philharmonic;

Pierre Boulez, conductor

The symphonies of Gustav Mahler are towering achievements of late 19th and early 20th century music but still speak freshly to our postmodern, 21st-century world. Poetry, angst, triumph, struggle, and redemption can all be found in his Symphony 5; this recording of Mahler's former orchestra has all of the drama, beauty, and excitement one could hope for in a performance.

Anton Bruckner:


Corydon Singers;

Matthew Best, conductor

While Anton Bruckner is best known for his towering symphonies, his sacred "Motets" are inspired miniatures of faith and devotion. The Corydon Singers represent the very best of the great English choral tradition, and they deliver performances of exceptional purity on this fine recording.

Benjamin Britten:

'War Requiem'

London Symphony

Orchestra and Chorus;

Benjamin Britten, conductor

Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano;

Peter Pears, tenor; Dietrich

Fischer-Dieskau, baritone.

Composed for the 1962 dedication of the new cathedral in Coventry, England, which replaced the old cathedral which had been left in ruins during World War II, Britten's "War Requiem" is ever timely in a world facing hatred and evil. Combining the powerful poetry of Wilfred Owen ("My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity... All a poet can do today is warn.") with the ancient Latin Mass for the Dead, Britten's own recording is visceral in its impact, inspiring in its message, and powerful in its performance.

Giovanni Gabrieli:

'S acrae Symphoniae'

His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts

Timothy Roberts, moderator

Modern arrangements of Gabrieli's excellent instrumental "Sacred Symphony" are well known to brass players, who play them regularly in concert and recital. But to hear this soaring music on the instruments for which they were composed (not trumpets, trombones, and tubas, but cornetti, sackbuts, and violas) is to transport one to another time - a time of softer timbres, shimmering colors, and stunning sonorities.

Lucas Richman

resident conductor, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

The five pieces listed here demonstrate many different styles of music within the classical genre while also presenting a number of different instrumental and vocal performing combinations.

Johann Strauss:

'Till Eulenspiegel '

Music that tells a story (and a fun one at that) is a great way to excite someone about classical music and to get their imagination going.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky:

'Symphony No. 4 '

Four movements in the standard symphonic format provide contrast in moods, while the "Fate" motive provides dramatic unity to the work. The stirring finale is sure to spur one on to find more music in the same genre.

George Gershwin:

'An American in Paris'

A very accessible work that tells a story, while displaying that "classical" music need not be a stuffy affair.

Ludwig Van Beethoven: 'Concerto for Violin and Orchestra'

Three movements in the standard concerto format provide contrast in moods, while the soloist has a chance to express lyricism and display virtuosity.

Guiseppe Verdi: 'Requiem'

A great choral work that sounds like an opera but isn't. For those eager to find spirituality and drama in classical music, there are few pieces that measure up to the Verdi Requiem.

Fred Bronstein

president of the Dallas Symphony

Johann Sebastian Bach:

'Goldberg Variations '

performed by Glenn Gould (1955 or 1981 recordings).

The greatest example of variation form written by the single most important composer in the history of Western music, and performed by one of the most innovative, original, and brilliant talents of the 20th century.

Antonio Vivaldi:

'Four Seasons'

Of the many recordings - I like I Musici with Roberto Michelucci, violin.

A wonderful early example of "program music," which tells a story. You will never think of a violin in the same way after hearing it.

Ludwig Van Beethoven:

'Symphony No. 9'

Too many recordings to pick from, but I still love Toscanini and the NBC Symphony.

It changed the standard to which composers would aspire with symphonic music from the moment it appeared, and there is not a better example of an expression of humanity through music than this piece. But don't cheat - listen to the whole piece and not just the "famous part." You won't be sorry!

Franz Schubert:

'Quintet in A Major'

(the "Trout" Quintet), performed by Rudolph Serkin and some of his old Music at Marlboro friends.

This list could not be complete without a great example of chamber music - music performed by a small ensemble, in this case five players. Schubert wrote some of the most tuneful, beautiful music ever, and this piece, inspired by one of Schubert's songs, "The Trout," is heavenly.

Igor Stravinsky:

'The Rite of Spring'

performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez.

This is one of the most influential pieces of the 20th century, performed by one of its most important orchestras and conductors. It literally sparked a riot in Paris when it was first performed.

Jennifer Higdon

composer and conductor, faculty member of The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia

I've based these selections on my experiences doing talks at concerts with everyone from the ages of 7 to 70. We discussed their expectations, their desires in general music listening (this means also those coming from listening only to pop and country music), and the hesitancies in exploration.

John Adams:

'Naive and Sentimental Music'

Los Angeles Philharmonic,

Essa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

'Barber and Meyer Violin Concertos'

performed by Hilary Hahn

'Songs of Ned Rorem'

Susan Graham, soprano

Malcolm Martineau, pianist

'White Moon-Songs to Morpheus'

Dawn Upshaw, soprano

Igor Stravinsky: 'Firebird,' 'Petrushka'

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor

'Dance Mix'

Baltimore Symphony, David Zinman, conductor

'Rainbow Body'

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Robert Spano, conductor

This new release, coming this spring, will include Copland ("Appalachian Spring"), Barber, Theofanidis, and Higdon. (I personally guarantee that this will be a winner!)

Chen Zhao


San Francisco Symphony

Gustav Mahler:

'Symphony No. 1'

San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Gustav Mahler is one of my favorite symphonic composers, and Michael Tilson Thomas is one of my favorite conductors for Mahler. Perhaps everyone has a personal connection with a piece of music that brings back wonderful memories; this is the very first Mahler symphony that I played. It was with the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in Japan under Tilson Thomas's baton in 1992.

This was an outdoor performance in the arts park in Sapporo, and as I remember, halfway into the piece, a thunderstorm came by and it started to pour. The music continued onstage, and what amazed me was that, of the thousands of audience members sitting outside on the lawn, not a single person stood up to escape from the rain. I was 17 at the time, and the experience of such a powerful performance had a huge impact on me as a musician. And 10 years later, it was such a sentimental and joyous moment to play and record this glorious piece as a violinist of the San Francisco Symphony, and once again with Tilson Thomas conducting.

Franz Schubert:

'String Quartet

in D minor, D810'

"Death and the Maiden,"

Amadeus String Quartet

The "Death and the Maiden" is one of the first string quartets I had to learn in order to audition for the New York String Orchestra. This led to an opportunity to be in New York for the first time and play the orchestral version with Alexander Schneider conducting at Carnegie Hall.

Years later, I studied the quartet again with the legendary Amadeus Quartet in London. This is an outstanding recording from this world-renowned quartet.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: 'Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49'

Mieczyslaw Horszowski, piano;

Alexander Schneider, violin; Pablo Casals, cello

Three of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, performing live at the White House Nov. 13, 1961, for President Kennedy. It is a treasure for all listeners.

'Selections from the Heifetz Collection'

Jascha Heifetz, violinist

The Russian-American violinist Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) is known for his unsurpassed virtuoso technique and brilliant interpretations of violin literature. This is a small collection of favorite encore pieces by this phenomenal violinist.


Joseph Szigeti, violinist

The Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973) is an extraordinarily romantic player. He is known for his eloquent approach to the classical repertoire and as an avant-garde performer of contemporary composers such as Block, Béla Bartók, Sergei Prokofiev, and other major figures of the 20th century.

'Denise Djokic plays Barber, Martinu, and Britten Sonatas '

Denise Djokic is one of the most exciting young virtuoso cellists of our generation. She has brought classical music to a broader audience through appearances such as the 2002 Grammy Awards, where she played Bach with the award-winning rock group Train.

We performed the Arnold Schoenberg "Transfigured Night," Op. 4, together in the Ravinia Festival in Chicago two years ago. It was such a joyful experience to play with someone who is so genuine, sincere, and sensitive in musicmaking. I was able to hear a live performance of her exuberant rendition of the "Martinu Sonata," which is featured on this wonderful debut CD released by Sony Classics.

Laura Carlo

on-air host, and

Rodney Flora

music director, WCRB-FM, a classical music station in Boston

Edward Elgar: 'Cello Concerto'

Jacqueline DuPré, cellist

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:

Most people know of Mozart's more famous symphonies and concertos, but I'd strongly recommend checking out his string trios, quartets, and quintets.

Ludwig Van Beethoven: 'Hammerklavier Sonata'

Many people would know Beethoven's piano sonatas ("Moonlight" and "Waldstein," for example) but few today know his "Hammerklavier Sonata," a great pounding piece. Look for a recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy or Maurizio Pollini.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky :

'Piano Trio'

This is a great piece to explore - accessible yet deliciously "new."

Ralph Vaughan Williams:

'Sea Symphony,' 'London Symphony'

Our favorite 20th-century composer is Ralph Vaughan Williams. But move beyond his "Fantasia on Greensleeves" and try his dramatic "Sea Symphony" or maybe the impressionistic "London Symphony."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Listen up!
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today