Recommendations of Classical Music
November 15, 2003; last updated December 15, 2019
Introduction: Reminiscence of Louis Krasner
My instruments are violin and viola. I started on violin around the age of eight. I have played only violin since about 1998 due to a casualty to my viola, and on average probably less than once a month. I played viola in middle school and high school, and studied viola for one year with Louis Krasner in my freshman year at Syracuse University, 1969-70. I had no idea of who he was. I was just a philosophy major coming to the school of music to continue viola after high school. Some music student told me that Krasner had been a touring virtuoso in the '30's and '40's, but he never talked about it. After listening to me play for about a minute, he said my technique would have to be completely relearned. Later he said I could develop a professional tone. He eventually wanted me to practice so hard that I decided I could only do that much work in my chosen profession, and did not return after the first year. But his technical advice grew on me over the years. My tone began to come together around 1994, and starting around 2001, it came to intoxicate me to work on it, if not my wife and children.
Around 1995, I went on one of my occasional forays of escape from the law school to the school of music, and ventured into Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I discovered that Krasner had commissioned Alban Berg's violin concerto and had given its world premiere, and the world premieres of Arnold Schoenberg (Schönberg)'s violin concerto, Alfredo Casella’s violin concerto, Roger Sessions’ violin concerto, and many other works by various composers. He was a major champion of avant garde music.
I was probably his worst student, or one of his worst. I do not play in tune as well as I would like even now. But even if I had never learned about the famous things he did, I would still remember him. He was always nice to me, and the best music teacher I could ever hope to have. He was remarkably patient with me. But then I was just a duffer, or just another duffer, from liberal arts.
I remember once when I was getting ready for a lesson, he started playing the most beautiful and pure but unknown music. I asked him which concerto that was. He said, "I'm just fooling around." When I came to a lesson in January or February 1970 very sick and unable to play, he was very solicitous and sent me to the infirmary. There I was diagnosed as having flu and told to stay overnight.
Once he asked me which violinists I liked. I thought for a moment and said Josef Suk. (I was too diffident to mention the others I liked, though I had wanted to mention Henryk Szeryng, perhaps a couple of others, such as Isaac Stern, and as the best, Jascha Heiftez.) He seemed pleased and said Suk was a good violinist.
I attended his farewell concert in 1971 or 1972. He played the Bach double concerto for violin with his wife as the other soloist. (I learned who she was in 1995 as well-- Adrienne Galimir, second violinist of the Galimir Quartet, a brother and three sisters who championed twelve tone music, as did Krasner.) I remember the extra-heavy flourish he put on the final note, to the general merriment of the audience. Even his wife laughed, right on the stage. I was glad to see he had a sense of humor. He continued teaching elsewhere until he died in 1995 at the age of 91.
According to one of his obituaries, he was famous among students for his cryptic, Yoda-like sage counsel as well as for his technical advice. Indeed, early in in my study with him, he ventured, didn't I agree that as people grow older and learn more, the less they find they know? I readily agreed. I had not only heard the saying before, but knew exactly what he meant. He was surprised and told me that most music majors did not understand what he meant.
The following are scarcely the only compositions, performances, performers, or composers I like. In fact, you might be surprised by what I am leaving out from my library of over 600 LPs and perhaps 100 CDs. I rarely listen to them now, perhaps because I listened to them too many times and became oversaturated, but they are still my recommendations.
I start with a special recommendation: Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, Louis Krasner, violin, Anton Webern conducts BBC Symphony Orchestra, May 1, 1936 (soon after the world premiere) (Part A and Part B as divided on Youtube), and Berg, Lyric Suite, performed by the Galimir Quartet, on the 1991 CD, Continuum-Testament SBT 1004. Berg dedicated the Lyric Suite to Felix Galimir for performing it in 1931 at the age of twenty with his three sisters. Krasner’s live performances of the Berg and Schoenberg concertos in 1938 and 1954 respectively are available together on CD, GM 2006. Berg and Webern were Schoenberg's students, and the three are considered to be the trinity of twelve tone composers, much as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms have been considered to be the three greatest mainstream classical composers.
Berg’s violin concerto is a hauntingly, strangely beautiful reflection of the haunting and strange time of the 1930s in Europe, about a decade after the collapse of the Old Order at the end of World War 1. It is dissonance mirroring itself. It ends with a brief homage to Bach. Its primary message is love. Manon Gropius was like a daughter to Berg, but she died at age eighteen. He dedicated the concerto “to the memory of an angel.” He himself died soon after he wrote it.
The world premiere in Spain in 1936 was performed by Krasner on the violin and conducted by Anton Webern. The premiere was not recorded, but Krasner’s and Webern’s second performance a few months later was, and the CD was made from that recording. It is a historically important recording for several reasons. It was the first recording of the piece. Krasner commissioned the piece from Berg. The major 12 tone composer Webern conducted it. Krasner and Webern had given the world premiere a few months earlier. Berg had explained to Krasner in detail how it should be played. Berg had consulted with Krasner while he (Berg) was composing it, and Krasner would "test play" the violin part and make suggestions as to its playability. Thus you simply cannot get closer to Berg’s own understanding of the concerto than through this CD. And it’s a great performance. That said, Mutter’s great 1992 performance is historically important precisely for her not being coached by Berg. She worked it out on her own, showing beyond any doubt that the concerto has a life of its own. There were other performances by other violinists, but she put the nail in the coffin.
On May 13, 2018, I finally came to the point where regular 12 tone sounds to me like ordinary music. I just happened to be listening to the CD, and the music went on to the Lyric Suite. And for the first time it was as easy for me to understand and enjoy as, say, a Beethoven string quartet. It was no longer just an excellently played but endless, meaningless intellectual exercise. It spoke to me, full of nuance, emotion, and meaning. I was surprised, but there it was, some 23 years after first hearing the piece. The foreign language of 12 tone became recognized as my native tongue. But I never had a problem with the Berg, which was always popular with and listenable to by the mainstream audience-- perhaps the only 12 tone piece that ever was.
There is so much beautiful music in this world, but I wanted to keep the list short, so I weighted it heavily with favorites of long standing. For variety, I have found at least one good classical radio station within range of every town I have lived in.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Art of the Fugue, Part Two: Contrapuncti Twelve through Fifteen. Also "Vor deinem Thron [steh' ich]." The Fine Arts Quartet and The New York Woodwind Quintet. Concert-Disc Connoisseur Series M-1250. I find it basically perfect in tone and spirit. I have loved the album since high school in the 1960s. In 2014, about fifty years later, I found Art of the Fugue, Part One: Contrapuncti One through Eleven for sale online. Part One is Concert-Disc Connoisseur Series M-1250. Here are fugues #1, #2, #3-6, #9, #10, #12-14. I also like the harpsichord performance by Gunnar Johansen, recorded in his own studio.
I had read many years ago that the first half dozen or so fugues were very dry and austere, and that Bach then gradually started to loosen up in the rest of them. And so I listened to them that way for almost fifty years. But on May 16, 2015, after listening to Schweitzer play Bach on the organ, I heard the first six fugues in a very different way. They are actually full of deep emotion, perhaps more deeply than the later fugues-- the emotion of religious humility. I missed it completely, but it there all along in the performances by The Fine Arts Quartet and The New York Woodwind Quintet. This fits the facts, too. Bach was deeply religious and near the end of his life. He was unable to finish the last fugue before he died, and turned away from the Art of the Fugue to compose the brief Vor deinem Thron steh' ich (Before Thy Throne Stand I), which is also on the Part Two album. As I hear it now, the Art of the Fugue / Ars Fuga / Die Kunst der Fugue starts with Bach humbly asking God in the first fugue if he may proceed with this last work. Then God gradually allows Bach to express himself more and more as the fugues go on. But the fugues maintain throughout an underlying mood of religious humility, since that is who Bach is-- a religious person. The last and greatest fugue, the one he was unable to finish, was the one where he was the most himself. According to his son, Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, he even wrote his own name--B flat, A, C, B neutral--as the motif for the unfinished countersubject, as if he were signing the work using musical notes within the work. Vor deinem Thron is best played right after where he stopped writing the last fugue, just as on the album. Schweitzer's revival of Bach after centuries of neglect was largely based on bringing out the religious emotions in Bach's work. Perhaps only someone with similarly deep religious emotions, such as Schweitzer, could have seen that and done that, after Bach had been written off as an obscure pedant for so long. But this was not all there was to Schweitzer's revival; and the revival had started before Schweitzer.
Four Sonatas: in G major, E minor, F major, and G minor. Steven Staryk, violin, Kenneth Gilbert, harpsichord. Baroque Records BC 2858. I especially love the Allegro from the Allegro-Adagio, first movement of Sonata in E minor, at least according to the album jacket. It is listed as Sonata in C, meaning C minor, on the actual record label. I first listened to this album in the 1970s. I was lucky enough to find my favorite movement of the E minor, and of the whole album, on Youtube: Sonata in E minor, Mvt 1, Prelude: Adagio ma non tanto, 1:17. The flutter is not on the vinyl LP.
Violin Concerto #1 in A minor and #2 in E major, and Concerto in D minor for two violins. Josef Suk, violin, Ladislav Jásek, violin. Václav Smetaček conducts The Prague Symphony Orchestra. Supraphon (a product of Epic Records) stereo Crossroads 22 16 0038. I have been listening to this album since the 1970s.
Bach Recital. Toccata & Fugue in D minor, Fantasia & Fugue in G minor (The Great), Fugue in G minor (The Little), Preludes and Fugues in F minor, C, and G. Albert Schweitzer, organ. Angel COLC 89. 1935. I have loved this album since the 1960s; it belonged to my parents. The performances are said to be the first ones recorded of Bach’s organ works played by a great 19th-century-trained organist. Yet if Schweitzer had not needed more money to keep his hospital going, he never would have done them. He would have stayed in his hospital in Africa. All the Youtube clips I’ve heard of Schweitzer playing Bach sound poor. Happily, the performances on my album have been digitized on CD and sound better than ever. The six performances I have loved the most since the 1960s are in a four-CD set (which also includes much else), except for G minor “The Little,” which is on another CD, which was mastered at a lower sound level than the four-CD set. My six favorite performances are also online here, though the CDs have far better sound quality. It appears that my six favorite performances since the 1960s are also that Web site constructor’s favorites. But I would order the performances differently into the following playlist sequence: 1(4), 2(6), 3(1), 4(5), 5(3), 6(2).
Albert Schweitzer was a philosopher, theologian, organist, and organ designer / builder / restorer who decided to become a medical doctor to help others during the second half of his life. He studied organ in the 19th century with the great French organist (and composer) Charles Marie Widor. Widor was so impressed with Schweitzer's understanding of Bach that he encouraged Schweitzer to write a book on how to play Bach, which Schweitzer did some years later. I bought Schweitzer’s two volume work, J.S. Bach, which, along with his Bach performances, was a main part of the revival of public interest in Bach after centuries of neglect, when I was in high school. Trans. by Ernest Newman. New York: Dover, 1966. First published in 1911. Schweitzer's doctoral dissertation in philosophy was on Immanuel Kant's philosophy of religion. Schweitzer's most famous philosophy / religion book is Reverence for Life, but his major work in philosophy was The Philosophy of Civilization. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy, Schweitzer then qualified both as theologian and as pastor. His major theological work is The Quest of [for] the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer then decided to devote the rest of his life to serving humanity. He qualified as a medical doctor and served in Lambaréné, Africa as a medical missionary and humanitarian for many years, building his own hospital for the Africans, and supervising the construction of new buildings over the years as the hospital expanded. He also served as the hospital pastor. He returned to Europe from time to time to give organ recitals to help raise money for the hospital. The best known of these is the one recorded on the Angel album I love so much. I believe the money was used to buy corrugated iron to replace the leaky thatched roofs on the buildings in his leper colony. Schweitzer may not have been a perfect human being, but he certainly did his best. Many have called him a twentieth century saint. For the record, I'm an agnostic, a philosopher following the path of reason, not a believer following the path of faith, and I share the rational skepticism of most academically trained philosophers. But I find spiritual value in all the major world religions, and I'm very sympathetic. In fact, it's hard to find this kind of spiritual life, meaning inspiration and service, outside of religion.
Piano Concerto #3. Also Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Eva Bernathová, piano. Karel Ančerl conducts Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Artia ALP 199. The music meant nothing to me at first. About two years later I found it warm, sensitive, intimate, loving, unassuming. More recently it seemed like a good blend of Bartok's austerity (though he is colorful in his way) and Czech colorfulness in performance. (Sometimes a colorful performance comes off as sugar-coating, as in Suk's performance of the Berg concerto. Contrast Ravel's colorful orchestral transcription of Mussorsky's Pictures to Hans Richter's performance of the original piano score.) When I listened to it in February 2003, I found myself focusing on the deep intuitive logic of the performance, and all the warmth and color disappeared! It seems that every time I listen to it, it is a different piece of music. That may reflect on my growth, but I think it also reflects on the music. I am not sure why I am recommending the piece, or why I keep coming back to it. Perhaps it is the very intrigue. Nor am I sure why I was never interested in the viola concerto; it seems about as well-performed as the piano concerto. I have had the album since the 1970s. I especially like the first movement - intriguing, inviting, whimsical, playful, fascinating. 1. Allegretto. 2. Adagio Religioso. 3. Allegro Vivace.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
String Quartets #14 and #15 by the Budapest String Quartet. Very near and dear. I also include here #16, called the Grosse Fuge. All are from The Late Quartets. The Budapest String Quartet. Columbia Stereo M5S 677. I have not listened to it very much, but the Grosse Fuge impresses me as the best fugal writing after Bach's Art of the Fugue. After the Grosse Fuge, for me there is Brahms' fugue in his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Händel, which I like by Walter Klien, piano. But among Beethoven's late quartets, as performed by the Budapest, 14 and 15 are my favorites, which I like to listen to as a single huge quartet. In 2014, I was glad to learn many years later that 14 was Beethoven's favorite.
Violin Concerto. Isaac Stern, violin, Leonard Bernstein conducts New York Philharmonic. Columbia ML 5415. I probably first listened to this album over fifty years ago in the 1960s. My parents took me to hear Stern play live in the Proctor Theatre in Schenectady when I was in high school, also in the 1960s. Stern was full of complaints about Mohawk Airlines for losing his luggage, including his music. Then he said he would play a piece from memory. I think was a sonata for violin and piano. He played beautifully for quite a while. Then he stopped and said, “That’s all I remember.” At least they didn’t lose the pianist!
Fifth Symphony. Leonard Bernstein cond. New York Philharmonic. Columbia MLC 5868. I probably first listened to this album in the 1970s. It belonged to my parents.
Piano Sonata 32. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. London CS 6446. 1961. Mystical transitions. I think I’ve listened to it since the 1970s. If you want to see a “mystical” photo while listening, try here. It’s a photo of sunrise in Antarctica. At each pole, there is one sunrise and one sunset each year. But this is that beautiful Roman de la Rosa (Romance of the Rose) girl with golden hair and vacant blue eyes, Idelnesse. The album also includes sonatas by Galuppi and Scarlatti.
Violin Concerto. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin. James Levine conducts Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft DGG 437 093-2. Recorded in 1992. This performance is also included on Mutter’s multi-CD Modern, along with her performances of the Bártok and Schoenberg violin concertos. For these beautiful performances, I waive the test of time. I have already given links to my teacher Louis Krasner’s performance of the Berg. Krasner commissioned the work and gave its world premiere performance.
In 2012, I was very impressed by Anne-Sophie Mutter’s multi-CD album Modern. She plays several composers. I started with the piece I know best, Berg’s Violin Concerto, which my teacher, Louis Krasner, had commissioned and played the world premiere of. For the first minute, I was saying to myself, Where’s the emotion? All the feeling (of the Krasner performance with Webern conducting) is gone! In the second minute, I was saying to myself, Wait a minute. She’s making the piece clear and intelligible! I soon saw she was giving a remarkably balanced performance of the piece. It is a performance I recommend not only as a performance, but if you want to understand the composition as a composition. Not that it’s pedagogical, but that she worked the piece out and understood it so completely. It’s pretty much the same for all the pieces on the album. It was the last thing I expected, because I had a low opinion of her due to her weird interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons-- very original, but I would say too original. Apparently modern is her forte and baroque is not. No problem there. There are many good baroque performers, but few who could do what she did with these modern pieces.
Here is Mutter playing the same piece live in 2007; you can see the score as she plays.
String Quartet #2. The Borodin Quartet. London STS 15046. Beautiful since the late 1960s or early 1970s. The other side of the album has an outstanding performance of Shostakovich’s String Quartet #8.
Concerto for Violin and Cello. Jascha Heifetz, violin, Gregor Piatigorksy, cello. Alfred Wallenstein, conductor. RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. RCA Victor LD 2513. Beautiful for over forty years of listening since the 1970s. You can hear Piatigorsky much better than usual in his performances with Heifetz. I doubt there exists a better performance.
Piano Quintet. Clifford Curzon, piano, The Budapest String Quartet. Odyssey monaural 32 16 0173. My favorite album for about eight years, ca. 1970-78, and I think still my favorite. Truly listed under Legendary Performances. Written when Brahms was under thirty. It is unbelievable to me that this is not available on CD. This is one of the two or three albums I have loved the most. The Budapest also plays this with the famous conductor George Szell on the piano, but I am sorry to say that Szell just cannot keep up with the Budapest. It is unbelievable to me that they would put the Szell on CD but not the Curzon. Rudolf Serkin with the Budapest is too slow compared to Curzon. This might be Curzon’s best performance. I was inspired to check some of his other performances, which are uniformly excellent, but not on the exalted inspirational level of the Brahms quintet in my opinion. The Budapest, on the other hand, is rightly deemed legendary for practically everything, especially the later Beethoven quartets. In any case, Curzon rises to the occasion and plays with them at their best. I think they all inspired the best in each other. Here is the first movement, converted from a fairly good copy of the vinyl LP (You can see my album’s cover with the head and shoulders of Brahms.) Here is the fourth movement, provided by NAXOS of America. Here is the entire performance from a sadly warped and scratchy copy of the vinyl LP.
The Three Piano Quartets. Also Schumann, Piano Quintet. Artur Rubinstein, piano, The Guarneri Quartet. RCA stereo LSC 6188. Copyright 1969. I do not usually like Rubinstein, though I love him with Heifetz and Piatigorsky. I have enjoyed this album for at least forty years since the 1970s. I love the chemistry, the warmth and cordiality. I have seen the Brahms on CD. I love the Schumann as well-- some beautiful moments. My parents and I heard Rubinstein play live in Schenectady when I was in high school. That must have been in the Proctor Theatre. I am sorry to say that I do not care for Rubinstein and the Guarneri playing Brahms’ Piano Quintet. They are almost somnolent compared to Curzon and the Budapest.
Piano Concerto #1. Gary Graffman, piano, Charles Munch conducts Boston Symphony. RCA Victrola stereo VICS 1109. I have dearly loved it since about 1970.
Piano Concerto #2. Emil Gilels, piano, Fritz Reiner conducts Chicago Symphony. RCA Victrola stereo VICS 1025. It overwhelmed me in late 1969 or early 1970. It is probably too overwhelming for me now. It is best for romantics in their late teens or early twenties who want to be emotionally swept away. But I suppose older people can play this great work quietly. Maybe I should try that, LOL!
Clarinet Quintet in B minor. David Oppenheim, clarinet. The Budapest String Quartet. Columbia stereo MS 6226. I list this not as a favorite but as surely the best version. It is a beautiful performance, but not of one of my favorite Brahms compositions. I first heard it around 1970. An autumnal work. It’s the perfect companion to the Brahms Piano Quintet by Curzon and the Budapest, and it never made it to CD either.
Two Sonatas, Op. 120. William Primrose, viola, Rudolf Firkušný, piano. Seraphim 60011. I list this not as a favorite but as a best version. It is a fine performance, but not of one of my favorite Brahms compositions. I first heard it around 1970. An autumnal work. The sonatas are for viola or alto clarinet. Here is the first sonata played by Primrose and Firkušný. It sounds a little slow today, but I still like it. You can see my album’s cover in the visual. Here is the second sonata played by Primrose and, well, I can’t say unfortunately, Gerald Moore.
String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. The Composers Quartet. Nonesuch H-71249. I have listened to this album since law school in the 1990s. For years I had thought of Carter as the American Bártok. Then I signed out Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and found that he sounded much more like them. This inspired me to listen to about a dozen other compositions by Carter, in another law student foray to the music library, but I liked none as much as these string quartets. Sometimes I feel I would like to hear a warmer, more loving (though not sugar-coated) interpretation. But the music does lend itself to the performance given here. After all, it is meant to describe the desert (No.1), and the nature of time (both quartets in different ways). Thus I am not sure how much I am recommending the composition and how much the performance. But when I listen to the performance again, I remember why I find it rewarding. Here are the first three movements of Quartet 1 from the album. I also recommend Carter’s piano Sonata.
Here are three videos of Elliott Carter. The first two are: Juilliard String Quartet Greets Elliott Carter; and Juilliard String Quartet rehearses Carter with Carter. In the third, Carter takes The Juilliard String Quartet to task for not playing Schubert's score of 32nd notes as written, and faking it with tremolo, so that they are not starting and stopping the notes in unison; and the Juilliard good-naturedly agree that he caught them red-handed, and say the notes are too fast for them to play.
Violin Concerto in A Minor. Also Romance, Op. 11. Josef Suk, violin. Karel Ančerl conducts Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Artia ALP-193, reissued as Vanguard-Supraphon SU-3. 1961. I loved this in the late '60's / early '70s. This is the younger Josef Suk whose playing I praised to Krasner. The older Josef Suk, was a violinist, composer, and student and son in law of Antonín Dvořák.
Cello Concerto in B Minor. Pablo Casals, cello. George Szell conducts Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Seraphim 60240. 1937, digitally remastered in 2003. Here are the individual movements with different sound quality: 1/2, 1/2, 2, 3/1, 3/2. Rightly said by the host subscriber to be a legendary performance. I loved this in the late '60's / early '70s too. For more Casals, see the Mendelssohn section.
FRANZ JOSEF HAYDN
Harpsichord Concerto, F Major and Harpsichord Concerto, C Major. Helma Elsner, harpsichord, Rolf Reinhardt conducts Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, Stuttgart. Vox ultra high fidelity PLIO 300. It belonged to my parents, and they gave it to me because I liked it so much. This is the secret cult favorite on my list, a sleeper if there ever was one. I never heard of these guys before or since! Yet since the late 1960s, it has been my favorite music-indeed, except for the Staryk-Gilbert album, almost the only music I could stand - for doing intellectual work. The performances are fresh, lovely, and just right, but are unobtrusive and do not demand my attention. But I need complete silence for philosophical thinking.
String Quartets #1 and #2. The Smetana Quartet. Supraphon / Ramco / Artia ALP/S 109. Recorded September 7-23, 1955. Not to be confused with Smetana quartets played by the Janáček Quartet, LOL! I loved this album in the late '60s and early '70s. Here the Smetana Quartet plays Quartet #1 live in 1975. I like the 1955 performance just a little better, but both performances are wonderful, and they are almost the same. The namesake Janáċek Quartet plays the Janáċek quartets in a dull, uninspired, and lifeless way.
All-Liszt Program. Erwin Nyiregyházi. Columbia M2 34598. Nyiregyházi is my favorite pianist after Busoni. What they say is true: nobody else plays like this. He is moody, gloomy, slowly despairing, wanly hopeful, proud, deep, and great. If he wants to repeat things, add notes, or improvise, he will. He wrote a lot of music himself which has never or almost never been heard. I first heard the album, I think, in the 1970s. It is strange and idiosyncratic, but deeply magnificent. My two favorites on the album are "March of the Three Kings" and "Miserere after Palestrina".
Totentanz. Raymond Lewenthal, piano, Charles Mackerra conducts London Symphony Orchestra. Columbia MS 7252. This is the wonderful version I listen to the most. Like but also unlike the Nyiregyházi album, it is strange and idiosyncratic, but magnificent. (Perhaps Liszt attracts pianists like that.) There is a whole section Lewenthal restored or added which I have heard in no other version. I must have first heard it in the 1970s; the album originally belonged to my parents. Here is the album: part 1 and part 2. Part 2 begins with the restored or added section. Also on the album is Henselt, Piano Concerto, which I dislike and have been unable to sit through.
LISZT, BACH-BUSONI, AND CHOPIN
Liszt, Bach-Busoni & Chopin. Ferruccio Busoni, piano. Nimbus 8810 CD. Transcendental. I believe Busoni is the greatest pianist since Liszt, and the greatest pianist who was ever recorded. Please see my entry on my Favorites page for the very few other available Busoni recordings. Some use Welte Vorsetzer piano rolls made as early as 1906. Others are RCA recordings from the early 1920s. I often start with track 4, Liszt's La Campanella. The Bach is wonderful, and the longest performance I know of by Busoni. But my favorite is Chopin's "The Raindrop" prelude. A slightly different (and I think earlier) performance of "The Raindrop" is on Legendary Masters of the Piano, a three-record album available from Book of the Month Club in the 1970s.
Piano Concerto #3. Josef Páleníček, piano, Karel Ančerl conducts Czech Philharmonic. Here are movements 1, 2, and 3. I do not know if this is the best performance available, but it is good enough for me. It’s rich, colorful, lively, fun, off-beat, and improbable. I ranked it as my #1 favorite performance in the summer between high school and college in my high school scrapbook. The performance now sounds slower, more stately, and more elegant than I remember it, but I’m sure it’s the same performance. The Youtube accompanying visual is evidently a later album cover. My album cover shows a painting of a man in a beret holding a bird. Perhaps the performance was remastered. Also on the same album, Violin Concerto, Bruno Bělčík, violin, Václav Neumann conducts Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Based on fifteen minutes of chance listening to the radio in 2016, this performance of piano concerto #3 may be better: Martin Kasik (Kašík?), piano,Tomáš Brauner conducts Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinium, Prague, European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This performance lays the music out clearly and thoughtfully in a very pleasing way.
I do not care much for Martinů’s other works, especially his choral works. I have not even listened much to his string quartets, possibly because I haven’t heard a performance I like, but mainly because I don’t like them very much.
Trio in D Minor for piano, violin, and cello, op. 49. Also Couperin, Schumann, and Song of the Birds (Catalan Folk Songs). A Concert at the White House, Performed live at the White House on November 13, 1961, with President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy attending. Alexander Schneider, violin, Pablo Casals, cello, Miecyslaw Horszowski, piano. Columbia Monaural KL 5726. The other performances from the same concert are listed and linked lower on the pages. I also recommend the Heifetz-Rubinstein-Piatigorsky performance of the Trio; see my entry for Tchaikovsky.
Piano Concerto 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Gary Graffman, piano, Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic. Recorded in 1964. Columbia MS 6634. This was my favorite music for setting a romantic mood while serving dinner through the 1970s and 80s. Its rich warmth seems to go well with my three-color spaghetti sauce with zucchini and scallions for green, squash for yellow, and fresh cut tomatoes and tomato paste for red (and lots of whole mushrooms and several kinds of cheese). It may seem that Graffman and Bernstein are favorites of mine, and they are; but the performances on this list are pretty much all I listen to by them.
Piano Concerto 3. Van Cliburn, piano. Kiril Kondrashin cond. Moscow State Philharmonic Academy Orchestra. RCA Victor LSC-2355. Live performance. 1958. It’s another album of my parents that they gave me because I loved it so much. I started listening to it in high school in the 1960s.
Rachmaninoff plays many other things he wrote elsewhere on Youtube.
Trio. Jascha Heifetz, violin. Gregor Piatigorsky, cello. Artur Rubinstein, piano. RCA Victor Red Seal LM 1119. Mvt. 1. Mvt. 2. Mvt. 3. Mvt. 4. I've loved it since about 1973. I doubt there exists a better performance. The other side of the album has a beautiful performance of the Mendelssohn Trio, but for some reason it does not stir me emotionally. I prefer the Mendelssohn performed by Casals, Schneider, and Horzowski before President Kennedy at the White House in 1960. Please see the Mendelssohn section for a link.
Music for Solo Viola. Suites 1 and 3. Also Hindemith, Sonata, and Stravinsky, Élégie. Walter Trampler, viola. The composers write with desolate beauty and with full consciousness of the irretrievable loss of the old order. Each writes as if he were Bach born again in the modernist era. I have loved Reger's suites since the 1970s. The comparison is to Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello. Sometimes it is even as if Reger forgets for a moment that the lights went out, and writes as if the old world were still there, lovingly like sunlight in our memory. I have listened to the Hindemith and Stravinsky much less, but they are good companions to the Reger.
Songs, also with songs by Schumann and Strauss. Hans Hotter (Bass), Gerald Moore, piano. Seraphim 60025. My favorite song performances by my favorite singer. I know of no other singer who sings with Hotter's intelligence, maturity, and beauty. I have been enjoying the Schubert since the early 1970s. This performance of Schubert's An die Musik is from that album, and also this performance of Schubert's Im Abendrot. Hotter is also famous for his opera singing, but I listen to little opera.
Quintet in C. Also Rondo in A. Vivarte-Sony SK 46669 CD. Performed by a group of various individuals who play Stradivarius instruments held by the Smithsonian Institution in order to keep the instruments in shape. I recommend this even though I first heard it only in the 1990s (I think), and have not listened to it much since. The interpretation is very satisfying and rewarding - the review in Neue Musikzeitung (Berlin) calls it “simply marvelously successful,” and the sound is unusually rich and deep.
India's Master Musician. With Chatur Lal, tabla, and N. C. Mullick, tamboura, World Pacific EALP 1283. The selections are in order: the second and my favorite vinyl side, 1. Kafi-Holi (Spring Festival of Colors), 2. Dhun (Folk Airs), and 3. Mishra Piloo (Mixed Piloo / Piloo Medley), and the first side, the longer and slower pieces, 4. Raga Puriya Dhanashri, and 5. Raga Churu Keshri. I think the album would have been better with the two sides switched around. I have about eight of his albums, and I think this one is by far the best. It is the showcase album which establishes his mastery of his instrument. In that respect it is much like Leo Kottke's 6 and 12 String Guitar, briefly excerpted here, and Heifetz's master performances. Again, I especially like the second side with three pieces, the second of which, Dhun (Folk Airs), includes popular melodies. Popular melodies are often found in Western classical music as well. I have loved the album since the early 1970s. I also enjoyed hearing Shankar play live outdoors at Syracuse in the early '70s. Music was a family tradition for him, and his daughter is carrying it on.
Cello Concerto #1. Mstislav Rostropovich, cello. Eugene Ormandy conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia MS 6124). The performance is here: part 1, Allegretto; part 2, Moderato; part 3, Cadenza; part 4, Allegro con moto. I have loved this performance since high school. I ranked it as my #2 favorite performance in my senior year in my high school scrapbook. It is almost mystical, a quest of the wandering soul, just before the cello cadenza. The cadenza is a deep soliloquy, an ecce homo or hier steh’ ich.
Here is Rostropovich playing the first movement live. The performance is almost the same and almost as good as the album, so you can see how he plays the piece.
Here is Rostropovich playing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto #2.
Piano Quintet in G minor as performed by the Janáček Quartet and Eva Bernathová, piano (Artia ALP-168). I have played this album so many times.
Vltava (The Moldau). Karel Ančerl conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Crossroads 22 26 0002. 1963. The Czechs are on their home ground. The album is the entire Má Vlast (My Country) cycle of six symphonic poems, of which Vltava is the second.
Trio. David Oistrakh Trio. David Oistrakh, violin. Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, cello. Lev Orborin, piano. Monitor MC 2070. 1950. I’ve listened to it since the late 1960s or early 1970s. The other side has Dvořák’s Dumky Trio, which has not captured my imagination.
Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra). Karl Böhm conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. DGG SLPEM 136 001. Studio recording, Berlin, 1958. Grand Prix du Disque. Exalted. Overwhelming. Then sweetly charming and fun. Mystical and otherworldly in the end. I've absolutely loved this performance since I first heard it on the vinyl LP, which I bought in 1970. I still have the LP, but these days I play it on digital. I heard the LP shortly before everyone at college was overwhelmed by the Zarathustra introduction sound track in Stanley Kubrick's movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was there when the movie was played outdoors at night on the Syracuse University Quad. The movie is not a favorite of mine, but there's no doubt it's a cultural icon.
Tod und Verklärung (commonly translated as Death and Transfiguration). Karl Böhm conducts the Concertbebouw Orchestra Amersterdam (Royal Concertbebouw Orchestra). Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest. Studio recording, Amsterdam, 1955. An early work, and my second favorite by him.
The reviewer C. Ryan Hill is completely right that Rudolf Kempe’s recordings of Strauss in the 1970s are far superior in production quality. Production quality had come a long way. Kempe’s performances are truly beautiful, and I can hear all sorts of thngs that I had not heard in Böhm’s. But in recommending that “unless you are looking for a historical document of how these works sounded closer to Strauss' time (or a Böhm devotee), you can look [Kempe] over,” Hill does not address the elephant in the room. Namely, whose performance is spiritually deeper and greater? I think it’s Böhm’s. And if I wanted to find a greater performance, I would go back even further in time to Strauss’s own live 1944 performance. Strauss is not noted for being a great conductor, but he is noted for being a great conductor in that particular performance, It was part of his 80th birthday celebration. The Youtube comments include “glorious,” “amazing,” “Magnificent!,” “fantastic,” and “What a treasure.” Though I have been warned against composers’ performing their own works, I think this is the great one, closely followed by Böhm’s. I hope my Dejnožka cousin the Nazis executed as a Czech partisan (resistance) fighter, and my other Dejnožka cousin they put in a concentration camp, and who emerged like living skin and bones at the end of the war, could forgive me for what I regard as a purely musical judgment. As to the partisans the Nazis executed while fleeing the Red Army near the end of the war, see the memorial plaque near the church in our ancestral town of Trhová Kamenice in Bohemia. On one level, I agree with the World War 2 American veteran who told me in the 1960s, “The SS were animals, and we shot them like animals.” On another level, we all need universal compassion and forgiveness. But on a third level, forgiveness from me is not the same as forgiveness from their victims.
Many years later, I was unhappy to discover that Böhm might have been a Nazi sympathizer. The Wikipedia article on Böhm suggests it is hard to say that he was, in any straightforward sense. It says he never joined the Nazi party, but underwent a post-war de-nazification ban. The article says that the Nazis disliked the modernist music he often liked to conduct, and that he was planning to flee Germany because of that. I still love his Zarathustra performance just as much, and distinguish it from his possible Nazism. Böhm conducted that performance in 1958, long after his post-war ban ended. I like it far better than Karajan’s overpolished and comparatively emotionless (I want to say slick) but technically superb performance designed for mass production in the post-war market, and interestingly enough, especially for sale in Japan, where Karajan was very popular. Karajan is another German conductor with a murky wartime past. I am happy to report that Strauss himself was quite anti-Nazi, and was only tolerated as a famous German cultural icon. See the Wikipedia article on Strauss.
PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVKSY
Trio in A Minor. Jascha Heifetz, violin. Gregor Piatigorsky, cello. Artur Rubinstein, piano.RCA LCM 1120. This is another one I have loved since the early 1970s. I doubt there exists a better performance. The Mendelssohn Trio is on the same CD.
Piano Concerto 1. Van Cliburn, piano. 1958 winner, Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. Kiril Kondrashin conducts the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to the first few minutes. It’s another album of my parents that they gave to me because I loved it so much. I started listening to it in high school in the 1960s. It is said that the competition organizers approached Nikita Krushchev to ask if an American could be allowed to win the competition. Krushchev asked, was he the best? They said yes. Krushchev said, then let him win.
Vespro della Beata Vergine. 1610. Philip Ledger conducts the Choir of King's College, Cambridge University and the Early Music Consort of London. Also, other music by other composers on disk 2. EMI 7243 5 68631 2 5. I was first stunned by Monteverdi when I heard the Consorte of Musick sing his madrigals live in Ann Arbor in 1991 or 1992. He was so fresh and inventive I could not believe it. When I returned to law school, I signed out six versions of Vespro from the music school. All were good-- it's hard to go wrong with the composition-- but I liked Ledger's version the best.
NEW YORK PRO MUSICA
Spanish Music of the Renaissance. Various composers, including Anonymous. New York Pro Musica. Decca DL 9409. There is so much beautiful medieval and Renaissance music, but I have loved this album the most since the 1960s. Like some of the Baroque albums listed above, it was a present from my parents when I was in high school. I studied Spanish for seven and a half years; the Spanish here is often close to Latin. Some selections are religious or spiritual. Others might be called humanist; at least, they are concerned with very human themes. I'm astonished this album never made it to CD.
Here is the New York Pro Musica live, but there are no voices, and they sound better on the studio album, Spanish Music of the Renaissance. By way of consolation, here they sing Petrucci’s Lirim Blilirum, though the music is very different in tone and mood. This is much closer - it’s Spanish, and sounds like exactly the same performers as on the album, but it’s tame and subdued: Riu, Riu, which is not on the album
THE MERRY MINSTRELS
A Lover and His Lass. Garald Lee Farnham, baritone, lute. Elizabeth Henreckson, soprano. Baby Monster Studios, NYC. 1989. The performers are (or were) local artists of the NYC area. The music was published only on cassette as far as I know, and there is no copyright on the cover. Good luck finding it. A cousin from that area gave me a copy in the 1990s, and I dearly love it. It includes several songs from Shakespeare’s plays, as set to music by composers of Shakespeare's. Another song is a poem by John Donne set to music. Most songs are English, but there are also an Italian, a Spanish, and a French song. Here Garald Lee Farnham sings “O Mistress Mine,” which is on the album, but this is a live performance apparently years later. Here Elizabeth Henreckson Farnum sings a similar song, “Mary’s Dream,” also apparently years later, and with a different tenor and a piano. It’s more polished, but less fun. Still, it’s good to hear her voice. It’s on an album called Jane’s Hand: The Jane Austn Songbooks.
THE FIVE GREATEST ALBUMS I KNOW
One of the highest forms of music is the string quartet, or similar small chamber group. If I had to pick the four greatest albums I have heard, they would be:
1. Brahms, Piano Quintet performed by The Budapest String Quartet with Clifford Curzon, piano. Again, this was my favorite album for eight years, ca. 1970-1978, and is perhaps still my favorite. Again, here is the first movement converted from a fairly good LP, and here is the entire performance from a warped and scratchy LP.
2. Beethoven, String Quartet #14 performed by The Budapest String Quartet. I was pleased to learn in 2014 that this was Beethoven's favorite as well. Quartet #15 is on the album as well, and I like to listen to the two quartets as a single continuous work. Again, #14 and #15 by the Budapest.
3./4. Bach, Art of the Fugue (two albums), performed by The Fine Arts Quartet and The New York Woodwind Quintet. I take fugue to be the highest form of musical dialogue or dialectic, and Bach to be the greatest master of it. Many high school students can play much of it; the greatness is in the composition and the spirit. These two albums capture the spirit best in my opinion. Again, #1, #2, #3-6, #9, #10, #12-14.
5. Ferruccio Busoni plays Liszt, Bach-Busoni & Chopin. The Nimbus NI 8810 compact disk is the best production. Don’t get the Fone. Busoni is the greatest pianist I have heard. Nyiregyházi called Busoni “the best.” Liszt might have been greater, but we’ll never know. Here is the clip of Busoni playing Chopin, “The Raindrop,” which is my favorite performance of his. Here is Busoni playing the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in two parts: 1 and 2. Bach wrote the original Chaconne for violin, and Busoni transcribed it for piano. The whole CD is made from piano roll cuts. For Busoni’s live performances, the major collection is Ferruccio Busoni: His Complete Disc Recordings, February 27, 1922, recorded in the London studios of British Columbia Records (International Piano Archives IPA 104). The IPA disk has typically poor 1920s recordings of brief Busoni performances on side 1. On side 2, Busoni’s students play some Busoni compositions and transcriptions.
The album citations are above. If I were to add a sixth, it would be Schweitzer’s 1935 Bach Recital. Don’t listen to it for pyrotechnics. Listen to it for the greatness of the passion, and the greatness of the understanding of the architectonic or, more simply, of the conception.
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