Five Great Classical Pieces

March 22, 2021

This post was orig­i­nal­ly titled “My Top Five Clas­si­cal Pieces”, but I found it impos­si­ble to enu­mer­ate any five pieces that made any sense as my “top five”, and changed it to its cur­rent title. Put anoth­er way, if I had more time to do a “My Top 50 Clas­si­cal Pieces” post, these five would def­i­nite­ly make the list.

I’ve con­spic­u­ous­ly exclud­ed Bach from this list (oth­er­wise most of this list would just be Bach, which makes it less inter­est­ing).

Schu­bert: String Quin­tet in C major

Schu­bert’s trag­i­cal­ly short life was book­end­ed by this extra­or­di­nary cham­ber music. Unclear if he knew of his impend­ing death as he com­posed this (the symp­toms caused by his syphilis had resur­faced after a three year hiatus), how­ev­er some people have regard­ed the string quar­tet as his “requiem”.

Record­ings

  • Emer­son String Quar­tet, Mstislav Ros­tropovich (Spo­ti­fy)

Elgar: Cello Con­cer­to in E minor

The main melody was com­posed in Elgar­’s head as he under­went an oper­a­tion under seda­tion to remove his ton­sils. Its pre­miere was a dis­as­ter due to a lack of rehearsal, and went under the radar until Jacque­line du Pré revived it, some 40 odd years later, with Sir John Bar­bi­rol­li and London Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra. She went on to record the con­cer­to a few more times, includ­ing with her future hus­band, Daniel Baren­hoim (my per­son­al favourite). For a modern inter­pre­ta­tion with better sound qual­i­ty, Alisa Weil­er­stein (also with Daniel Baren­hoim, con­duct­ing the Staatskapelle Berlin) is very good.

Record­ings

  • Jacque­line du Pré, Sir John Bar­bi­rol­li, London Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra (Spo­ti­fy)
  • Jacque­line du Pré, Daniel Baren­hoim, London Phil­har­mon­ic Orches­tra (Spo­ti­fy, Youtube)
  • Alisa Weil­er­stein, Daniel Baren­hoim, Staatskapelle Berlin (Spo­ti­fy)

Mahler: Sym­pho­ny No. 2 “Res­ur­rec­tion”

Mahler was known pri­mar­i­ly as a con­duc­tor during his day, and his output as a com­pos­er was side­lined by the con­cert­go­ing public (pos­si­bly except the pre­miere of his Eighth Sym­pho­ny, which was a roar­ing suc­cess). Only fellow con­duc­tors rec­og­nized the genius of his works, and kept the flame alive until its renais­sance in the 1960s. The Second Sym­pho­ny is Mahler’s first foray into his fas­ci­na­tion with (the pos­si­bil­i­ty of) life after death. In his own words:

If I were to say what I think of this great work, it would sound too arro­gant in a letter. … The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. I think there is no one who can resist it. One is bat­tered to the ground and then raised on angel’s wings to the high­est heights.

Record­ings

  • Otto Klem­per­er, Phil­har­mo­nia Orches­tra (Spo­ti­fy)
  • Georg Solti, Chica­go Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra (Spo­ti­fy)
  • Leonard Bern­stein, London Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra (Youtube)

Mendelssohn: A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream Over­ture

Mendelssohn leaves his indeli­ble mark in terms of the Wed­ding March in the inci­den­tal music proper, but the over­ture, com­posed 15 years ear­li­er before when he was just 17, is truly astound­ing in its musi­cal matu­ri­ty.

Record­ings

  • Otto Klem­per­er, Phil­har­mo­nia Orches­tra (Spo­ti­fy)
  • Ric­car­do Chail­ly, Gewand­hau­sor­ch­ester Leipzig (Spo­ti­fy)

Dvořák: Sym­pho­ny No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”

Dvořák was already inter­na­tion­al­ly renowned when in 1892 he was invit­ed to the United States to lead the Nation­al Con­ser­va­to­ry of Music of Amer­i­ca and effec­tive­ly kick­start the clas­si­cal music scene state­side. Although he com­plained of home­sick­ness often, that period of three years in the United States were some of the most pro­duc­tive in Dvořák’s life. He com­posed the Cello Con­cer­to, Amer­i­can String Quar­tet, and of course, the Sym­pho­ny “From the New World”, per­haps his most famous work, and one of the most rec­og­nized of all sym­phonies. The New World Sym­pho­ny has been record­ed to death, and there are plenty of good record­ings. For “idiomatic­i­ty”, I like Talich’s record­ing. For a modern ver­sion with great sound qual­i­ty, Alsop with the Bal­ti­more Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra is great as well. Final­ly, for “blow-you-off-your-seat” inten­si­ty, Kertész with Wiener is the way to go.

Record­ings

  • Václav Talich, Czech Phil­har­mon­ic Orches­tra (Spo­ti­fy)
  • Marin Alsop, Bal­ti­more Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra (Spo­ti­fy)
  • István Kertész, Wiener Phil­har­moniker (Spo­ti­fy)