Purveyor. Not of goods, but of good ideas

Sunday, February 12, 2006

MUSIC: Classical essentials

When purchasing classical music, how do you know which recording to buy? You can check with critics, but they often disagree. Worse, I find that the most consistently praised recordings are rarely those I find most satisfying, musically or sonically. There was once a wonderful compendium of classical music reviews called the Stevenson's Guide, but that's been defunct for around a decade. It had a terrific Honor Roll section that comprised recordings that got the highest rating from at least four major critics with no bad reviews from anyone else. Those were pretty safe bets. Short of that, it's hit or miss when choosing what to buy, and that can mean a lot of wasted money and frustrated musical aspirations.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some rare and neglected recordings that I think, as they say in London, are toppers!

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas. Ivan Moravec 1962-70 VAI Audio VAIA 1069
Whoa boy, is this one magical CD. Nearly all of Beethoven's best-known piano pieces—Appassionata, Pathetique, Moonlight, Les Adieux—played to perfection. Evidence that newer recordings aren't necessarily better.

VERDI Requiem. Robert Shaw and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. 1987 Telarc CD-80152
Others are touted but this is the one that melts my butter. Captures the full, rare power of this piece. If you're not an opera fan but appreciate full-on symphonic music, start here. You will not be dissappointed.

ALBINONI Adagio. Gary Karr 1983 King Record Company KICC 41

A 1611 Amati doublebass (formerly Koussevitzky's) backed only by pipe organ (played by Harmon Lewis). This is a crazy arrangement, but it works. Really, it's an emotional mess...and better for it. His instrument is slightly out of tune (I think), and a ratty t-shirt apparently the best he can muster for his own cover art, but Gary Karr hits one WAY out of the park on this one. You've heard this music many times, but never so personal, so heart rending, so...closely miked. You'll have to wipe the resin from around the speakers when it's over. I mean that in a good way.

BEETHOVEN Symphony #7 Vladimir Ashkenazy and Philharmonia Orchestra. London 411 941-2

Kleiber Kleiber Kleiber all the critics say in lock step (Deutsche Grammophon 447 400-2). I went out and bought it. They're wrong; Ashkenazy is the one to beat. The first movement takes an eternity, but that's it on the minuses. I've trotted this one out at ultra-high end audio shows and it never failes to elicit, "Geez! What recording is this? It's amazing!" Yup.

CORELLI Concerto grosso op. 6 No. 8 Von Karajan & Berliner Philharmoniker 1979 Deutsche Grammophon 419 046-2
The critic's favorite is Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Harmonia Mundi 3957015, but listen to these two side by side. Yes, the McGegan is well-played and has better sound, but so what? Karajan captures the MUSIC to a degree that makes McGegan sound artistically deaf. I'm not kidding; it's hard to believe it's the same piece of music. One sounds good, the other SINGS with emotion, like flipping a switch on the piece's true meaning. I literally can't "hear" it played by anyone else—only Karajan illuminates it for me.

VIVALDI The Four Seasons Richard Kapp and Philharmonia Virtuosi, Paul Peabody, soloist. 1988 ESS.A.Y C-1001
With more choices of recording than any other piece, how do you know which one to get? Don't sweat it. Get this one.

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