A Concert Music Starter Pack
Some time ago my friend Mike and I were talking and rather unexpectedly he asked, “Hey, do you think you could give me a list of classical music that I could listen to?” Mike and I are ‘70s babies and while we often bonded over a shared love of the Pearl Jam songs we listened to in high school, he had never displayed an interest in concert music. I didn’t really ask why but asked more clarifying questions about what he was after and added it to my “to-write” list, promising something early in 2018.
The challenge was I didn’t want it to be just another one of those “must-listen” lists. I had to be true to what I really loved while giving him a tour of instruments, types of arrangements, as well as composers. More importantly, as Dr. Robert Greenberg taught me in a Great Course series so long ago, it’s concert music, not classical music. “Classical” is simply one of the periods of concert music that we have in music history. While “classical” is helpful shorthand for most people to understand what we’re broadly discussing, calling it concert music is the first step in separating it as distinct from the other beautiful traditions we have in Western music, be it the sublimity of Gregorian chant or the tonal delights of opera music.
The final disclaimer I would add is that I would warn against getting attached to a particular recording of any of what I am recommending. For a long time I considered the Van Cliburn 1961 recording of the Emperor Concerto to be the best recording of that piece, but as I mellowed out of my 20s I became more aligned with the idea of always taking an opportunity to hear another take on a piece. It’s the interpretation that each successive artist and generation brings to these works that vivifies them and keeps them relevant for us.
The list is arranged from a simple nocturne for one instrument to a complicated symphonic arrangement for two dozen instruments. Again, it’s by no means a definitive list and I would love to hear what you would add to this list so my friend can benefit from your wisdom as well.
Chopin Nocturne #2. Haunting, short, and memorable. Recordings by Daniel Barenboim and Arthur Rubenstein are particularly lovely.
Haydn Trumpet Concerto. I count myself as one of those bewitched by Alison Balsom’s tight but playful interpretation of this only trumpet concerto written by Haydn, but Wynton Marsalis also puts in a good shift.
Beethoven Piano Concerto №5 in E-Flat “Emperor”. There is, of course, the aforementioned Van Cliburn recording, as well as one by Glenn Gould, but I’ll never forget watching it set against the bombardment of Vienna in Bernard Rose’s unforgettable Immortal Beloved. Gary Oldman (as Beethoven) scratches out the word “Emperor” from the top of his score as Napoleon, who was besieging Vienna at that moment, proved to be the disappointment of the “egalitarian revolution” Beethoven thought was coming.
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #2. Interestingly, I got turned onto this piece because of the movie Shine, which obsesses over the famous and difficult “Rach 3.” That is a wonderful piece in its own right, but not something I would choose for a neophyte. The Rach 2 is not only accessible but alluring and the second movement alone is worth the price of admission. There is a Van Cliburn recording (yes, I know, there’s a pattern here) but do not miss the Andre Watts recording. He is my favorite living pianist and I’ve been privileged to see him live on more than one occasion.
Bach Brandenburg Concerto #3. Baroque triumphalism at its best. Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields do a fine job but the Academy of Ancient Music also have a recording worth a listen.
Vivaldi The Four Seasons. When I was younger I really liked Nigel Kennedy’s 1988 speedy interpretation, but have liked it less as I’ve gotten older. For a balance to his, try out Ithzak Perlman’s 1990 recording with the London Philharmonic.
Handel Messiah. The instantly recognizable part of this long and lovely composition (which is a celebratory complement to the mournful St. Matthew’s Passion by Bach) is the famous Hallelujah chorus, which you can find in Part II, №44. The London Symphony Orchestra have a 2007 recording that is specifically mastered for iTunes that you should check out.
Mozart Symphony #40. He wrote 41 symphonies altogether, but it seems that it was the penultimate that really resonated with people and it’s a favorite of mine as well. It’s hard to top Mozart and he remains my favorite composer of all time. Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic have a lovely recording of this.
Mahler Symphony #5. I love Gustav Mahler for his rather impertinent ambition and for striving, in the wake of all the masters before him, to really try to build new forms of music, including adding a fifth movement to a symphony (which usually has four). This is quite long for a single symphony, though, at just over an hour. Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have a 1990 Decca recording that is magnificent.
Dvorak Symphony #9. This is often called “From the New World” and it was taken by Neil Armstrong to the moon on Apollo 11. It’s influenced by the Native American music that Dvorak heard on his visits to America and by the wide open spaces so normal to an American but so alien to a Czech. You can find the second movement of it in a very useful set called The 50 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music, which is a 2008 collection. But for the whole thing, listen to a 2013 recording by Rafael Kubelik and the Berlin Philharmonic. It never hurts to listen to a Czech conducting a Czech piece.
Speaking of America, here are 2 sentimental American favorites of mine to add to the 10 above.
Barber Adagio for Strings. For those of a certain age, this piece will be forever associated with a scene from the movie Platoon, for good reason, but it is a very beautiful piece that reminds us that modern man has not lost the ability to pierce our hearts with concert music.
Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue. Alas, like a lot of modern music, this has been commercialized, and some will recognize it not as its own work, but “that United Airlines music.” But hey, why not lean into it?