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The 168 best classical music recordings

Credit: Alamy
7 September 2009 5:39pm

This selection of the finest classical recordings available, which first appeared in 2009,
is the most authoritative and entertaining guide of its kind. However, after five years
any guide needs sprucing up a little. I didnt want to compromise the inimitable style of
the original, so rather than revise it, Ive added some ideas of my own.

There are now two new suggestions in each category, and three brand-new categories.
The result is an even fuller map of classical music recordings. There are more
landmarks, while whole areas which were blank are now filled in. Time to go exploring
in this rich area of musical experience. Ivan Hewett (2014)

The Classical Rules

Variety is the spice of life

No single conductor or performer is good at everything. Buying up the works of only

one maestro is silly, so dont do it or mention you ever did it.

Names dont matter

Note down all the most obvious choices for conductors: Karajan, Ashkenazy and
Levine; for piano, Kissin and Lang Lang and throw everything you have by them
away. There are exceptions (Karajans opera) but by and large these strutting maestros
have bought space in your brains by being shrewd, not musical though the two can go
together (Bernstein).

Learn to speak German

For German repertoire remember the six Ks: Knappertsbusch, Keilberth, Kempe,
Klemperer and father and son Erich and Carlos Kleiber. And never forget Furtwngler.
Hunt them down and drop them into conversation. Subtly. Try alliteration.

Buy British

Be sure to have something by each of three British Bs: Beechams Haydn or Mozart;
Boults Brahms or Berg; Barbirollis Verdi or Vaughan Williams.

The greatest players

Pianist names to know: Lhvinne, Friedman, Lipatti, Solomon, Curzon, Ogdon, Haskil,
Richter, Moravec, Argerich, Hough. In pianophile company, you can never talk about
the French Vichy collaborator Alfred Cortot enough.

String theory

String quartets to know: Busch, Hollywood, Vgh, Hungarian, Griller, Amadeus,

Guarneri, Talich.

The label matters

If you want to get the very best, theres no avoiding the biggies: DG, EMI, Decca and
Sonys RCA Red Seal. No collection, however, would be complete without several
items from Hyperion, Bis, Harmonia Mundi and Pentatone. Naxos often offers hidden

Buy vintage

For the most ambitious social climbers among you, scratchy old reissues are a must. Try
Dutton, Testament and Naxos Historical.

The new classics

Late 20th-century composers you should profess to like: Boulez, Messiaen, Ligeti,
Grisey, Birtwistle, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Berio, Dallapiccola. And those that you might
actually enjoy: Messiaen, Ligeti, Rautavaara, Silvestrov, Adams, Reich, Glass, Copland,

Names to avoid

Karajan, Ashkenazy, Kissin, Lang Lang, Maazel, Mrs Mills and Richard Clayderman.
Forget you ever knew these people.


Princess Margaret once described opera as fat people shouting at each other, which also
seems a good description of my local Greggs. Opera, like Greggs, gets a lot of bad
press. But contrary to popular belief, opera, like Greggs, isnt that expensive, or very
highfalutin, much of it being about as accessible as a strawberry tart. So tuck in.

1) Beethoven Fidelio (conductor: Otto Klemperer)

Beethovens opera is heart-stopping in the theatre but also a sublime, uplifting musical
experience without that staging; not many operas convey as much of a message in 'tone
alone. Though the Fidelio discography is large, few recordings stand out as this one
continues to, nearly half a century after it was first captured in stereo. Otto Klemperers
lofty conducting evokes the transcendental spirit and Jon Vickerss anguished Florestan
is all suffering strength. With a great line-up also including Christa Ludwig and Gottlob
Frick, this Fidelio is timeless. Buy now

2) Mozart Cos fan tutte (conductor: Bernard Haitink)

Beneath its unruffled, Mediterranean surface, Mozarts sublime yet cruel comedy comes
to life in Bernard Haitinks interpretation from Glyndebourne, with a cast including
Carol Vaness and Claudio Desderi. Buy now

3) Mozart Die Zauberflte (conductor: Otto Klemperer)

The dialogue may be cut, but no CD collection should be without Mozarts 'opera for
everybody or a cast that includes Lucia Popps Queen of the Night and Nicolai Geddas
Tamino. Buy now

4) Puccini Tosca (conductor: Victor de Sabata)

The greatest of all Toscas, Maria Callas is captured at her legendary best, urged on by a
distinguished cast and conducting of dramatic sweep. Buy now

5) Rossini La Cenerentola (conductor: Riccardo Chailly)

From high spirits to deep pathos, La Cenerentola ('Cinderella) holds in perfect balance
everything we love most about Rossini. The cast is led by an ebullient Cecilia Bartoli on
her best form. Buy now

6) Strauss Der Rosenkavalier (conductor: Erich Kleiber)

Witty yet wistful, Erich Kleibers interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic of
Strausss masterpiece is a classic boasting a dream cast. Buy now

7) Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin (conductor: Semyon Bychkov)

Russias greatest opera, amid strong competition, Tchaikovskys 'lyric scenes have not
been better served on disc than by the idiomatic conducting of Semyon Bychkov and a
cast including Dmitri Hvorostovskys fresh-voiced Onegin. Buy now

8) Verdi Don Carlos (conductor: Claudio Abbado)

The most epic yet most human of Verdis operas, Don Carlos exists in multiple versions,
but this (in its original French) is one of the best and features Plcido Domingo in the
title role. Buy now

9) Verdi Falstaff (conductor: Herbert von Karajan)

The richly detailed orchestration of Verdis final opera blazes out under Herbert von
Karajans baton, and Tito Gobbis multifaceted Fat Knight leads a cast of singers that
strike sparks off each other. Buy now

10) Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen (conductor: Daniel Barenboim)

One of the greatest works of art ever conceived, Wagners Ring has been well served on
disc, but this features Daniel Barenboims theatrically astute conducting, and a
magnificent cast including John Tomlinson and Anne Evans. Buy now

11) Debussy Pelleas et Mlisande (conductor: Pierre Boulez)

Compared to the fortissimo vocal outpourings of most operas, this twilight tale of love
and betrayal in a lonely castle is all hints and whispers. But you can feel the suppressed
violence. Buy now

12) Britten Peter Grimes (conductor: Steuart Bedford)

In some ways Britten never surpassed his first opera, a story of a conflicted fisherman
cut off by his unfeeling neighbours. This performance, recorded by the same cast that
performed the opera on Aldeburgh beach last year, has a real salty tang. Buy now


Concertos involve one or sometimes two or three musicians facing off against the
orchestra. Composers often tackle this form in one of two ways. They offer up a
delicate, almost operatic interplay between the two factions, like in Mozart, or a down-
and-dirty mud fight.

13) Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 4 (soloist: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli)

It was the legendary Arturo Benedetti Michelangelis recording that decisively changed
the fortunes of Rachmaninovs Fourth Piano Concerto. Long considered the ugly
duckling of Rachmaninovs concerto output a last and less than convincing grasp of
Russian Romanticism composed at a time (1926) when the world had moved on the
work won its proper place in the wake of Michelangelis 1957 landmark recording. The
Italian pianist coupled this with another unsurpassed interpretation, of Ravels Piano
Concerto in G.

14) Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos 3 and 4 (soloist: Mitsuko Uchida)

Even in a crowded field, Uchidas performances stand out for their sense of drama.

15) Beethoven Violin Concerto (soloist: Itzhak Perlman)

The greatest of all violin concertos, Beethovens long work needs the breadth of vision
that Perlman is able to supply.

16) Brahms Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2 (soloist: Leon Fleisher)

Brahmss epic piano concertos receive appropriately big and sweeping performances
from Leon Fleisher and the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell.

17) Elgar Cello Concerto (soloist: Jacqueline du Pr)

Elgars masterpiece is also a monument to the passionate playing of Jacqueline du Pr.

18) Grieg and Schumann Piano Concertos (soloist: Stephen Kovacevich)

A great coupling, the A minor piano concertos of Grieg and Schumann are played with
poetic brilliance by Kovacevich and the conductor Colin Davis.

19) Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, K 364 (soloists: Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas

One of Mozarts most sublime works, this double concerto for violin and viola inspires
a lively musical conversation between two great string players.

20) Mozart Piano Concerto No 23 in A, K 488 (soloist: Solomon)

Recorded in the mid-Fifties, Solomons Mozart remains unsurpassed.

21) Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2 (soloist: Sviatoslav Richter)

Sviatoslav Richters almost mythical reputation in the West was made before he could
travel beyond the Iron Curtain by this powerful 1959 recording with the Warsaw

22) Sibelius Violin Concerto (soloist: Leonidas Kavakos)

Mixing technical bravura and poetic lyricism, Kavakos and the leading Sibelius
conductor, Osmo Vnsk, play this concerto twice, as this fascinating disc includes the
works even more demanding original version.

23) J S Bach Concerto for Two Violins (soloists: Rachel Podger and Johannes

The slow movement of Bachs double concerto is so sublimely beautiful it would be

many peoples Desert Island concerto movement. The other two movements are full of
sinewy counterpoint, which in this new recording has tremendous energy.

24) Shostakovich Piano Concertos nos. 1 and 2 (soloist: Marc-Andr Hamelin)

Shostakovich struck a new, sardonically gleeful tone in his youthful 1st piano concerto.
The second written after Stalins death strikes a very different, more reflective note.
Theyre played with jaw-dropping brilliance by Marc-Andr Hamelin.


Only one instrument can survive on its own for long enough to sustain our interest and
achieve any level of profundity: the piano. Composers have concurred and today it is
the instrument with the largest repertoire.

25) Chopin Martha Argerich (The Legendary 1965 Recording)

Only 24 when she was captured playing at Abbey Road, Argerich performs with such
intensity that it scarcely feels like a studio recording. Her volcanic energy can leave you
scrambling to keep up, but the Third Sonata is breathtaking in its spontaneity and the
smaller works are richly imbued with Polish spirit.

26) Albniz Iberia (Alicia de Larrocha)

Albnizs masterpiece has never been served better on disc than by the authentically
Spanish pianism of Alicia de Larrocha.

27) Bach Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould)

One of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, Glenn Gould devoted his first major
recording to the Goldbergs, but the more introspective version, made in 1981, is widely
considered to be his finest.

28) Bartk Romanian Folk Dances (Zoltn Kocsis)

The folk roots of the composers work are encapsulated here as part of a dazzling all-
Bartk recital by this brilliant Hungarian pianist.

29) Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata (Rudolf Serkin)

Rudolf Serkins Hammerklavier stands out for its prodigious power and introspection.

30) Brahms Klavierstcke Op 116-119 (Wilhelm Kempff)

A delectable distillation of Brahmss late style.

31) Debussy Prludes Books 1 & 2 (Krystian Zimerman)

Debussys Prludes are brought into vivid, witty and poetic focus by the brilliant Polish
pianist Krystian Zimerman.

32) Rachmaninov 24 Preludes (Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Rich in their vein of Russian melancholy, the Preludes demand poetry and technical
bravura, and receive both here.

33) Schubert Sonata in B flat, D 960 (Clifford Curzon)

Schuberts late masterwork is well served on disc, but no collection should be without
the wondrous beauty of Curzons playing.

34) Schumann Fantasy in C (Sviatoslav Richter)

Sviatoslav Richter illuminates the three contrasting movements of Schumanns grand

work, mixing luminosity of tone with virtuosity of touch.

35) Rossini Pchs de Viellese (Stefan Irmer)

Rossini, a piano composer? Some mistake surely. In fact in his old age, after hed given
up writing operas, Rossini wrote several volumes of Sins of Old Age, quirky piano
pieces with titles like Hygienic Prelude. Theyre witty, but not as light as they seem.

36) Prokofiev Piano Sonatas nos. 2 & 9, Visions Fugiives etc. (Sviatoslav Richter)

Richter was one of the greatest pianists of all time, and on this CD his deeply felt,
utterly unshowy art reveals the sarcasm, fury, and childlike innocence of Prokofievs


Much Baroque music (1600-1750), essentially posh pop neat melodies over big basses
attracts sell-out crowds of hippies, organic food wholesalers and Sloanes. The
audience is splashy and flashy, the get-up as attention-seeking as the shrill trills coming
from the stage. Early music (dawn of man 1600) draws in a more consistent and
genuinely bearded sort who just want to space out to Gregorian chant.

37) Vivaldi The Four Seasons (Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante)

Biondi puts so much colour on the cheek of this over-exploited old thing that it comes
out looking like Grayson Perry. With Biondis reimagining, an airing out of the textures,
a rebalancing of the harmonies, Vivaldis musical mind is laid out for all to see.

38) John Dunstaple (Orlando Consort)

According to the liner notes, 'Dunstaple was the most influential English composer
outside England before the Beatles. The Orlando Consort lay out Dunstaples easy
lyricism and inventiveness in a way that realises the truth of this statement.

39) Josquin des Prez Missa Pange lingua (The Tallis Scholars)

Des Prez was Beethoven, Schoenberg and Stravinsky all rolled into one, developing and
shaping new forms that became vital to the polyphonic progress of music. The Tallis
Scholars carve out the mysteries of his masterpiece, the Missa Pange lingua, like master

40) Tallis Spem in Alium; Lamentations; Mass and Motets(Magnificat)

This is Thomas Tallis at his most compelling. His famous kaleidoscopic 40-part motet,
Spem in Alium, swoops and soars in the most deeply satisfying way possible.

41) Buxtehude Organ Works (Ren Saorgin)

Harmonia Mundis clean, vivid recordings of Saorgin playing five baroque organs
perfectly captures the power of these remarkable works.

42) Claudio Monteverdi LOrfeo (Emmanuelle Haim, Le Concert DAstree)

This is little more than a renaissance riot, lurching giddily from one excitable dance to
another, passing by shadowy recitatives, sighing ariosi from a stellar cast, drum
outbursts worthy of Varese and meaty ritornelli swathed in lavish orchestral

43) Purcell Dido and Aeneas (Andrew Parrott, Taverner Choir and Players)

A beautifully quiet recording, the first to be done on period instruments. The choir is
stylish, the orchestra breezy. But Emma Kirkbys Dido is the real draw; a more direct,
subtle or affecting lament isnt to be found on disc.

44) Bach Brandenburg Concertos (Trevor Pinnock, The English Concert)

This is pure, unadorned Bach, delicately presented, lightly inflected and left to speak for
itself, which it does with unsurpassed eloquence.

45) Battista Pergolesi Stabat Mater (Rinaldo Alessandrini, Concerto Italiano)

This is a recording in which every last drop of musical juice has been squeezed from the
score. As a result, the text, one of the most moving in the sacred canon, is more sharp
and poignant than ever.

46) Couperin Les Concerts Royeaux (Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations)

The charm of Couperins little character pieces is beautifully caught by this Catalan
group. Think of Watteaus paintings of sad clowns and rosy-cheeked young ladies
dressed as shepherdesses in a shady bower, and youll get the feel of it.

47) The Mirror of Narcissus (Christopher Page, Gothic Voices)

The composer of the music on this disc, Guillaume de Machaut, was born around 1300,
which makes his the oldest music on this list. Gothic Voices make these songs sound
perfectly aristocratic and gravely melancholic, as they should be.


Choral music, with its penchant for extremes, organ accompaniments and intermittent
hallelujahs, will drive your neighbours mad. Britain has always loved choral music,
possibly because it allows us all to come together and have a sing-song with minimal

48) Bach Mass in B Minor (Andrew Parrott, Taverner Consort and Players)

The issue of authenticity in classical music is a vipers nest. Parrotts 1985 recording
came out at the height of the pitched battles between romantic traditionalists and the
vanguard period performers. Mere mention of the words 'period instruments would and
did lead to spats; when Rattle brought the issue up on the phone to Karajan, the maestro
hung up. Bravery was necessary then to record a performance of the Bach B Minor with
an unheard of four-man choir who doubled as soloists. It worked, however. And how.

49) Bach St Matthew Passion (William Mengelberg, Concertgebouw Orchestra of

Amsterdam, Amsterdam Toonkunst Choir)

Mengelbergs hypnotic 1939 St Matthew Passion is a testament to how Bach was once
performed. The result is a recording of such communal conviction, power and
authenticity that, arguably, it reaches down into the spiritual heart of the work more
deeply than any other.

50) Handel Messiah Pinnock (The English Concert and Choir)

This has been a critics favourite for nearly two decades for the spirited way the choral
get-togethers explode into life. The soloists Auger, von Otter, Chance and Tomlinson
are consistently fine.

51) Mozart Requiem (John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir and the English
Baroque Soloists)

This is a powerfully expressed performance, in which period authenticity is not allowed

to dim argument or tone. In fact, the added tremulousness afforded the smaller ensemble
is bracing, bolstering the fear at the heart of this work.

52) Schubert Complete Sacred Works (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Bavarian Radio

Symphony Orchestra and Choir)

There is something of the magic of the stumbled-upon local service about this
recording. The playing and singing is, of course, in a different league but there is still
the feeling that you are eavesdropping on something private and special.

53) Berlioz Requiem (Leonard Bernstein, Orchestra Nationale DIle de France,

Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra)

Listening to Berliozs Requiem, so dark, mysterious and vast, is like crawling around an
ocean floor. Bernstein heightens these oceanic mysteries, exploring every nook and
cranny of the enormous Madeleine church, in which he recorded the work, with his
inimitable and enormous sound.

54) Mendelssohn Elijah (Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, New Philharmonia

Orchestra and Chorus)

De Burgos is acutely aware of the dramatic and dynamic demands of this fine, snaky bit
of neo-Baroquery. But with Gwyneth Jones, Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda and Dietrich
Fischer-Dieskau as soloists, the final quartet becomes a particular highlight.

55) Brahms A German Requiem (Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra and


Klemperers is not a fashionable recording, but its still the best. Things proceed slowly,
organically and thickly, like some enormous lusty river about to spill out into the sea.

56) Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle (Marcus Creed, RIAS Kammerchor)

Rossinis Petite Messe is neither little, nor solemn, nor particularly liturgical, Napoleon
III is reputed to have said. But it is a joy, particularly in this original version for two
pianos and harmonium, in which Creed lets things burr along attractively.

57) Verdi Requiem (Carlo Maria Giulini, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus)

Giulinis annual performance of Verdis Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall through the
Fifties and Sixties was a point of repeated pilgrimage. Here we get a remarkable
glimpse of what all the fuss was about.

58) Poulenc La Figure Humaine (Swedish Radio Choir)

Francis Poulenc could be the great choral composer of the 20th century. Building up the
tension in La Figure Humaine to the great shout in praise of freedom at the end is tough,
but the Swedish Radio Choir pull it off magnificently.

59) Arvo Prt Berliner Messe (Polyphony)

Estonian composer Arvo Prt is often lumped in with the other new spiritual
composers, but hes several cuts above most of them. Polyphony sing his tremendous
De Profundis and a group of mysteriously simple pieces including The Beatitudes with
total authority.


Anything that can be done within a chamber or small room except singing, playing the
piano or performing the Swanee whistle chamber music attracts a quiet, pale,
intensely earnest crowd. Possibly because, being intimate and discursive, chamber
works can often be good substitutes for human company.

60) Beethoven Late String Quartets (Busch Quartet)

For some, the quartets have become a religion, to be worshipped, not just listened to.
The recorded shrine that most true believers return to again and again is the 60-year-old
EMI set from the peerless Busch Quartet, whose lively tone balances the play and
profundity that infect every bar of these five final works.

61) Bach Cello Suites (Pablo Casals)

For 150 years, Bachs cello suites condemned for being dry lay in obscurity. A
teenage Casals found a copy in a second-hand shop and unveiled them to an astonished
world. The recorded testimony over 60 years old is a modern miracle.

62) Bach Complete Violin Sonatas and Partitas (Nathan Milstein)

Authority and rightness pervade this cycle of Bach partitas and sonatas. Milsteins
rendition of the epic chaconne is one of the great musical journeys.

63) Haydn Op 76 String Quartets (The Lindsays)

Never has the musical natter between the four performers of a string quartet so joyously
unfolded as in this classic recording from Britains finest string quartet. And what chit-
chat. Haydns Opus 76 set quiet, modest and tender are right, royal charmers.

64) Beethoven Complete Violin Sonatas (Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer)

Pairing Argerich and Kremer up for the Beethoven violin sonatas is like tossing a match
into a box of firecrackers. Beethoven would surely have smacked his Viennese thighs
with hearty approval at their brazenly hairy ride.

65) Schoenberg, Schubert Verklrte Nacht; String Quintet(Hollywood String


The luminous traversal of Schoenbergs extraordinary late romantic see-saw sextet by

Americas first and greatest string quartet with two reserves from the Hollywood
orchestras where they all earned their pay is exquisite. Indeed, the composer was so
impressed he agreed to do the liner notes.

66) Bartk Complete String Quartets (Tokyo String Quartet)

Bartk opened the string quartet up to the wilds in these six masterpieces; the players
scratch, beat and slide their way through insistently feral terrain. The Tokyo Quartet
deliver the perfect balance of measure and madness.

67) Elliott Carter String Quartets One to Five (Pacifica Quartet)

These five modernist spinning tops, compelling vortexes of ordered chaos and chaotic
order, span five decades of the 101-year-old Carters epic career. The Pacifica Quartets
intense renditions, recorded last year, are already a modern classic.

68) Mozart Complete String Quintets (Talich Quartet)

On top of the Talichs perfectly judged music-making is a projected sound of

unbelievable warmth and realism. So dont leave the CD on while youre out; youll
think a string quartet has broken into your flat.

69) Brahms Schubert Piano Quintet Op 34; Piano Quintet 'The Trout D
667 (Amadeus String Quartet, Clifford Curzon)

The palpable buzz of these joyously unchecked performances by two titans of the last
century demonstrates exactly why live recordings are so often preferable to studio ones.
Both performances have rarely been bettered.

70) Debussy & Ravel String quartets (Alban Berg Quartett)

Dont change a note of your quartet, said Debussy to Ravel. He was right; its perfect,
and has a relaxed charm very different to his own. This CD also has Stravinskys
ground-breaking Three Pieces for String Quartet as a bonus. All are played with fierce
concentration by the Berg Quartet.

71) William Lawes Consorts to the Organ (Phantasm)

William Lawes, who died in a Civil War battle, composed these pieces for five or six
viols and organ in the 1630s. Theyve been described as a peak of chamber music,
worthy to stand alongside Bachs Musical Offering and Haydns string quartets Op. 33.
Phantasm make them sound phantastic, appropriately.


Continental 20th-century classical music is mostly violent, knotted and raw. And its
likely that, if you decide to buy any for a loved one, theyll think you want to kill them.

72) Stravinsky Rite of Spring (Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony

Much is said of the Rite of Springs unpredictability, brutality and force, but little
successful is ever done to effect it. How is a conductor to recover the Rites initial,
terrifying blow a blow that had crowds tumbling out of auditoriums all over Europe
in a world where such artistic volatility has become quite the convention? And how does
one square the intricacies of the musical detail with the primal force of the whole?
Rattle shows us how to slow the ritual down, carve it up and shine a light on every last
savage detail.

73) Debussy La Mer (Serge Koussevitzky, Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Theres a salty taste to Koussevitzkys Thirties recording, a gritty, dirty sting to the
sonic wave that puts all competition to shame. No one gets even close to this sort of
realism, which brings to life the hollow clang of metal hulls in port as well as the
soaring swells of the open seas.

74) Charles Ives Symphony 2 (Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic)

Bernstein was a devoted musical patriot, making committed recordings of many of the
great American symphonies of Harris, Piston, Schuman and Copland. This one, of Ivess
wistful, folk-filled Second, is arguably the finest.

75) Bartk Orchestral Masterworks (Sir Georg Solti, London Symphony


Bartk was Soltis piano teacher in the Thirties and, to the last, Solti reveals what a
dutiful pupil he is, with a performance of Bartks orchestral works that adheres to the
spirit and the letter of the score.

76) Dmitri Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Mstislav Rostropovich,

London Philharmonic Orchestra)

This brutish opera, one of the 20th centurys most compelling, on the consequences of a
boring bourgeois life, brings musical royalty together, husband and wife team
Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich, for a vivid performance.

77) Olivier Messiaen Vingts Regards sur lEnfant Jesus (Yvonne Loriod)

Messiaen and his wife, Yvonne Loriod, were the God-fearing sort; they had no
discernible vices and owned one book the Bible. The consequence is a very focused
performance of Messiaens almost improperly vivid, sensuous and at times demonic

78) Gyrgy Ligeti tudes (Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

'Topsy-turvy doesnt begin to describe the nature of these skittish, poly-rhythmical

prowlers. Theyre the tudes Chopin might have written if hed lived in Timbuktu.
Aimards renditions energetic and precise are without rival.

79) Louis Andriessen De Staat (Lucas Vis, Nederlands Blazers Ensemble)

From Gregorian chant to bebop and back. This is the journey we take with Andriessen
on his buzzy, brassy, politically underpinned modern, Minimalist masterpiece,
performed with precision and guts by his fellow Dutchman.

80) Pierre Boulez Rpons, Dialogue de LOmbre Double (Boulez, Ensemble


Behind the po-faced complexity of Boulezs music is a very French obsession with
beauty and colour. Nowhere is this more true than in Rpons, in which musical lines,

mirrored and mangled by computers, tumble from trill to trill, like birds on a manic
migratory journey.

81) Kurt Weill Berliner Requiem (Philippe Herreweghe, Ensemble Musique


Kurt Weill, son of a synagogue cantor, had to flee the Nazis to the US. By then hed
written a string of masterpieces including the wonderful Berliner Requiem. It can sound
harsh and angular, but Herreweghe makes it soft-edged and deep.

82) Edgar Varse complete works (Riccardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw


Almost every work on this double-CD set is a honed masterpiece, from the primitivist
jungle Offrandes to the stark sounds of Dsert, the first piece to mingle electronic
sounds with an orchestra. Chailly has done his research, and collated every manuscript,
to make this the definitive recording.


The Symphony is the grandest musical form. Its what every composer had to write to
be taken seriously, and you could spend a lifetime exploring this one genre. Here are a
dozen examples, from the father of the symphony Joseph Haydn right up to

83) Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 7 (Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic


Rhythm lies at the heart of these two extraordinary symphonies. While the Seventh sees
'the apotheosis of the dance, in the words of Wagner, the Fifth sees the climax of the
rhythmic motif, as the famous knock of fate is passed from one movement to another,
the composer turning the idea again and again in his hands, moulding new shapes out of
the primal clay. Kleiber unlocks the dynamism in the works like no one else.

84) Haydn Symphonies 93-104 (Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic


Two of musics greatest pranksters, Haydn and Beecham, rollick through Haydns toe-
tapping London symphonies as if in some Ealing Comedy. Theres wit and grace here to

85) Mozart Complete Symphonies (Karl Bhm, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra)

Karl Bhm was a crowing Nazi who once stopped a rehearsal to watch Hitlers 1923
beer hall putsch. His pioneering Mozart cycle, by contrast, is all self-effacing

86) Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (Zubin Mehta, London Philharmonic

Berliozs only symphony is the first of the romantic era and arguably the most inspired;
a love-driven, opiate-ridden flight of fancy. Indian conductor Zubin Mehta shapes and
guides the winds to perfection.

87) Brahms Complete Symphonies (Kurt Sanderling, Dresden Staatskapelle)

Sanderlings reading of Brahms is an unsentimental one and the symphonies are shot
through with passion and pulse. The recording is vivid, the East Germans playing first-
rate and the musical control masterful.

88) Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 (Evgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad

Philharmonic Orchestra)

These Russian recordings arent just overpowering, theyre terrifying; shifting pace with
force and abandon, one moment tossing you out into the waves, the next gently washing
you to shore.

89) Bruckner Complete Symphonies (Gnter Wand, Cologne Radio Symphony


Nothing less than the heavens are charted by Bruckner in these nine works. The
trajectories of intergalactic objects can be heard in the fizz of the strings and roar of the
brass lines that rain down on our ears.

90) Sibelius Complete Symphonies (Sir Anthony Collins, London Symphony


Collins had made his name composing scores for the RKO studios, earning three Oscar
nominations, before Victor Olof invited him to record with the London Symphony
Orchestra. The result was a Sibelius cycle that is yet to be bettered.

91) Shostakovich Symphony 10 (Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic)

The young Russian maestro and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic have finished their
complete recording of Shostakovichs symphonies, and its knock-out. They reveal the
taut, grave tragedy and the demonic energy of the Tenth, perhaps the greatest of the lot.

92) Mahler Symphony 9 (Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra)

Abbados live performance of Mahler 9 is a haunted, desperate thing which, from the
first aborted climax to the washed-up final lines, reveals him to be someone who
plumbs deeper into the soul of the work than any other conductor.

93) Leonard Bernstein Symphony 2 (Age of Anxiety) (Leonard Bernstein, Israel


The symphony doesnt have to be totally abstract, and in the 20th century rarely is. This
one was inspired by WH Audens poem which traces the stories of four New Yorkers
trying to sort out their lives. Bernstein brings it to life in a way no other conductor quite

94) Carl Nielsen Symphonies 4 and 5 (Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony

At the climax of Danish composer Carl Nielsens 4th symphony (the Inextinguishable),
a side-drum does its best to destroy the symphony, while the orchestra strives to keep it
going. Its a tremendous moment, especially in this recording.


Either pastoral and free flowing or loud and brash, the music attracts adherents who are
quite embarrassed by the existence of the other and try not to mingle.

95) Vaughan Williams Symphony 5 (Dona Nobis Pacem LPO/ BBCSO/ Vaughan

Two rare examples of the composer conducting his own music. The symphony was
recorded (off the air) at a Prom in 1952 when he was 80. He knew just how his music
should sound and projects the great symphonys darker moments as well as its radiance.

96) Elgar The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures (Janet Baker, Richard Lewis,
Kim Borg, Hall Orch & Sheffield Philharmonic Choirs, LSO/Barbirolli)

Notable for Janet Bakers Angel and for her classic singing of Sea Pictures.

97) Elgar Symphony 2 and Short Pieces (BBCSO/Boult)

Adrian Boult recorded this symphony several times but this, his first, made in 1944, is
the best. The short pieces include Sospiri and his orchestration of Chopins Funeral

98) Elgar Violin Concerto (Yehudi Menuhin/LSO Elgar)

Historic made in 1932 when Menuhin was 16. It is still the most satisfying
interpretation because of Elgars conducting.

99) Elgar and Vaughan Williams Barbirolli Conducts English Music for
Strings (Sinfonia of London, New Philharmonia)

The Elgar includes Serenade, Elegy and Introduction and Allegro; the VW, the Tallis
Fantasia and Greensleeves. Wonderful playing.

100) Britten War Requiem (Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-
Dieskau, Bach and other Choirs, LSO/ Britten)

A best-seller after the 1962 Coventry premiere and still a harrowing experience. This
reissue has an indispensable recording of Britten rehearsing.

101) Delius Brigg Fair, Appalachia etc (LPO/Beecham)

Beecham had a magic touch with this music and these pre-1939 performances still cast a

102) Turnage Twice Through the Heart, Hidden Love Song, In Torn
Fields (Sarah Connolly, Gerald Finley, LPO Marin Alsop)

Three gripping works by this contemporary composer. Connolly is spellbinding as the

wife who kills her violent husband.

103) Finzi Dies Natalis (Toby Spence and Scottish Ensemble)

If Finzi had written nothing else this rapturous cantata, beautifully sung here, would
ensure his immortality.

104) Tippett A Child of Our Time (Faye Robinson, Sarah Walker, Jon Garrison,
John Cheek, CBSO & Chorus/Tippett)

Moving and topical 1939 oratorio with negro spirituals as chorales. Tippett conducts
and the soloists were his choice.

105) Gustav Holst Egdon Heath etc. (David Lloyd-Jones, Royal Scottish National

Theres so much more to Gustav Holst than The Planets, as this compilation disc shows.
It contains his Somerset Rhapsody, his subtle evocation of the Middle East Beni Mora,
and his stirringly bleak and grand evocation of Egdon Heath, inspired by Thomas

106) Benjamin Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge etc. (Benjamin

Britten, English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra)

Theres a whole sub-genre of English string music, and Brittens Variations on a

Theme of Frank Bridge is a peak in the tradition. Britten was the all-round musician,
and this recording of him conducting his own music come up as fresh as a daisy, despite
its age.


One fat person shouting in a small room. Thats how Princess Margaret might have
described song. Songs sung in German are called lieder. In French, chansons. The song
crowds natural habitat is the Wigmore Hall, in London.

107) Schubert Winterreise (Fischer-Dieskau/Gerald Moore)

Perhaps the greatest of all song cycles, sung by a master at the peak of his power. Every
changing mood of the traveller through the winter landscape his despair, false hopes,
elation, memories is limned in subtle detail and gradations of vocal tone by the
German baritone. Included in EMIs Great Recordings of the Century series, this classic
disc is one of dozens of this masterpiece, all with some claim on our attention, but this
has it all.

108) Schubert, Wolf (Irmgard Seefried)

Rich selection by this unforgettable soprano who went to the heart of each song in this
recital recorded live in London in 1962.

109) Schubert (Bernarda Fink)

One of todays outstanding mezzo-sopranos, Fink sings a selection of familiar and

unfamiliar with superb insight and lustre of tone.

110) Schubert A Voyage of Discovery

Twenty-six songs, with singers who include Felicity Lott, Peter Schreier, Thomas
Hampson and many more, accompanied by Graham Johnson. A real treat.

111) Schubert (Lucia Popp)

Sixteen lieder sung by the late Lucia Popp with Irwin Gage at the piano. Like Seefried,
this soprano melts the heart with her artistic insights and her ability to make the best-
known songs sound fresh.

112) Schumann, Brahms (Kathleen Ferrier)

Which collector could bear to be without the great English contraltos performance of
Schumanns Frauenliebe und leben recorded not long before her early death in 1953?
Also included are Brahmss Four Serious Songs and Alto Rhapsody.

113) Strauss (Christine Brewer, Roger Vignoles)

The American soprano, with Vignoles as her partner at the piano, contributes Volume 1
of the Complete Strauss Songs edition. Of the 19 tracks, some are rare items.

114) Wagner, Mahler (Kirsten Flagstad, Vienna Philharmonic)

The Wesendonck Lieder and Mahlers Kindertotenlieder and Lieder eines fahrenden
Gesellen, in their orchestral versions, imperiously sung by the Norwegian soprano. The
Wagner is conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, the Mahler by Sir Adrian Boult.

115) Un Frisson Franais (Susan Graham)

The American mezzo Graham sings chansons by 22 French composers from Berlioz to
Ravel and others in a recital that covers a century of French song.

116) Brahms, Schumann (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson)

The artistry of this American mezzo, whose death aged 52 in 2006 is still profoundly
mourned, lives on in this disc that captures the unforgettable magnetism of her
personality as well as the unique timbre of her voice.

117) Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire)

Schoenbergs 21 songs describing the lurid adventures of Moon-struck Peter are

nightmarish at first, but become beautiful with repeated hearings. Stravinsky described
them as the mind as well as the solar plexus of 20th-century music.

118) Edvard Grieg Songs (Anne-Sofie von Otter)

Forget Peer Gynt the songs are where the real genius of Edvard Grieg lie. Some of
them are melancholy and artful, some are rumbustious and folky. Swedish soprano
Anne-Sofie von Otter gets to the heart of them.


The orchestra must be the richest musical medium ever created. Its a shape-shifter, one
minute evoking ancient Rome, the next a stormy sea, the next a futuristic landscape.
And just to add the fascination every orchestra is different.

119) Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben (Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony


Fritz Reiners partnership with RCA Victor in the Fifties was one of the greatest in
recording history. On this disc, youll find the noblest and fleshiest musical incarnations
of Strausss Hero ever recorded.

120) Dvok The Water Goblin etc. (Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic

Water Goblins, Noon Witches, Golden Spinning Wheels, Wild Doves the titles of
Dvoks four late tone-poems tell us were going to be plunged into the world of Slavic
fairy-tales. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic paint them in vivid colours.

130) Aaron Copland Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copland, London Symphony


No composer captured the heart of white rural America better than the gay Jewish New
Yorker Aaron Copland. His performances with the LSO catch the sense of space, the
loneliness and the sober joy of the music.

140) Smetana Ma Vlast (James Levine, Vienna Philharmonic)

Too much Czech charm, you might be thinking, to have Smetanas tone-poems as well
as Dvoks? Not really. Smetanas great series of tone-poems are very different, and
Vltava has a fabulous tune that makes any patriotic Czech feel tearful. And quite a few
Brits too.

141) Bizet LArlesienne Suites 1 & 2 (Sir Thomas Beecham, French National
Radio Orchestra, RPO)

Sir Thomas Beechams caressing, lively, characterful way with Bizets LArlesienne has
never been bettered. And on this CD Bizets terrific Symphony in C is thrown in for
good measure.

142) Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker (Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra)

This music reminds you of what Christmas was like as a child. Every piece comes as a
delicious treat, familiar and unexpected at the same time - especially in this fantastically
vivid performance from the Kirov Orchestra and Valery Gergiev.

143) Ravel Daphnis and Chloe etc (Pierre Monteux, Orchestra and Chorus of the
Royal Opera Covent Garden)

Theres no more purely sensuous ballet score than Daphnis and Chlo, and this great
recording under Pierre Monteux, one of the great conductors of the last century, does it

144) Scriabin Prometheus, Symphony no 3 (Evgeni Svetlanov, USSR Symphony


Just because Scriabin was a half-crazed egomaniac doesnt mean he wasnt also a fine
and subtle composer. This excellent CD brings togethr two of his best orchestral works,
which open a door onto a strange fervently mystical landscape.

145) Manuel de Falla The Three-Cornered Hat (Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de

la Suisse Romande)

Manuel de Falla captured the soul of Spain in his ballets, and this recording with two
great Spanish soloists pianist Alicia de Larrocha and soprano Teresa Berganza is a
classic in its own right.

146) Anton Webern Six Orchestral Pieces etc (Robert Craft, Philharmonia

Webern was the master of the miniature. He could express a novel in a sigh according
to his teacher Schoenberg. This CD contains a good slice of his entire output, including
his Six Orchestral Pieces, which say quiet, tiny things with a huge orchestra.


The silver-haired maestro is increasingly taking a back seat to a new generation of

young virtuosos. Some of these have a brilliant technique and not much else, but the
best of them have a huge personality to match.

147) Patricia Kopatchinskaja (Violin Concertos by Bartok, Ligeti and Etvs)

This 37 year-old Moldovan has been described as the most exciting violinist in the
world. Her recording of these three concertos has a wonderful rhapsodic air, as if shes
making them up on the spot.

148) Alina Ibragimova (complete violin and piano music by Ravel)

Another brilliant young female violinist, but Ibragimovas fiercely dramatic style is very
different to Kopatchinskajas rhapsodic waywardness. These recordings of Ravel, made
with French pianist Cedric Tiberghien, are electrifying.

149) Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord works by Bach, Byrd and Ligeti)

So you think you hate the harpsichord? Iranian-born American harpsichordist Mahan
Esfahani will make you think again. He makes the music so vivid you forget the
instruments limitations.

150) Igor Levit (late piano sonatas by Beethoven)

The sheer beauty of sound Igor Levit conjures from the piano is astonishing, and he
creates a totally convincing narrative shape for these profound and sometimes puzzling

151) Elena Xanthoudakis (arias by Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti)

This bubbly Australian soprano is following in the footsteps of her great compatriot
Joan Sutherland, with a superb debut album of bel canto arias.

152) Cameron Carpenter (Revolutionary; transcriptions of music by Chopin,

Ellington, Liszt etc.)

Carpenter is the organist purists love to hate. Hes flamboyant in every way, from his
sexuality to his on-stage string vests to his colourful organ registrations. This album
Revolutionary was the first organ CD to be nominated for a Grammy.

153) Benjamin Grosvenor (Dances: music by Bach, Albeniz, Granados etc)

This British pianist has been hailed as a reincarnation of the poetic, very personal style
of pre-war virtuosos like Cortot. This new album is an intriguing compilation of dance
music for piano, cleverly programmed and brilliantly played.

154) Milo (Aranjuez: guitar music by Falla and Rodrigo)

His smouldering good looks help, but this Montenegran guitarist is a genuinely superb
musician, whose superstar status is doing wonders for the classical guitars popularity.

155) Mark Simpson (Prism: contemporary works for clarinet)

Far too talented for his own good, Mark Simpson excels as a composer, conductor and
clarinetist (in which role he became BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2006). On his
debut album he plays contemporary works for clarinet, including one of his own.

156) Aisha Orazbayeva (The Hand Gallery)

One of a new breed of musicians who avoid the usual career paths and genre
boundaries, the Kazakh-born violinist and composers second CD has music by
Feldman, Steve Reich and herself, plus pop songs by John Cale and Elvis Presley, all
recreated on the four strings of a violin.


Not all classical music is written for orchestras and string quartets and pianos. Not all of
it is written in serious genres like sonata and symphony. Not all of it is written by dead
European males. Heres a sample of the wonderful music that falls in the cracks.

157) Stravinsky Les Noces (Soloists of Mariinsky Theatre)

In modern times composers have often invented new combinations of instruments. Few
make such an unmistakable, brilliant sound as the four pianos and percussion of
Stravinskys ballet Les Noces.

158) Ernesto Nazareth Piano Works (Marcelo Bratke)

Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth wrote elegant little salon pieces, but dont dismiss
him. When I heard the music of Ernesto Nazareth, I finally understood the Brazilian
soul, said the French composer Darius Milhaud.

159) Chopin/Godowsky Etudes (Boris Berezovsky)

Leopold Godowsky was one of those heroic virtuoso composer-pianists from the pre-
war era. He took Chopins Etudes, already fantastically difficult, and made them harder,
just for fun.

160) Percy Grainger works for wind-band (Royal Northern College of Music
Wind Orchestra)

Grainger is the master of us all, said Benjamin Britten, referring to the Australian
composers uncanny skill at arranging folk-songs. This CD has some wonderful
examples, plus Graingers own powerfully original Hill Song no. 2

161) Revueltas Sensemay (Michael Tilson Thomas, New World Symphony


When European modernism crossed the Atlantic and mingled with native Latin
American music, something extraordinary happened. Sample it on this disc of Latin
American orchestral music.

162) Franz Berwald Grand Septet (The Gaudier Ensemble)

Classical music swarms with composers who may not be top rank but have something
interesting and individual to say. The Swedish composer Franz Berward is one, as this
charming disc of chamber pieces shows.

163) Messiaen Turangalla (Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)

Classical music has spawned lots of odd instruments, some of which make truly strange
and wonderful sounds. One of them is the ondes martenot, which sounds like a visitor
from outer space. Hear it on Messiaens great orchestral work Turangalla.

164) Clara Schumann Piano Concerto in A etc (Veronica Jochum, Bamberg

Symphony Orchestra)

Women composers form the hidden side of classical music, only now being uncovered.
Clara Schumann was one of the finest composers of the mid-19th century. In some ways
she was better than her famous husband Robert.

165) Music for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (David Munrow, Early Music
Consort of London)

David Munrow was a great pioneer in the revival of ancient, obsolete instruments. On
this fascinating CD theres a whole menagerie of them, and the music they play is
fascinating too.

166) The Jazz Album (Simon Rattle, London Sinfonietta)

Almost a hundred years ago, classical music was bitten by the jazz bug. This album has
the classics of the new classic/jazz hybrid, from Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky,
Darius Milhaud and George Gershwin.

And our final two choices are compilations

Contrary to popular belief, buying a box set or compilation album need not be a
compromise. Many of the finest recordings will be found behind their flimsy naff

cardboard walls and youll often discover that theyre the gift that keeps on giving.
Within these pages, we have a number: The art of Nathan Milstein, Simon Rattles
Stravinsky and Beechams Haydn.

Early and Baroque music does particularly well in this format. Handel, for example, is
very well served by the compilation set, allowing you to hone in on your favourite aria.
Good examples include Scholls Ombra mai fuon Harmonia Mundi or Ciofi and
DiDonatos duetting on Virgin. The naff-sounding Handel Gold from Decca and DG is
especially good.

In the bargain basement, a little more discernment and care is needed. Belart have an
album called 100 Classical Hits that are hits only in the very narrow sense of the word:
the fist-to-the-ear sense. The contents of Victors The Only Piano Album Youll Ever
Need, similarly, doesnt do full justice to the title. In fact, Id replace the word 'ever
with 'never.

Virgin TVs Best Classical Album in the World Ever!, on the other hand, isnt bad
at all, with some very decent conductors and soloists.