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Sunday, 24 July 2011


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For anyone who thinks they would like to learn more about appreciating the classical repertoire, I can recommend Andras Schiff's series of lectures on Beethoven's Piano Sonatas - available to listen on the Guardian Website.


Much of what he has to say informs our appreciation of music and it's interpretation beyond the (admittedly vast) confines of these 32 sonatas

Favorite quartets (and I am utterly uneducated with respect to classical music as well):

1. Kronos Quartet. I fell in love with them when I saw them perform Philip Glass's soundtrack for the 1931 Dracula film. They performed behind the movie screen and during uneventful parts of the movie the stage lights were lit and we could see the players through the screen. During eventful parts of the film the stage lights were darkened so we could see the film. It was spectacular. And to head off possible nay-sayers, Philip Glass is a minimalist modern composer but much of his work is dynamic and full of beautiful melodies (check out his Violin Concertos - these are incredible!), as opposed to the severely minimal works of John Cage.

2. Balanescu Quartet. I bought a CD of their used simply due to the title (Luminitza). There are some pieces that merge classical and modern European pop/industrial music which I don't care for at all, but there are 3 pieces that are instrumental and classical in style: Still With Me, Luminitza, and Mother. All three are incredibly good, but Luminitza is beyond words. Mother is haunting (reminds me a bit of Mahler's Symphony # 3) and also indescribably good, but Luminitza is far and away some of the best string classical music I've heard. It gives me chills every time I hear it.

Try Gould+Bernstein for Bach 1052. It is ... well I don't know what it is ... but it is good.

Hi Mike, I have a fairly extensive collection of classical music, probably as large as my collection of Jazz, Blues and Rock put together.

You really cannot beat the experience of listening to something written with such immense care and technical understanding, and played with such consumate skill. I know there is immense skill and technique in other musical forms, but nowhere is there the same level of iron discipline and tonal perfection that gives me goosebumps.

To hear Itzhak Perlman play a violin, live, is one of the most startling experiences I ever had. This one is just for you!


I too love Bach, somehow it leaves me feeling completely mentally refreshed like a form of meditation. Give the Beethoven piano sonatas a really serious try though and the string quartets, and don't avoid later composers, especially Czech and Hungarian. Janaceks Violin Concerto and Bartoks Concerto for Orchestra are as fun and bracing as skiing down a mountain.

What a post! I was wondering when you would touch on classical music ... So here's my 2 cents.

For the Bach Harpsichord Concertos: have a look at Ottavio Dantone, and Accademia Bizantina, they are brilliant. Their ensemble is incredibly tight (almost unbelievably so), and they generate energy from rhythm and phrase shape; really something to hear and is so rare. Most other recordings rely on tone or dynamics, but they do this, and more: they respect the score and do it within the confines of what the composer wrote. Their recording of the Haydn Keyboard Concerto in D is also a real gem and the Handel Organ Concertos (especially Concerto 2) really embodies the best of their qualities.

For quartets: I'm a bit of a late starter to this, but the Alban Berg quartet is a real favorite of mine - I especially love their recording of Schubert Death and the Maiden. The opening of the first movement which starts in d minor and then the block chords of f major - c major - f major - g minor - b-flat major - g minor (I think, from memory after the huge d minor start); is haunting and their tone with a thinly veiled vibrato, i'm guessing being played on the upper two thirds of the bow, away from the bridge -- is something. If you ever get the opportunity to play that quartet, that passage after the start is like a time machine -- time seems to just slow down -- and then the torrents that come after! Wonderful.

My violin teacher would always point to the Amadeus Quartet for a reference recording that "he grew up on", but for me, their recordings are a good reference, but haven't really survived the transfer to the 2000s (whether it be from the analog - digital transfer, the sound just lacks space ... or their approach to Beethoven / Mozart, which remains a little archaic after listening to more recent interpretations).

Finally, I'd like to say that I do love the Kronos Quartet. Their recording of the Piazzaola Five Tango Sensations is just so ... sexy! Having tried to play it, there's so much musicianship to pull something like that off (especially rhythm, and dealing with the writing in order to make it sound integrated and not to percussive), and they do it not just well, but with ease.


Actually, here is a video of that Alben Berg recording of the Schubert, the passage I'm talking about is from 0:20 to 0:25 -- some of the longest 5 seconds ever.



My favorite quartet has to be the "Budapest Quarter" from years ago. They performed with other performers such as Rudolf Serkin, George Szell and Mieczyslaw Horszewski. Their version of Schubert's Trout quartet with Horszowski is a marvel unto its self. Chamber music at its finest.

It depends on what you are looking for. Borodin quartet was the most famous Schubert player for their clockwork rendition of the death and the maiden. But that is as liking the precision over the feelings or character: is a lens better for its sharpness or for its rendition?

Moreover, you will shift your tastes towards even more classical stuff, towards the winter of Vivaldi, Bach partitas, and Dvořák.

Did you hear about the classical music composer who disappeared from his sickbed for several days? The nurses and doctors searched high and low, but they just couldn't find him. Turned out he was Haydn.

Except when you inspire me to try some more jazz, I mainly listen to classical; symphonic. So many symphonies, so little time. Being in South Bend, home to the Fischoff National Chamber Music Assoc., I've been fortunate to attend a lot of performances in homes, but it has seldom translated to recordings.

As to opera, I keep dabbling. "The Three Tenors, in Concert", is a very nice sampler, and Pavarotti has always moved me. The albumn is worth it just to hear the three of them "duel". Delibes "Lakme" is just enjoyable, and another voice and orchestra, Das Lied von der Erde, by Mahler.

And just so you know, I'll probably get the Bach piece.

I have a number of favorite quartets (there isn't any single one that covers the whole repertory that I'm interested in equally satisfactorily); here they are, together with favorite repertory (my favorites):

The LaSalle Quartet: Beethoven F minor quartet Op. 95; Beethoven "Late" quartets; Schönberg, Berg, and Webern quartets; Schubert quintet; Nono, Ligeti, & Lutoslawski quartets

Juilliard Quartet: Mozart "Haydn" quartets; Bartok quartets

Busch Quartet (pre-HiFi): Beethoven quartets (the ones they recorded)

Amadeus Quartet: complete Haydn quartets; Smetana quartet #1

Kolisch Quartet (pre-HiFi): Schönberg quartets

Alban Berg Quartet: Beethoven "Early" & "Middle" quartets

Hollywood Quartet (HiFi, but mono only): Beethoven "Late" quartets

The list goes on quite a bit longer, and does include the Tatrais for Haydn also — I've never been content to have just one, or sometimes even only two or three different recordings of music that's really important to me (at one time this led to my having 16 or 17 different Don Giovannis . . . ).

Nice to have an off-topic on this subject, Mike.

You don't listen to the opera , you go to the opera. It's like the difference between sushi and fishsticks. Attending the opera is transcendent, listening to recordings of opera is kind of annoying. A soprano friend of my wife had to take martial arts training for one of her roles where she literally got thrown across the stage while singing, and last year at the Met the chorus was performing a cavalry battle while rappelling down a stage filling video screen showing the battle field from overhead. A couple years before that I saw Placido Domingo in Girl of the Golden West staged with real horses one of which he was riding while singing.

Opera is a lot closer to say Iggy Pop than you might imagine.

String quartets that commission their own arrangements are what you want, the rest are like cover bands. The Kronos Quartet's "Purple Haze" (for an extreme example) is a revelation.


"You don't listen to the opera , you go to the opera. It's like the difference between sushi and fishsticks. Attending the opera is transcendent, listening to recordings of opera is kind of annoying."

I understand, having "gone" to many things, but I increasingly find "going" more annoying, and just listening, with out the pushing, shoving and coughing more enjoyable. And as Luciano has moved on, how else will I hear him?

I'll warmly recommend the Salomon Quartet, if it's perfectly judged Haydn you want - Hyperion's two CDs of the "Sun" quartets op 20, for example, are completely involving.

The Lindsays have an especially light and precise touch with Schubert; or, I have a couple of favourite older recordings by the Melos quartet.

Just now I am enjoying an EMI set of Beethoven from the Alban Berg quartet, who are reliably interesting and insightful.

I am a huge fan of classical music and have been for most of my 28 years. However, the quartet form has never been a particular favourite. That said, I do have a couple of revelatory performances on recording that I hope to recommend:

1. The Zehetmair Quartet's recording of Schumann's 1st and 3rd string quartets on ECM.

The Zehetmair quartet brings a lean transparency to these works that lifts some of the heaviness of the work's inherent romanticism and sees the structure within. A lively and intense performance that I have thoroughly enjoyed and which has broadened my appreciation for Schumann's other works.

This is truly a case for the power of a given quartet's interpretation.

2. The Borodin Quartet's 2-CD recording of Shostakovich's Quartets 2, 12 , 8, 7, and 3 on Virgin.

I have the box set of Shostakovich's quartets with the Emerson Quartet and very much appreciate their rapport with the works and would recommend it for the set as a whole without hesitation. However, in the 8th, which is my favourite of the quartets, I feel that the Borodin Quartet's performance is more fully emotive. In the opening movement, their lines are achingly mournful and haunting while their inner beauty provides a glimmer of unfounded hope (that most devastating emotion -- like Cio-Cio San awaiting her Pinkerton).

A couple other notes:

1. Except for Opera or other forms with a strong visual element, I think live performance is sorely over-rated. I have had the great pleasure of seeing the Borodin Quartet play that Shostakovich piece live from great seats in a fantastic venue. However, it wasn't really the right moment. While music may have sounded better and fuller then and there, I wasn't in the frame of mind for it. I have enjoyed the recording I have more.

The exception to this statement are pieces that are slow and subtle enough to demand more attention than I usually give while listening to a recording. A live performance can help insist upon that rapt attention.

2. Don't wait too long to discover opera. Once you do, you will live for it -- I swear! If you don't think you want to see what is popularly thought of when 'opera' is discussed, try something else. Opera's repetoire is as broad as any other form of classical music.

John Adams' opera Nixon in China has become one of my absolute favourites, for example. I found it captivating, strangely memorable (especially "News"), and engaging throughout.

Another recent favourite was a Robert Lepage production of Stravinsky's Nightingale (and other pieces) that incorpoarted underwater puppeteers in the flooded orchestra pit, shadow pantamime, and marionettes all impressive and harmoniously incorporated.

I can't tell if I like it better analog or digital. JS Bach is my favorite composer, and I spent far too much money while stationed in Germany getting the excellent DDG and Archiv vinyl albums.

The most sublime music I've heard is the opera Satyagraha by Philip Glass. No music moves me as much as that.

Very Funny- I just spent a month in Alaska while my wife sang with the opera company there... As a hobby photographer, I got to shoot some amazing land and shoot her show.

As for listening vs. going to the opera, there is no comparison. Opera was meant to be experienced with eyes and ears. Ask a great chef if food presentation makes a difference in a diner's experience of a fine meal. The visual theater helps tell the story. Now, you could watch a video (or MET's live HD broadcast in a theater), but it's not quite the same. The live experience of 70-100 people rehearsed, choreographed, and finely-tuned to create an event is an amazing thing to take in. A film or tv show (like a photo) can be re-shot, edited, and processed into a fixed and permanent piece of history. Precisely because it is live, opera leaves nowhere for imperfection to hide, and it is a raw yet refined moment in time, which is why those who love it go back and see La Boheme or Madam Butterfly again and again. Contrary to what Samsung, Sony or Bose tells you, there's an energy, excitement, and emotion that comes with being there that no amount of 3D or HD can give you. We live in a culture that is slowly retreating from itself, believing that facebook gives you friends and cameras give you memories. The experience of a live performance can be a rush.

And Bron- I have not been to very many operas where there was lots of pushing and shoving...Maybe Met in Central Park? The coughing is annoying, I will agree, and it is nice to hear the perfect final edit of a "perfectly sung" aria or ensemble, but we opera singers know that, like those who use p&S cameras, some are casual users and some are fanatics :)

Luciano was my favorite, but there were/are so many other fantastic artists, he just got the most press. Check out the young Jose Carreras or now, a fantastic tenor named Jonas Kaufmann.

Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) from 'Pretty Woman'...."People's reactions to opera the first time they see it are very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul. "

Regarding classical, all you need to do is listen to Bach's Cello Suites. One instrument is all it takes to either appreciate Bach (and classical music)...or have it become part of your soul.

The string quartet's my favourite classical genre, but I agree with Richard that a single group can't be considered superior across the repertoire. Personal favourites (setting aside some of the older 'greats' already mentioned above) include the Coull, Takâcs, Endellion, Mosaïques, Delme and Maggini Quartets.

As for BWV 1052 or anything else written for the harpsichord, I can't comment. The instrument ranks as one of Satan's finest creations, along with the accordion and bagpipes. I prefer root canal work.

"all you need to do is listen to Bach's Cello Suites."

I currently have four versions of that: Janos Starker's--I believe on a label called Sefel (?), which was very hard to get in the early CD era--which I've listened to the most; Yo-Yo Ma's 1983 first version on CBS Masterworks, which I like the most, no disrespect to the others; Heinrich Schiff, bought as an iTunes download after spending an evening listening intently to 30-second samples of all the then-available versions; and a "period" recording by Anner Bylsma. Oddly enough, despite all my arduous comparison shopping, I find don't care for Schiff's performance all that much. Again, no disrespect meant. His version on EMI Classics is beautifully played, but taken consistently fast, and thus lacks the hypnotic effect that the more deliberate readings build to.

One of the great prizes of the iTunes era is that you can download Janos Starker's Mercury Living Presence recording of Bach's Cello Suites with the mere click of a mouse for an inconsequential twenty bucks. The CHEEK. OR you can go to Music Direct or one of the other vinyl emporia and buy the remastered Speaker's Corner reissue on pristine new vinyl. Although that's a little more expensive. Riches! When I first started collecting classical music the original Starker Mercury Living Presence disks were long out of print and very rare, priced in the stratosphere--the kind of thing veteran record collectors with huge collections bragged about having--and the Sefel reissue on CD was hard to come by too, and expensive too. I remember tales of Bach fans moving heaven and earth to get access the precious Starker masterpiece. (Ah, record-collecting lore. It isn't what it used to be.)

Much as I appreciate Starker's famous version, though, I think Yo-Yo Ma's 1983 recording is the one I like to listen to the most and the one I'd least want to be without. I like it better than his newer 1997 recording, too.

Jim McDermott,
That's funny. I love harpsichord, and all forms of fortepiano and clavichord; Some of my favorite piano records are fortepiano recordings, especially in Haydn--Lola Odiaga, Paul Badura-Skoda. I find bagpipes moving, although I'm not aware of having listened to them as music per se; and I have a good friend--one of the guys in my online music group--who is nuts about the accordion, and quite expert about its far-flung repertoire. And I have a dear friend, a gifted musician, who PLAYS accordion! And if you don't listen to accordion, how do you listen to Astor Piazzolla and all the other tango masters??


Anybody have a favorite quartet?

Yes... but they are Jazz.... and Modern.

Well don't hold back Steve. Who are they?


'And if you don't listen to accordion, how do you listen to Astor Piazzolla and all the other tango masters??'

Mike, I forego the pleasure in much the same self-denying spirit as I pass on Bavarian beer hall songs.

My wife is a fan of opera, something she inherited from her mother. When we first met, she would try to get me to go to the Met with her, but I would decline. I told her I grew up in the Bronx. There were always overweight people shouting at each other in a foreign language, radio music blasting in the background, and somebody often wound up dead. She was not amused.

Seriously -- I did start going with her and found that I enjoyed the spectacle very much. As a geek, I was fascinated at how they managed to stage all of that.

Tickets for the Met are outrageously expensive and we finally found that the seats in the nosebleed section are terribly uncomfortable (we are both above average height) and the Saturday matinee audiences were obnoxious -- talking and crinkling of snack wrappers, and bringing in huge shopping bags of tourist purchases.

We started going to the HD simulcasts of the Saturday matinee at a local movie house. Nothing we can do about the audience's behavior (actually, I like munching popcorn while watching the opera), but the view is much better (and closer), the sound is good (we get there an hour early to get seats in the middle in the back), the spectacle is there (and there are interviews and extra features during the intermissions), and the seats are not only comfortable but 1/4 the price of the nosebleed section where we used to sit at the Met.

Jim McDermott's is correct. As Sir Thomas Beecham put it, a harpsicord sounds like
two skeletons copulating on a tin roof. Actually, he said that the instument sounds like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunder storm. That last part isn't gererally apt, so perhaps Beecham was referring to Bach's BWV 1052 in particular. Given the etiolated period-instument interpretation singled out by Mike, however, one still might still find the reference to thunder quite obscure.

Favorite quartet? Undoubtedly, unquestionably the Budapest Quartet, now defunct of course, but the greatest ever. Second choice is the Borodin quartet (four musicians, not the composer's music). The Emerson quartet is waaaayyyyyy down on the list.

Mike, I have Starker on the Mercury CD (from '91, not the 60's) as well as the more recent pristine vinyl. I also have Casals on CD; not great sound quality, but still special to hear this 'first' interpretation of the revived Suites. I've seen Ma perform, but don't own any of his recordings. All are wonderful in different ways to me.

My musical tastes are eclectic (within and between musical genres), and vary with mood, so I tend not to compare experiences. But, for classical, there's no substitute for attending a live symphony. I attended, and bought recordings of, many chamber performances over many years and different countries, but there's something about the power of the live orchestra that is also special. Tchaikovsky's Fifth is still ringing in my ears.


It amazes me how much at home I feel reading your blog. Perhaps better to say, how like sitting in a cafe, and enjoying the conversations around me, hearing the odd snippet of music now and again, and generally drinking in the atmosphere with the coffee.

Simply marvelous post and comments. I'm treasuring this and will pore over the recommendations you and your other readers make.

I always feel beholden to anyone who recommends something good to hear (and you've made several in the past). Might I suggest a slight detour to English string music of the early- to mid-20th century. You can't go wrong with Benjamin Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge", Gerald Finzi's "Dies Natalis" (strings and tenor, with utterly the finest word-setting in the language), of course Vaughan-Williams' "Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis", and even Henry Purcell's "Fantasias for Viol consort". Just to get started (in case you have not already).

And ensembles? Make sure you hear Britten conducting his own, with the Boyd Neel strings. Finzi: his son Christopher, with the peerless Wilfred Brown singing. Otherwise, take your pick.

So much more. . . .

I love having a shelf full of books awaiting my attention. Likewise a reminder that there's so much--a lifetime or more--music out there awaiting discovery or reacquaintance.

Happy listening and blogging! (Oh, and photographing, yes.)


Very funny, Calvin. :-)

Just so other readers know, my friend Calvin and I have a "lack of unanimity" on the subject of Baroque music in general and period instruments in particular that goes back a surprising number of years now...he is an unregenerate aficionado of modernistic "avant-garde" quasi-symphonic excretions, the more obscure and unlistenable the better. To Senor Squid, I suspect, anything with a beat that lasts more than two bars is abased prima facie. LOL.


On Alaska, don't wait. Come visit us soon. You will love it and ask yourself why you waited this long.

Once again I think knowing a bit (not excel in it or even know much about it) make you appreciate much more. From 8x10 to Beethoven. I love Beethoven moonlight like everybody else. But only after I can play it (C not C sharp minor) by learning piano after 50, I appreciate every bit or it much better.

If you haven't heard the Tafelmusik chamber orchestra out of Toronto, I recommend you all listen to them. (http://www.tafelmusik.org/email_signup.php)

As for opera, I think it's like a lot of forms of music that you think you don't like. You pay no attention to it, even avoid it, then one day you hear a piece of music that wallops you upside the head. From then on, it's different.

PS: I forgot.
One of the best pieces of string quartet, after seeing so much germanphiliacs over here, is the String Quatuor by Ravel.

As usual for french artists-artisans, Ravel does oppose a certain lack of interest in what he writes that makes it that much charming.

As opposed to clockwork perfection, french chamber music [bar the barroque and neoclassical pieces] does not seek perfection so evidently as german music does.

Give it a try.

Personally I think Anner Bylsma eats everyone else for lunch. I've been listening to his recording of the Vivaldi Sonatas since I was in college and it's still awesome. I love his cello suites.

All Bach keyboard stuff is awesome, but this piece, I think, is more awesome than anything else. I wish there was a Glenn Gould recording of it, but there doesn't seem to be.


I can't believe that nobody has mentioned the Guarneri Quartet yet.
Hollywood StQt is great, I will never buy anything by the Emersons.
Opera: Just got to one of the Live in HD Met Opera broadcasts next season. They're fantastic. Actually at my theater that I go to, nobody eats popcorn, and the talkers get shushed...it's a very serious opera audience, and I see the same people at every broadcast. (I play in the professional orchestra, we play the operas as well, I recognize most as our patrons.)

I wish I could have seen this Opera performed. Diana Damraeu is stunning as the Queen of the Night. Not only is she a tremendous technical singer, she is dramatic, and really gets into the role. One of the more vigorous arias I have ever heard, it has over 2.5 million views on youtube!


Bach ?

Nathan Milstein playing the solo violin pieces. Unsurpassed.

I'm also rather fond of the Double Concerto played by father & son Oistrakh ...
... and Jacques Loussier's take on the Goldberg Variations.

Writing about music is like dancing about photography.

...sorry, had to do it.

All Bach keyboard stuff is awesome

Especially when played by Jacques Loussier.

Thanks again - I'm enjoying another fascinating post and the comments.

One quartet I haven't seen mentioned is the Arditti Quartet, who I know mainly for their recordings of Xenakis' chamber works. I listened to his 2nd string quartet (Tetras) last night, and was reminded what an awesome composer he was. The first time I heard his music I was astonished - I'd never heard anything like it (I'd be foolish to try to describe what it sounds like, and I don't have the musical vocabulary to even attempt to do so, but I can say that it is some of the most intense and overwhelming music I've ever heard).

The Balanescu Quartet has already been mentioned, and I would thoroughly recommend their recording of Music from the Towers of the Moon by Robert Moran (which is about as far from Xenakis as you can get).

On the subject of Robert Moran (and opera) you really should search out The Juniper Tree, an opera he co-wrote with Philip Glass. Bizarrely enough (to me) they divided up the scenes and wrote them separately, though it pretty much coheres, and if you know the music of either of the composers it's not too difficult to tell who wrote what (and I know whose scenes I prefer!)

And, following on from Inaki's recommendation for quartets by French composers, I have the Ravel on a CD by Quatour Ebene on Virgin Classics. It also contains the wonderful quartets by Debussy and Faure.

Being bent to Beethoven late Quartets, I sifted through much vinyl in the day to arrive at the Yale Quartet (best), The Lindsay Quartet (second), The Juilliard, Quarteto Italiano. The Yale delivers a high emotional approach which I favor over exact, metronomic precision. The Lindsay, I like best because they are consistent across all the late quartets, while the others shine in one or another quartet, but not all. Listening to Beethovens opus 133 Grosse Fuge clears up why his late music was so misunderstood, this was so far ahead of its time.
For Schubert, "Death And The Maiden" is the best for me. Schubert asked for Beethoven opus 131 to be played on his death bed.
If anyone likes the late Beethoven piano sonatas, Wilhelm Kempff still delivers the highest level of Beethoven essence.


"it's a very serious opera audience, and I see the same people at every broadcast. (I play in the professional orchestra, we play the operas as well, I recognize most as our patrons."

The MET HD broadcasts are actually hurting regional opera companies. Because it's cheaper and "Met quality", many season subscribers are foregoing their subscriptions to Opera Omaha, Portland Opera, or Madison Opera to watch the opera at the movie theaters. Subscriptions are down, donations are down, and orchestra players might soon be down (because their local opera company cant pay them).

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