Let's talk classical music

I've been going through a bit of a classical love-in during the first third of this year, largely due to reading "The Rest In Noise" by Alex Ross (see my other site for a long review of this book).

Since I've never asked it before, what are some of your personal favorites in terms of classical music? Tell me about the works that devastate you and leave you gasping or reduce you to dust. Modern or older pieces, this one is a free-for-all.

Commenting has been closed on this article.

I don't listen to much classical music but The Rest Is Noise is an amazing gateway book. I couldn't believe that Ross was able to know so much while still convey it to a philistine. Highly recommended.

Sam M
Only one mention for Stravinsky? Deary me. Much as I love the biggies like Rite of Spring and Petrushka I heartily recommend anyone to delve into his lesser known works. I'm a big fan of his 'neoclassical' ballets "Orpheus" and "Pulcinella". Decidely less violent than the Rite obviously but still rewarding. Some of his smaller works are also great: the jazz influenced "Ebony Conerto" as well as L'histoire du soldat. My copy of the latter was transcribed for violin, clarinet & piano. The instrumentation is so rich in all these works. This release on DG contains some excellent Stravinsly miniatures: Berg: Kammerkonzert; Stravinsky: Dumbarton Oaks / Boulez, Barenboim.

American 20th Century composer Charles Ives is also worth investigating.

I have lots to add to this category.

Check out (in no particular order)

Bartok Piano Concerto #2 and #3 and any of the string quartets
Prokofiev Piano Concertos 3, 5 - the 3rd is particularly "Romantic," the 5th is fantastically weird
Sibelius Symphony 5 - amazingly organic with a build up and release to match anything
Shostakovich Symphony 5,7,10 - The carrier of the Mahler torch
Mahler symphonies 6,8,9
And I must second the Messaien Turangalalia. Modern masterpiece

That's just a smattering of pieces off the top of my head. I have tons more to recommend if you would like.

I meant to do a little more expansive post on this, but didn't get around to it until now. I've seen a lot below mentioned that I really love, but here are some more...

Giacinto Scelsi - "Natura Renovatur" - amazing spectral, semi-atonal work from a reclusive Italian count (see my full review on my other site)

Romeo Cascarino - "Orchestral Works" - one of many great cheapo Naxos label discoveries, this is a lovely little romantic disc that should appeal to fans of stuff like Debussy.

William Bolcom - "Songs of Innocence and Experience" - absolutely insane 3CD sprawling work that includes everything from weird avant jazzy breakdowns to almost poppy guitar (and operatic vocals, and tons of other styles). really weird, most of the time very great.

Maurice Ravel - "Piano Concerto In G" - one of my favorite pieces of piano-related classical music. absolutely stunning.

Valentin Silvestrov - "Silent Songs" - there's not a lot of variety on this 2CD set, but it's entrancing stuff. baritone vocals and piano are the only elements, and it sucks you into such a meditative state that it's hard to pull out of it.

The mention of Stockhausen leads me to recommend at least one hearing of his helicopter quarter - an incredible idea, and quite stunning sounds.

Sam: I have Berio's sinfonia as performed by the London Voices and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra released 2005 on Deutsche Grammophon and it's one of the best performances of the piece that I've ever heard, definitely recommend it if you like it.

Asides all of the great records so far I'd like to draw attention towards:

Valentin Silvestrov - Leggiero, Pesante (ECM, 2002)

Probably one of my favorite albums of modern classical, I listen to it very often. Seems strongly influenced by the atonal outbursts of Schoenberg and Shostakovich’s romanticism.

Also while not precisely classical, I definitely recommend Arja Kastinen's 'Ani' released this year. I think it's the most simply beautiful record I've heard in months.

Anyone heard Berio's Sinfonia? It's famous third movement is a collage of snatches of other music, including Mahler, Debussy, Stockhausen etc which forms a dense sensation of swirling musical memories. Unlike much else I've heard.

Xenakis- "Metastasis"- Really got me into classical and remains one of my favorite pieces of music. I love the form.
Messiaen- "Quartet for the End of Time"- I always liked Revelation and this is just devastating.
Shostakovich- "Symphony No. 5"- Dmitri said this was about "the making of a man", and I think it's that perfectly.
Mahler- "Song of the Earth"- So epic, exotic, with some of my favorite lyrics.
Ligeti- "Aventures"- Vocal madness. Reminds me of Zappa's more extreme vocal stuff.
Berlioz- "Symphonie Fantastique"- Psychedelia is my life's blood.
Great topic. so much here to check out.

Portishead's new album is definitely influenced by Silver Apples

Four Seasons was one of the first pieces of classical music that I loved as well, along with some of the more stalwarts like Beethoven's 9th and Grieg (and Carl Orff).

Wow...I wasn't expecting this topic to come up, but I'm glad it did.

My mom was a music teacher, classical violinist and conductor of youth orchestras. She played classical music around the house all the time when I was a kid- Peer Gynt Suite, Rhapsody in Blue, the Four Seasons- those are the ones I remember hearing all my life.

My mom died of Alzheimer's at 59. Classical music of any kind always takes me to a place that is both wonderful and terrible at the same time. So, even though it's not cool or avant-garde, there are still certain passages of The Four Seasons that can consistently reduce me to a sobbing mess no matter where I am.

I was thinking that "Third", although not as abstract as an album like "The Drift", uses similar ideas, such as the music dropping out completely to leave an empty-sounding vocal. The melodies on "Third" are less immediate than on the first two records, as well.

I don't get much of a Walker comparison. His stuff is so obtuse and not very song-oriented at all. I think that this is definitely Portisheads most adventurous work, but it still has a way to go to reach the sound-slabs of Walker. Just my opinion, though.

Oh, and Faure is amazing. If you're a fan of Debussy (La Mer), you should check out Romeo Cascarino (Orchestral Works). Very beautiful stuff.

PS: Am I alone in being reminded of Scott Walker's recent work when I listen to Portishead's "Third"?

Sorry i've been away so long...
No-one mentioned Faure yet? Pity - his Requiem is a joy to sing.
Debussy and Satie get votes from me, too.

OK, maybe these are a little mainstream (is there such a thing as alternative classical?) but here goes:

Beethoven's 7th symphony, the 2nd movement
Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
Rachmaninov's symphonies 1-3
Saint-Saens's "Aquarium" from Carnival of the Animals (used wonderfully in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven)
Shostakovich's 5th symphony & 1st cello concerto
Tchaikovsky's 2nd symphony (Little Russian), "Francesca da Rimini" and "Romeo and Juliet"

Hi Aaron,

Just wondered since you like Gorecki's 3rd so much, whether he has written anything else that you like nearly so much. You've said his 3rd String Quartet wasn't much cop (though I tend to find it increasingly powerful), but I just stumbled upon this great piece about the 2nd Symphony, and it's persuaded me to go and check it out. Have you heard it?


hey Jon, I'm with you on Uematsu. I've been a big fan of him since the midi era too. It's true that musically he's not pushed any boundaries, but I appreciate his passion and seriousness in doing his music, and he does open the public's eyes to game music. I like his work for Final Fantasy IV most. Oh, and check out Yasunori Mitsuda's work for Xenogears, it's interesting.

For classical music, I recommend:

Gustav Allan Pettersson: All the symphonies should be heard, especially the single-movement ones. No.5 blows me away every time I listen to it.

Giya Kancheli: Mourned by the Wind, Exil, Symphony No.5 (I find the symphony particularly similar to early Mogwai's dynamics)

John Luther Adams: The Light That Fills The World (his living in Alaska gives his minimal composition a fantastic glacial tone)

Lou Harrison: Piano Concerto for Keith Jarrett (it's strange...difficult to describe. But exciting and charming)

Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Piano trio in G minor (it's unfair to refer her as Schumann's wife, she's a great composer herself. These are some of the greatest melodic Romantic pieces I've heard)

Robert Schumann: Fantasiestucke, Kinderszenen & Kreisleriana (check out Martha Argerich's lovely recording, delicate yet thoughtful)

Dvorak: From the New World, American (his 'America works' are wonderful, and optimistic, make me feel like all the countries living peacefully together)

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor (I'm amazed that Yundi Li added this to his repertoire when I watched him play live months ago. It's a mind-blowing piece)

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (I remember my Chinese Culture teacher played me this one and talked about Nietzsche's God is Dead idea. Then this piece's more than 'that Space Odyssey theme' in my mind, huh)

Mozart: Symphony No.40, 41, Requiem Mass (the more I listen to Mozart's music, the more I admire his overwhelming talent. Grand, joyful, mournful, gatherings, funerals. You name it and he's got the knack for it.)

Elwin Rijken
Arvo Pärt (Te Deum, Stabat Mater), Henryk Gorecki (Symphony #3), Claude Debussy (Arabesque, Claire de Lune), Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake), Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, Nicolò Paganini, Frédéric Chopin, Ralph Vaughan Williams (The Lark Ascending) , Gustav Holst (The Planets), Sergey Prokofiev (Stone Flower Balet)

Adagio in G minor is one of the greatest pieces ive ever heard. But if you dont mind anwsering ,i have a question about something i read here,downloaded liked now cant remember what it was. It can probably easily come to mind for you though,it was some project online with installations,which were of wide array of music types.I dont know, i just remember you were like "this great project" and the last insallation being nothing but cello. sorry but i would appreciate it.

Oh, and it might be a faux-pas of sorts, but not unlike the good work that Amon Tobin did for the splinter cell series, another really good composer that's done stuff with video games, almost exclusively in this case, is Nobuo Uematsu. He did all the music for the final fantasy series, from which I believe Owen Pallet named his kick-ass solo project.

Anyway, hard to say if the music truly stands alone if you haven't played the games, which I have, but some of the arranged versions of the songs are pretty amazing. I think the piano treatment for "Tina's Theme" is pretty chilling really...

Uematsu's work, I think, served as my gateway into music way back when I was six or seven, or at least music that I found on my own. Sure, it was midi, but the melody was there! All very classically-minded, though it doesn't really push any musical boundaries obviously...probably where I got my taste for repitition.

Ok, I'm done shaming myself, haha!

I second that thanks for the recommendations on the site about Gorecki and Arvo Part...

And thanks for all the recommendations Sam! I'm going to have to check those out...and with the usual amount of delay, finally checked out the Dodos. Fine record it sounds like, thanks for the review Aaron!

Oh, and a recent release I've enjoyed is Michael Harrison's Revelation (Music in Pure Intonation) on the Canteloupe label. At first I thought it was a little boring (I find classical music normally takes longer to sink in), but I've started to find it enchanting. It sounds a bit like early 20th century Orientalist piano pieces by Satie or Gurdjieff or 70s minimalist composers for piano like Charlemagne Palestine or that Lubomyr Melnyk release - a truly enveloping, mystical sound.


Thanks for the tip-off regarding Hovhaness - I don't know his work at all but shall aim to check it out. I too have started devouring The Rest Is Noise and though I'm only a couple of chapters in I've already been given an overwhelming number of directions to explore.

I'm eternally grateful to your site to turning me onto Gorecki, Part and Reich a few years ago. Going to see my first live performance of Music of 18 Musicians on Monday and can't wait!

Everytime I listen to Part's Fratres/Tabula Rasa release, I think it must be the most overpoweringly beautiful record in my entire collection, but other longstanding favourites which floor me include:

Debussy: Prelude à l'apres d'une faune – I love all the Debussy I've heard, but I find this short piece just blissful

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue – all of Gershwin's long form pieces are essential, but this is the most wonderful.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 – his 5th seems to be the one that everyone else likes best, but each movement of No. 11 moves me like little else

Stravinsky: Petrushka/The Rite of Spring - popular choices no doubt, but these are endlessly powerful

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.3/Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - in the Jon Nakamoto recording of these the piano frequently sounds as if it has turned to liquid

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time - I hadn't been too keen on his Turangalila Symphony, but this more recent discovery is as moving as it is strange

Mozart: Symphony No. 41/Clarinet Concerto - I've barely scratched the surface with Mozart but these two are beautiful

Wagner: The Ring – certainly my favourite from the world of opera, Wagner is a childhood favourite I can always go back to.

There are many many more, but these are the ones that come to mind first. Sometimes I feel I get stuck with classical music, circling around certain composers, so I'm always looking for recommendations. I think I'm going to be dipping my foot in the Xenakis pool for the first time very soon…..

It's probably no surprise, but I'm still going to have to say that my favorite is Henryk Gorecki's Symphony #3. It pretty much leaves me in a heap every time I listen to it.

Lately, I've also been a huge fan of just about everything I've heard by Alan Hovhaness. "Mysterious Mountain" and his Symphony #4 are particular favorites.