Monday, January 5, 2009

A nostalgic top 25

Veteran critic Terry Teachout culls his list of favorite classical recordings to a top 25, in Commentary Magazine:

Teachout describes the exercise as "an occasion for nostalgia — and regret. My generation of music lovers (I was born in 1956) had access to records made by celebrated conductors, singers and instrumentalists who had been born as early as the 1830’s. But since I started writing about music for Commentary a decade-and-a-half ago, I have witnessed and chronicled the decline of the once-mighty classical-recording industry that preserved these performances for posterity. It may well be that performances of comparable quality and individuality continue to be given today, but if so, they will go unheard by the music lovers of tomorrow, for with rare exceptions they are not being recorded."

This elegy is not the first — Norman Lebrecht and others have written extensively, even obsessively, about the "end" of commercial classical recording. I think, à la Mark Twain, that reports of its demise are premature.

Major orchestras, such as the San Francisco, Chicago and London symphonies and Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, now produce and market their own discs; and a growing number of soloists, chamber ensembles, even composers, have begun recording for their own "boutique" labels.

The Metropolitan Opera and other companies are airing high-definition videos of their productions in movie theaters and elsewhere, and streaming video and audio of concerts continue to proliferate on the Internet — the Berlin Philharmonic joins the crowd this month. You can be sure that those performances will be captured and circulated, legitimately or otherwise. (The Met's HDTV broadcasts already are reappearing as EMI DVDs.)

Still, Teachout's list serves the always useful purpose of reminding listeners that some of the greatest recorded music predates the digital era. In that spirit, here are my 25 favorite monaural and early stereo (mostly pre-1960) classical recordings — at least as individual, not to say idiosyncratic, as Teachout's selections.

Like Teachout, I'll limit my choices to discs in circulation (in my case, via — and note with dismay that many great early recordings are not currently available.

In alphabetical order by composer, my top 25 classical oldies:

* Bach: "The Well-Tempered Clavier," Books 1 & 2 — Edwin Fischer (piano) (EMI Classics Références 67214).

* Bartók: "Contrasts," "Mikrokosmos" (excerpts) — Bela Bartók (piano), Joseph Szigeti (violin), Benny Goodman (clarinet) (Membran 223546).

* Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 3 ("Eroica") & 5 — Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Erich Kleiber (London/Decca 467 125).

* Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 ("Choral") — Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Elsa Cavelti (mezzo-soprano), Ernst Haefliger (tenor), Otto Edelmann (bass), Lucerne Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (Tahra 2001).

* Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat major, Op. 97 ("Archduke"); Brahms: Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8; Dohnányi: Serenade for string trio, Op. 10; Mozart: String Trio in E flat major, K. 563; Schubert: Piano Trio in B flat major, D. 898 — Jascha Heifetz (violin), William Primrose (viola), Emanuel Feuermann (cello), Arthur Rubinstein (piano) (Opus Kura 2062).

* Beethoven: Piano sonatas No. 17 ("Tempest"), No. 21 ("Waldstein"), No. 23 ("Appassionata"), No. 28; Bagatelle in E flat major, Op. 33, No. 1 — Walter Gieseking (piano) (VAI Audio 1088).

* Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, "Tragic" Overture; Richard Strauss: "Till Eulenspiegel;" Mozart: Symphony No. 36 ("Linz"); works by Mendelssohn, Wagner, Ravel, Bartók, De Falla — Emil Gilels (piano), Chicago Symphony, et al./Fritz Reiner (EMI Classics/Arkiv CD 62866).

* Brahms, Sibelius: Violin concertos — Ginette Neveu (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra/Issay Dobrowen & Walter Süsskind (EMI Classics 76831).

* Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 — Berlin Philharmonic/Wilhelm Furtwängler (Testament 1143).

* Chopin: 14 waltzes, Barcarolle in F sharp minor, Nocturne in D flat major — Dinu Lipatti (piano) (EMI Classics 66956).

* Debussy: "Pelléas et Mélisande" — Irène Joachim (mezzo-soprano), Jacques Jansen (baritone), et al.; Yvonne Gouverné Chorus & Orchestra/Roger Desormière (EMI Classics 45782).

* Dvořák: String Quartet in F major ("American"), Piano Quintet; Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 ("Kreutzer Sonata") — Smetana Quartet, Pavel Stepán (piano) (Testament 1074).

* Elgar: Violin Concerto, "Enigma" Variations — Yehudi Menuhin (violin), London Symphony/Edward Elgar (EMI Classics 66994).

* Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 4; Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 — Joseph Szigeti (violin), London Philharmonic/Thomas Beecham (EMI Classics/Arkiv CD 64562).

* Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 ("Scottish"), "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Overture & incidental music — London Symphony/Peter Maag (London/Decca 466 990).

* Mussorgsky: "Pictures at an Exhibition;" works by Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Rachmaninoff ("The Sofia Recital") — Sviatoslav Richter (piano) (Philips 464 734).

* Rachmaninoff: Piano concertos Nos. 1-4, "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" - Sergei Rachmaninoff (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski & Eugene Ormandy (RCA Victor 61658).

* Ravel: "Daphnis et Chloé," "Rapsodie espagnole," "Pavane pour une infante défunte" — London Symphony/Pierre Monteux (Decca 000624802).

* Schubert: Symphony No. 5, String Quintet — Isaac Stern & Alexander Schneider (violins), Milton Katims (viola), Pablo Casals & Paul Tortelier (cellos); Prades Festival Orchestra/Pablo Casals (Sony Classical 58992).

* Schubert: String quartets in D minor, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden"), G major, D. 887 — Busch Quartet (EMI Classics 61589).

* Richard Strauss: Orchestral works — New York Philharmonic/Willem Mengelberg ("Ein Heldenleben"); Boston Symphony/Serge Koussevitzky ("Also sprach Zarathustra"); Alfred Wallenstein (cello), New York Philharmonic/Thomas Beecham ("Don Quixote"); Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski ("Death and Transfiguration"); Chicago Symphony/Frederick Stock ("Aus Italien") (RCA Victor/Arkiv CD 60929).

* Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; works by Beethoven, Liszt, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Roy Harris — Boston Symphony/Serge Koussevitzky (EMI Classics/Arkiv CD 75118).

* Wagner: "Tristan und Isolde" — Kirsten Flagstad (soprano), Ludwig Suthaus (tenor), et al.; Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (EMI Classics 85873).

* Wagner: "Die Walküre" (Act 1) — Lotte Lehmann (soprano), Lauritz Melchior (tenor), Emanuel List (bass), Vienna Philharmonic/Bruno Walter (EMI Classics 345832).

* "The Very Best of Victoria de los Angeles" (arias by Puccini, Bizet, Mozart, Wagner, Gounod, Catalani, others) — Victoria de los Angeles (soprano), various accompanists (EMI Classics 75888).

And now (like Teachout, no doubt), I await "I can't believe you left out [insert your favorites]" comments.