10: Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade, perfected by Leopold Stokowski and the London Symphony Orchestra. This is a sweeping, lush piece full of showy phrases and dramatic turns. The piece is passionate and approachable, and it definitely sends you to Arabia for 1,001 nights of storytelling.
9: Boccherini, Quintet Op. 30 No. 6 “Musica notturna di Madrid” (Preferred version: Quintetto Boccherini). It’s a shame that Luigi Boccherini isn’t any better known than he is; his chamber repertoire is full of toe-tappers and beautifully-blended, musical pieces. This quintet is instantly likeable and fun, yet still meaningful and interesting.
8: Saint-Saens, Symphony No. 3 (Preferred version: Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra). This symphony is grand in scale and scope, with a mighty organ giving its power to the fourth movement. It’s also an example of sparseness, with the organ actually playing very little (in a symphony often called the Organ Symphony!) yet when it does enter it unifies the fragments from the first three movements and gives the symphony a full, satisfying feeling.
7: Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 (Van Cliburn set the standard.) This flowing, showy piece is lyrical and sweeping, emotional in the way that only Russian composers can touch. Cliburn plays with a poetic touch, delicate but still folksy. This piece makes me want to cheer and cry at the same time.
6: Mozart, Horn Concerto No. 3 (There are performances other than Dennis Brain’s? Not in my book…) Mozart is instantly, approachably likeable, and especially in his four horn concertos. Mozart understood virtuosity for the featured soloist, but he also knew the real point was to blend that virtuosity with the ensemble. (His clarinet concerto is another great example.) Brain’s tone, pacing, and command of the horn is unmatched, and while I really could have chosen any of his horn concertos, the third movement of this one stands out in my mind.
5: Sibelius, Symphony No. 3 (Preferred version: Sir Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Sibelius unfortunately gets rather short shrift today. His music is very personal and moving, and not suited to most of today’s symphony repertoires simply because it is quieter and more introspective than many classical audiences demand. In this symphony, the understated grandeur of the third section is the moment when I first “got” Sibelius, so while his Sixth Symphony is more beautiful music and his Fifth is more majestic, this remains my favorite Sibelius.
4: Bach, Violin Concerto in E (BWV 1042), Hilary Hahn with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. This piece is perfect Bach, likeable at a casual listen and rewarding a deeper listen with hidden intricacies. Bach structured his music better than anyone and it is enjoyable at every level. This performance shows Hahn’s love of Bach and is a showcase for both her technical ability and her musicality.
3: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ferenc Fricsay. Beethoven’s Ninth is the single piece that got me most interested in classical music (probably after hearing it in Dead Poet’s Society). This might be the most beautiful music ever written. There are other performances that I think are great of this piece, notably Furtwangler’s 1942 Berlin performance and 1951 Bayreuth Festival performance, but the one I consistently use as my benchmark recording is the Fricsay.
2: Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (Preferred version: Tafelmusik). It’s impossible to listen to this without tapping one’s toes and smiling. The music is dignified, thrilling, and very subtle–every note balances perfectly in the piece. It’s like discovering a private chapel of a grand cathedral that captures the awe-inspiring nature of the whole building but is intimate enough and comfortable enough that one person may spend an entire peaceful day in it.
1: Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, Vienna Philarmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, recorded Dec. 1944. Furtwangler conducted this shortly before leaving Nazi Germany, and it is taut, inspiring, emotional, and grandiose. Different spots of this music move me every time I listen to it. (The stateliness and beauty of the section about 8:30 into the second movement [Funeral March] gets me every time, though.) There are some pieces of music that I enjoy listening to many interpretations of–but I never need to listen to another conductor’s Third. This performance is complete; no further searching is required.
A Top Ten list proved even more difficult than I thought. I tried to really stick to the definition of favorite as being a piece that appeals to me personally, one that stays with me long after listening and that I wish to listen to again and again. There are some pieces that I’d consider to be better musically (Bach’s Art of the Fugue, Beethoven’s Fifth, a string quartet or two of Dvorak, Mozart’s 41st Symphony, Brahm’s Second) that didn’t quite make my favorites list. I tried to make it varied, but Bach and Beethoven just had to hold on to the top spots.
The omissions are almost criminal. No Dvorak, no Shostakovich, no BRAHMS, for crying out loud? No string quartet, when it’s my favorite classical music form? Not a single Haydn Sturm und Drang Symphony? No Mozart piano concerto? Bartok? Prokofiev? Mendelssohn? Schubert’s Death and the Maiden? Vivaldi?
Perhaps another list is in order…