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New to classical...HELP!!

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#1 of 25 OFFLINE   Jeff Adkins

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Posted September 14 2006 - 07:26 AM

I've just discovered the joys of listening to classical music. I picked up a few supposed "definitive versions" based on recommendations of a friend. Anyway, I was wondering if there was a good review site or message board where I could get more information on which are the best versions of different recordings of classical works. I'm starting with the basics at this point and will gradually work to more obscure works. So far I have: Beethoven Symphony No. 9/Karajan 1962/Berlin Philharmonic/D. Grammophon Vivaldi The Four Seasons/Marriner/Academy St. Martin-In-The-Fields/Decca I thought I would try a few of the more accessible works and see if I wanted to delve further into this, and needless to say I'm hooked. If anyone has any recommendations for some more "newbie" titles, please feel free to chime in!

#2 of 25 OFFLINE   Garrett Lundy

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Posted September 14 2006 - 09:37 AM

Probably the 2 most popular classical works: Gustav Holst - The Planets (with Matthews composed 'Pluto' optional) Carl Orff - Carmina Burana (aka. the movie trailer album) Listening to and comparing different recordings of a work is half the fun of classical, if you already know what you like best, wheres the fun in that?
"Did you know that more people are murdered at 92 degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easy-going, over 92 and it's too hot to move, but just 92, people get irritable."

#3 of 25 OFFLINE   andrew markworthy

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Posted September 14 2006 - 08:05 PM

Jeff, before getting into which is the 'best' version of a particular piece, you'd be best sampling a range of classical music to see which you like best. Basically, classical music can be broken into historical periods. At its simplest: Mediaeval - plainchant (monks' choirs, that sort of thing). This tends to be a fairly specialised field, and doesn't exactly draw in big crowds. Renaissance - some dance music, but mostly polyphonic choirs and madrigals. This sounds as appealing as a migraine, but if you get into it, there is some beautiful stuff. Try Misere by Allegri, Spem in Allium by Tallis and practically anything by Palestrina. Baroque - This is dominated by J.S. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. Pieces you should listen to: Handel - Messiah Bach - The Brandenburg Concertos Vivaldi - Gloria (and Four Seasons, which you've already got) Classical - Yes, I know 'classical' refers to all of this type of music, but it has a specialised meaning as well! This period is dominated by two guys - Mozart and Haydn (though there is some fine stuff by some of J.S. Bach's children as well). Amongst things you should listen to: Mozart - symphonies 39, 40 and 41 Mozart - piano concertos 20 and 23 Haydn - practically any of the symphonies which in addition to a number have a nickname as well. The 'surprise' symphony is a good place to start. Romantic - this is arguably the heyday of classical music, and most of the well-known tunes are from this period. Try the following: Beethoven - symphonies 3,5,6 and 9 Beethoven - the Moonlight piano sonata Beethoven - piano concertos 3 and 5 Chopin - the waltzes and the preludes (piano) Brahms - symphonies 1 and 4 Brahms - the German Requiem Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique Dvorak - New World Symphony Tchaikovsky - 1812 overture Tchaikovsky - piano concerto no 1 Tchaikovsky - Capriccio Italien Tchaikovsky - violin concerto 20th century music - if you're ever heard some really contemporary classical music, it can sound vile (and indeed I know for a fact that a great many players in orchestras hate the stuff). However, some of the music from the start of the 20th century is very accessible and you'll have heard a lot of it already without realising it! Ravel - Bolero Ravel - Mother Goose Suite Orff - Carmina Burana Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring Mahler - Symphonies 2,5 and 9 Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue Elgar - Enigma Variations That is just a taster - there are of course a lot more besides. I'd advise you to listen to a broad range of periods at first and see what you like and dislike. There is absolutely nothing wrong in only liking some bits of the classical repertoire and/or only some composers. When people say they like classical music, they almost never mean they like all of it, and because you find you don't like e.g. baroque music but you love romantic era music doesn't mean you've 'failed' to like classical music. As regards guides to best performances, I'd advise you to exercise caution at first. IMHO, a large number of the more professional guides are snobby and elitist. A lot of the supposed differences between performances of the same piece are in reality minute and in the real world not worth bothering about. But if you pay too much attention to the critics, you end up listening for faults in the performance rather than enjoying the music. In choosing discs of performances I'd advise doing the following: (1) avoid any recordings from before the age of stereo - often these are wonderful performances (and worth coming back to when you are really into the music), but the sound quality may put you off at first (2) don't suppose that the sound quality of 60s recordings will be awful. E.g. the classical recordings of the Decca label from the late 50s to late sixties are amongst the finest ever put on tape. (3) there is a budget classical label called Naxos. Generally the quality of the recordings and the performances are good and you'll usually be safe buying them (4) Telarc are usually more expensive but generally the sound quality is superb. There are of course other labels as well. (5) don't suppose that because a conductor and orchestra are good in one piece that they'll be good in others. E.g. the conductor Herbert von Karajan could be superb in romantic era music, but in music of other periods he could be indifferent. I hope this helps!

#4 of 25 OFFLINE   Justin_P


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Posted September 15 2006 - 07:14 AM

Nice post, Andrew.

Telarc does have amazing sound quality, and generally really good performances.

I'd like to put in another plug for the Naxos label, too. They usually have very very good sound quality and solid performances. PLUS they have often have interesting and unusual repertoire choices. And the standard $6.99 price tag doesn't hurt either!

Another safe bet is the RCA Living Stereo line. These are almost always good releases - whether you're collecting used vinyl, redbook CD, or SACD. Most of the Living Stereo SACD titles are three channel stereo and cost only $11.99.

If you must have reviews of recordings, http://www.classicstoday.com is a good site with tons of reviews. I like to refer to them on occasion.

They also have a pretty good classical collecting crash course guide at: http://www.classicst...res/f2_0999.asp
It's certainly worth a read.

Happy collecting, and more importantly, happy listening!

#5 of 25 OFFLINE   Jeff Adkins

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Posted September 15 2006 - 02:53 PM

Wow, what a wealth of information Thanks!
I'll have to look into Naxos. I haven't seen them mentioned in anything I've looked at so far. I have heard people recommend to stay away from anything put out by Laserlight, but that could just be an elitist view. I don't know. I decided to sample some things from the library. I figured that was a good way to compare before buying. Are they any good online retailers that specialize in classical music? Our local brick-and-mortar that was classical-only just went out of business. I think that pretty much leaves Barnes And Noble or Borders to find any kind of selection without going online. Thanks again for everyone's input!

#6 of 25 OFFLINE   JediFonger



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Posted September 15 2006 - 07:10 PM

wow, this is an excellent guide as it is. imho, should be a sticky =). as an aside, nowadays, score soundtracks are becoming way more popular than classical music composers and performers. do serious classical music fans think that these modern scores belong to classical music... or are just companions to the video? an easy example is john williams's score for star wars ep4-6. let's say star wars never got made, not got released, and john wasn't a film composer... but a classic music composer. does his star wars fall under classical musical archetypes?

#7 of 25 OFFLINE   andrew markworthy

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Posted September 16 2006 - 12:05 AM

One other thing I should have mentioned in my previous post - period versus modern instruments. The design of musical instruments and the techniques used to play them have altered (often drastically) over the centuries. Most folks are used to hearing classical music played on modern instruments, but in fact, music from the time of Beethoven and earlier was played in a different way and sounds rather different. A prize example is Handel's Messiah. People hearing it in modern performances are used to fairly sedate speeds, and massive choirs (a chorus of 500+ is not unknown). In Handel's day, the piece was played much faster and with a total number of musicians (i.e. orchestra *and* choir) of 35. Whether you want the piece performed using period or modern instruments is a matter of personal taste - don't let anyone sell you the argument that one way of doing it is right, because it isn't. However, I would urge anyone new to the field to try both approaches.
It depends on the piece in question. E.g. Korngold, Walton and Prokofiev all wrote excellent film music that stands up in its own right. Other film music really depends on what you consider to be classical music. E.g. a lot of film music uses a traditional orchestra, but is not particularly 'heavyweight'. This does not mean its bad music and shouldn't be listened to. But musical themes don't necessarily develop in any particularly complex way that in more 'serious' music they would be expected to (why should they? - that's not the purpose of most film music). It's a bit like the difference between e.g. Wild Strawberries and Airplane. Both have their place, and there's nothing wrong with either, but they are not in the same genre. BTW, once you're familiar with the classical music repertoire, it's well worth listening to the orchestral scores in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons - there's an incredible number of quotations from the classics in them (FWIW, my favourite is when Tom's tail catches on fire and there is a tiny musical quote from the fire lietmotiv from Wagner's Rhinegold).

#8 of 25 OFFLINE   Dennis Nicholls

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Posted September 17 2006 - 06:09 AM

Once you listen to a lot more music you will realize that a "best" version of a work is about as much a moving target as what the "best" team is to sports fans. For an analogy in rock music, which is the "best" version of Woodstock? Crosby Stills and Nash? Joni Mitchell? They are very different but it's hard to say which is "best".

I may make a heretical view here and say at this time you should go for quantity rather than quality. You should load up on cheap CDs and use them as a learning experience. Once you find out what pieces you truly love you can then spend time searching for versions that you prefer.

Hunt up my thread here about a set of complete works of JS BACH - on 176 CDs! - for under $200 shipped. http://www.hometheat....d.php?t=196700 I think that deal is over but it should serve as an example of how you may find outstanding bargains on classical CDs.

I'll disagree with Andrew on another matter. It's handy to have a souce of reviews even though you have to take them with a grain of salt. The one real sourcebook you should consider purchasing is the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs. http://www.amazon.co..../dp/0141022620 This book does have it's drawbacks, but for $19 it may help familiarize you with what's available, especially on budget discs.
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#9 of 25 OFFLINE   DanFe


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Posted September 17 2006 - 06:18 AM


#10 of 25 OFFLINE   Dennis Nicholls

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Posted September 17 2006 - 06:23 AM

Try the 20th century Brit composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. A recommended sampler is the Hybrid SACD with Maurice Abravanel/Utah Symphony, as it contains the Tallis Fantasia, Flos Campi, and variants of Dives & Lazarus.

Another 20th century composer you should experience is Bela Bartok. Try the Hybrid SACD with Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony that includes the Concerto for Orchestra and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste.

If you want to try something from the 15th century, try the Naxos disc of Dufay's Missa L'homme Arme with Jeremy Summerly/Oxford Camerata. This is about the earliest piece of music - other than plainsong - that I really enjoy.

Good couplings may help you explore different important pieces of music. For example, the Issac Stern/Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra version of the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky violin concertos on a single disc. This is available on both CD and non-hybrid SACD versions.

Also see http://www.hometheat....d.php?t=190140

Don't write off LaserLight discs. They often have decent sound quality and generally are recordings by musicians who simply lack agressive PR resources. I have a couple and they aren't really all that bad. For $3 you can toss the ones you don't like. Posted Image For example, I have a Mendelssohn disc on LaserLight with the Midsummer Night's Dream music by Janos Kovacs/Budapest Philharmonic and the "Italian Symphony" by Janos Sandor/Philharmonia. Not the very best interpretation but more than serviceable for $3.
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#11 of 25 OFFLINE   Matt Fisher

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Posted September 17 2006 - 12:05 PM

I'd also like to voice a suggestion for your listenings Jeff. As much as it is a solid idea to work through different musical periods and sample a general feeling for what each one stands for, I'd also like to suggest making sure to sample different types of compositions...concertos, requiems, string quartets, solo pieces, symphonies, opera, there is quite a variety, and often many of these composers worked with them all. You might not be a fan of one of Mozart's concertos for clarinet, for example, but you might love his requiem. Obviously many of these composers work in certain themes throughout their lifetime and it spans over different types of compositions, but as much as you should know Handel from Haydn, make sure to also recognize what makes a string quartet a string quartet. Enjoy yourself, it can be quite daunting considering how many pieces there are out there, plus how many different recordings of those same pieces there are. Sample the periods, sample the styles, find what you like, and work from there. good luck-

#12 of 25 OFFLINE   Jeff Adkins

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Posted September 18 2006 - 07:47 AM

After having the weekend to listen to quite a bit, I thought I'd post a few of my thoughts here. Thanks again to everyone who provided info for me here.
Thanks, Matt. I certainly plan on sampling as much as possible as time allows.

#13 of 25 OFFLINE   nolesrule



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Posted September 18 2006 - 10:47 AM

I recently picked up a set of Beethoven's 9 symphonies on 5 discs for $14 at Best Buy.

#14 of 25 OFFLINE   DanaA



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Posted September 18 2006 - 02:33 PM

"I listened to The Planets and fell in love with it. It reminds me more of a modern score you might find in an action/sci-fi film. I was unable to find the Dutoit/Montreal recording so I settled for the Telarc/Previn version. It sounds terrific to my ear." Don't worry about the Previn on Telarc whatsoever. I own both and, although the Dutoit with the Montreal is acclaimed by many to be the standard, I actually enjoy the Previn more. Here's why. Set your system with the volume pretty dang high (not so high as to damage your speakers of course). Now, play the first movement: Mars. Get ready for a sonic tidal wave. So, even though I own and play a ton of classical, this one, for me, is a visceral knockout punch to the gut. By the way, make sure your sub is on. As far as what you should do, take time to familiarize yourself with different periods of classical. If you find a certain style or composer you really want to latch onto, explore that composer's music in more depth. Soon, you'll probably expand that search greatly. I was mostly stuck in the Romantic era (although it could and has been argued that Beethoven is in the Classic period - I'll say he begins there and reaches outward toward the Romantic with works such as his ninth symphony), but then grew to love other periods just as much. When the addiction becomes hopeless is the time when you feel the need to own multiple interpretations of many of your favorite works - which any classical afficionado will understand what I mean - and that for me is one of the joys of exploration. For instance, as I type, I'm listening to a new complete set of Shostakovich symphonies-with Kondrashin conducting, even though I have at least two other versions of each work. But, to avoid being overly foolish, try to seek out opinions of others prior to buying. You might want to go to one of the classical music forums to make inquiries or refer to places like ClassicsToday.com, although I frequently completely disagree with some of their assessments. The joy of finding the gems from hundreds of years of composition is well worth the wonderful journey. By the way, the Kondrashin Shosty 9 is SICK great!!!! By the way, I'll try to find time to post some of my bestest, favoritest, meanest, baddest recordings when I get time. Two more points, the first being that you have to, in the end, let your own ears and tastes be the judge. For instance, I love Mahler. Some don't understand what we Mahlerites find so involving about his music. Still deeper, there are certain Mahler recordings that are lauded by some, but which I just don't enjoy such as Bernstein's No. 9 with the Berlin. Way too overemotional for me. Give me Chailley's more recent recording any day, which still has emotional impact, without, for me at least, coming out of the experience emotional drenched. Similarly, I didn't enjoy his No.7 until I got the version by Gielen. My second point is that you shouldn't give up on a work if you, at first, don't "get it". I couldn't really get Bach until, one day, when I was really stressed out, I put on some of his music and came out of it stress free. Since then, I understand there are days when his fine craftsmanship and balance do me like no other music does. In a way, some of what I've said sound like contradictions -for instance saying to wait until the right moment for certain music to reach out and grab you, while just previously stating that I'd given up on Bernstein's Mahler No. 9, but this is music, so I don't have to make complete sense.

#15 of 25 OFFLINE   Jeff Adkins

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Posted September 18 2006 - 02:58 PM

Speaking of Shostakovich, I have always loved "Waltz 2 From Jazz Suite" which was on the soundtrack to Eyes Wide Shut. It's one of my favorites of all time. I would love to find more of this style. Is there any other Waltz compositions using an orchestra that are noteworthy besides the obvious "Blue Danube" by Strauss?

#16 of 25 OFFLINE   DanaA



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Posted September 18 2006 - 03:27 PM

Why not get the Shostakovich? I think it's on his three disc Jazz and Ballet Suites/Film Music with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine led by Kuchar. I have the disc somewhere and really enjoy his lighter music, some of it a real joy to listen to. I can't find it for some reason right now, but think what you're looking for is on it. Also, I remember getting the whole thing, new, for something like $10 at Ebay or Amazon, but that was a couple of years back. Really fun listening.

#17 of 25 OFFLINE   DanaA



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Posted September 18 2006 - 03:38 PM

Assuming you don't have the soundtrack that is...

Here's a link to a review of the CD I'm referring to.


#18 of 25 OFFLINE   WadeM


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Posted September 23 2006 - 02:36 AM

In addition to Andrew's list, here's a few other suggestions that everyone and their mother should know:

Pachelbel :
Canon in D -- I'd argue that this is possibly the most played song ever (if not, it's very near the top). I'm surprised it hasn't been mentioned yet. (aka Pachelbel's Canon)

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BMV 565 -- the first few notes say everything
Cantata #147, BWV 147 - "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" -- depending on which version, you can get a choral or instrumental version
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BMV 1068, "Air on the G String" -- If memory serves correctly, you may have heard this in the movie Seven when they're in the library

Bagatelle for Piano in A Minor, WoO 69, "Fur Elise" -- You don't have a classical music collection without this!
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op 13 "Pathetique" -- regardless of what anyone says, the version played by Serkin is the one to get--beautiful. Unless you have to have a modern digital recording...

Polonaise, Op 53: "Heroic"

Peer Gynt Suites

Clarinet Concerto in A, K.622
Serenade No. 13 in G Major, K525 "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" -- probably Mozart's most famous composition--it'll end up being on half the Mozart CDs you buy!

Romeo and Juliet
The Sleeping Beauty
Swan Lake

Guitar Concerto in D Next to 4 Seasons, probably his most famous!
Piccolo Concerto in A Minor

William Tell Overture, other overtures

Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished"

Night on Bald Mountain -- you'll know this one from Fantasia

Symphony No 2

Requiem, Op 48


Leroy Anderson: The Irish Suite, Sleigh Ride, The Wearing of the Green, The Girl I Left Behind Me, The Syncopated Clock, many others... Sort of pop-classical. 3 minute catchy pop songs. This is one composer where you actually want a greatest hits album.

If you're interested in soundtrack classical music, then I would start with these composers. You can't go wrong with either one:

Bernard Herrmann
John Williams
John Barry also did a few good ones ("Dances with Wolves")


Bizet: Carmen
Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci -- yes, the Naxos label is fine on this one
Rossini: The Barber of Seville Everyone knows this one!
Richard Wagner:
The Ring
Verdi: Il Trovatore, Aida
Beethoven: Fidelio Naxos is fine on this one too
Puccini: Tosca, Madame Butterfly, La Boheme

Of course I could also recommend all of Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart & Tchaikovsky, but this is a beginner's guide

#19 of 25 OFFLINE   Jeff Adkins

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Posted September 23 2006 - 06:41 AM

I've been reading some reviews trying to decide which version of this to purchase. I have one on a Classical Sampler a friend gave me, but the sound quality is mediocre. I ended up checking out 2 different versions of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" from the library and will probably end up purchasing both at some point. I like the orchestral sections on the Bernstein/New York Philharmonic while I think I prefer the piano work on the Levine/Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I've listened to both several times and wouldn't declare either version superior to the other. Thus, I now understand why many people buy multiple versions of the same work.

#20 of 25 OFFLINE   Felix Martinez

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Posted September 23 2006 - 01:58 PM

Since the 2003 release of the Zander/Philharmonia Mahler #3 on Telarc, I've been absolutely fascinated by the composer's symphonies and the Telarc cycle. What's also wonderful is the bonus CD with each release, which has the conductor taking the listener on a journey into each symphony. Outstanding! The other Zander Mahler symphonies I'd recommend are the First, the Fifth, and the Sixth.

Zander is such an inspirational guy. I was very fortunate to interview him about a year ago, and one always learns something from him!

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