A beginner's guide to Classical Music

Discussion in 'Classical Music' started by tones, Jun 19, 2003.

  1. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    Once more with feeling... It seems that the message length is restricted here, hence the three parts. I've only brought my own over, so far.

    This is basically the first page the thread started at HFC by Graham N and myself and continued in Groovehandle (RIP). I had to shorten it (50,000 characters maximum). How much of it is worth transferring I'm not sure, but if anyone wants to add more, be my guest. I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject, but perhaps that's to the good, because I bring the plain man's idea of the classics (I have no musical training (or ability) whatsoever). Graham, on the other hand, is musically trained and brings considerable technical musical expertise to the party. However, they are, in the end, only our opinions.

    So, on with the show...

    The subject of "how do I get into classical listening" often comes up, so here is one classical lover's opinion on the subject. My standpoint is that modern musical ideas and melodic conceptions stem mainly from the Romantic period, which could be dated from middle Beethoven to Mahler and Brückner. Thus, I tend to go for this as the ideal introduction, but I'll include some other stuff as well. However, this collection makes no claims as to comprehensiveness. So, here we go, starting with something relatively recent, and going (roughly linearly) backwards in time. Other folk, please weigh in with your favourites and selections, and let's build an archive! GrahamN, where are you?

    A useful point in classical is that some of the most memorable recordings are quite old, but have never been surpassed. For example, the best recordings of Beethoven's 9th are the 1962 and 1979 DG recordings by Karajan and the Berlin Phil. Most of these older recordings are on medium- or low-price labels, and this can make classical collecting quite cheap. Moreover, the quality is often amazingly good; the recordings supervised by Walter Legge for Decca are excellent.

    CARL ORFF: "Carmina Burana". Orff's adaptation of some songs, basically by unfrocked monks on the virtues(?) of wine, women and song, found in the monastery of Benediktburen in the early 20th. century. The whole piece, with big choral numbers, beautiful arias and spectacular percussion, is great fun. There's a good cut-price version by Eugen Jochum on DG.

    GEORGE GERSHWIN: "Rhapsody in Blue". Written at the commission of the "King of Jazz" Paul Whiteman and orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, this combines classical forms and jazz influences in the most successful fusion ever. In a good version, the orchestra swings like a big band. Gershwin's jazzy Piano Concerto in F (the one in which Oscar Levant plays everything, including the appreciative audience, in "An American in Paris") is also good.

    EDWARD ELGAR Famous for the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, especially No. 1 (Land of Mope and Tory), which really is, as Elgar himself put it, a "damn fine tune", especially taken away from the Proms and the flag waving. His Enigma Variations are also worth a listen.

    SCANDINAVIANS Yes, they did write good stuff, and not just Alfven's Swedish Rhapsody (which they played incessantly in the local cinema when I was a kid). For example, there's

    - Edvard Greig, most famous piece the incidental music from "Peer Gynt", also some lyrical pieces for orchestra (e.g. "Wedding day at Troldhaugen", "Cow keeper's tune").
    - Jean Sibelius, his symphonic works, becoming ever sparser as he went on, leading to the single movement 7th. take a bit of getting used to, as does the sparse violin concerto. However, the occasional pieces such as the Karelia Suite, Valse Triste and most of all "Finlandia", with its glorious hymn tune ("Be still my soul"), can be appreciated by everyone.

    RUSSIAN LOLLIPOPS: With the enormous heritage of folk music and the music of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian music in the late 19th Century was wonderfully tuneful. Much of it was written by "the five" (Rimsy-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev, Cui). Examples:

    - Nikolai Rimsy-Korsakov: "Scheherezade";, tone poem based on the Arabian Nights story, very tuneful, very spectacular. Also "Russian Easter Festival Overture".

    - Alexander Borodin: professor of chemistry and medical doctor, it's no wonder he left not a lot of finished music. Anybody who has ever seen the musical "Kismet" will recognise Borodin immediately, because that's where all the tunes came from. The best known are the Polovtsian Dances ("Stranger in Paradise") and "In the steppes of Central Asia". The beautiful "And this is my beloved" from "Kismet" is a movement from one of the string quartets.

    - Modest Mussorgsky. "Pictures at an exhibition", a wonderfully spectacular tone poem, originally written as a tour-de-force piano piece, but better known in the orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel. Also "Night on a bare mountain" (sometimes called "Night on bald mountain"). Familiar to anyone who has seen "Fantasia".

    PYOTR ILLYCH TCHAIKOVSKY First Russian composer to achieve international fame. In my opinion, the best tune writer the planet has ever seen; listen to the final movement of the 5th. Symphony, where great tunes are used as throwaway lines. I would AVOID the 1st piano concerto; like Richard Strauss's "Also sprach Zarathustra" (theme of "2001: a space odyssey"), it never lives up to the promise of that magnificent opening. Tchaikovsky highlights:
    - "Romeo & Juliet" overture
    - "1812" overture; brash, vulgar, totally over the top, but wonderfully spectacular
    - Marche Slave; not quite a rerun of "1812", but it also uses the old Czarist national anthem (that's what plays in the "1812" when the cannons are firing). I find it more enjoyable than the 1812. I have a marvellous old vinyl version by Stanley Black and the Royal Philharmonic, which places severe strain on the windows when it hits the big climax (that's the part when you hidwe under the sofa to avoid the flying speaker cones).
    - Variations on a rococo theme; (Tchaikovsky was contemptuous of most other composers, but loved Mozart, which shows the boy at least had taste)
    - the Serenade for strings - marvellous melodies in this one.
    - the ballet music; wonderful melodies in "Swan Lake" & Sleeping Beauty; "Nutcracker" has a full ballet score, but the famous suite takes the glorious highlights.
    - waltz from "Eugene Onegin"; the best waltz tune ever written, even better then the famous "Swan Lake" one, which is saying something (Strauss? forget it!)
    - 5th. Symphony; the most approachable of Pete's symphonies.
    - the Violin Concerto, especially the fireworks of the spectacular last movement.

    ANTONIN DVORAK Composer of wonderfully tuneful stuff. The Slavonic Dances are great. Another must have is the 9th ("New World") symphony, full of great melody.

    JOHANNES BRAHMS Tchaikovsky hated Brahms, but then he hated nearly everyone (being a manic-depressive homosexual in Orthodox Russia may have had something to do with it). But Joe wrote come good stuff. Try his Variations on a Theme by Haydn or the Academic Festival Overture, or the Hungarian Dances, which inspired Dvorak to write the Slavonic Dances.

    WIENER WALTZERS The Strausses (Johann and his sons, Johann Jr., Joszef and Edouard), but also Franz Léhar and a few others. Best introduction is one of the Vienna Phil's New Year's Concert CDs. This will guarantee you the two traditional items, "The Blue Danube" and the "Radetsky March". No matter how much they hackney "Danube", a good performance will still bowl you over. Mind you, none of them ever wrote a waltz to touch Léhar's "Gold and Silver".

    FELIX MENDELSSOHN Enormously popular at the time, but sadly overlooked now. The named symphonies "Scottish" and "Italian" (especially the latter; there's not a person who doesn't know the first movement, even though they may not know it by name) are great, as it the spectacular violin concerto. Also worth a listen is the incidental music to "A midsummer night's dream", and not just for the famous Wedding March (which is great, no matter much it's hackneyed; there are many other great bits in there).

    HECTOR BERLIOZ The romantic's romantic, in his personal life as well as his music. Berlioz is often spectacular with a large capital S (the enormous Te Deum, the Requiem with its four brass bands). His best known bits, the Symphonie Fantastique, with its famous march to the scaffold and the stirring Hungarian march from "The Damnation of Faust".

    FREDERIC FRANCOIS CHOPIN The poet of the piano. Nobody ever wrote better for the instrument, incredible beauty, mind-blowing virtuosity. The famous dreamy Nocturne No.2, the "Minute" waltz (about 95 seconds, actually), the polonaises, mazurkas, etudes. Best to go for a cheap "Greatest hits" to get the flavour. Tamas Vasary on DG was good for these.

    MISCELLANEOUS OVERTURES There are a number of composers who wrote operas or operettas, which are remembered only by their overtures. These are frequently collected and are worth having. These include
    - Franz von Suppé's "Poet and Peasant" and "Light Cavalry";
    - Jacques Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld" (featuring the famous Can-Can)
    - Resnicek's "Donna Diana"

    Speaking of overtures...

    GIOACCINO ROSSINI The master of the operatic overture. An album of Rossini overtures belongs in everyone's collection; "Wilhelm Tell", "The Barber of Seville", "The Thieving Magpie", "The Silken Ladder", "Semiramide". Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has a great DG collection, which includes the marvellous bow-tapping "Il Signor Bruschino";, but omits Bill Tell and Semiramide. However, Nev Marriner and the academy of St. Martin-in-the- Fields have a disc that'll fill that gap nicely.

    LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Music is Before Beethoven and After Beethoven, so thoroughly did he change musical history and the way music was perceived. Music should "strike fire from a man's soul", he said. His did. I presume that women's souls are similarly struck. Beethoven is rugged, grand, majestic, and you could spend your life exploring it alone. Some approachable Beethoven:

    - 5th. and 6th. Symphonies The most approachable of the 9 he wrote. The 5th (Dadada-Daaaaaaah!) is, in my opinion, the best of them all. The version that knocks spots off all the others is Karajan's 1962 version on DG with the Berlin Phil.; nowhere is the tremendous transition from the third to the fourth movements better handled. The 6th ("Pastoral") is very tuneful.
    For a complete set, Karajan's '62 and '79 sets are excellent (his '85 (or thereabouts) set doesn't cut the mustard at all). The recent set by David Zinmann and the Zürich Tonhalle Orch. (very cheap, at least here) is also excellent.
    - 5th piano concerto ("Emperor"), the heavyweight champion of all piano concertos, a wonderful work. Actually, all 5 are good.
    - solo piano; the name sonatas ("Moonlight", "Appasionata", etc.) are worth a listen. Luddie was the best pianist of his time and knew to write for the instrument, his relentless demands on the instrument forcing makers to make them more versatile. The piano for which the "Emperor" concerto was written was a very different instument from the one for which the first concerto was written.
    - overtures, especially "Leonora III" and "Egmont". Beethoven had three goes at an overture for his opera "Leonora", before he gave up, changed the opera's name to "Fidelio" and wrote an entirely different overture! "Leonora III" is the best, most spectacular overture ever written, especially the way, at the end it stands up on its hind legs and ROARS.
    - violin concerto; the heavyweight champion of violin concertos, finishing (typically Beethoven-style) with a marvellous melody. (Edited to add; I saw the late Isaac Stern perform this in Australia, and I remember the smile that crossed his face as he lit up on the great final melody - even the great musicians find a good tune irresistible).

    WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART When the angels know that God's listening, it's said, they play Bach, when the think He's not, they play Mozart. Wolfie, music's greatest genius, was simply incapable of writing an inelegant note. Telemann may have been able to set a laundry list to music, but Wolfie's laundry list would have been far more musical. Where does one start??
    - "Eine kleine Nachtmusik"; an extraordinary senerade
    - the horn concertos. It is said (with some slight justification) that Mozart wrote a horn concerto four times. They're not actually THAT similar, and they're wonderfully melodic.
    - symphonies; any of the named symphonies (I like No.35 "Haffner" especially, plus No.40)
    - piano concertos; try 21 (forever known as "Elvira Madigan"), but they're all good.
    - the flute concertos; my countryman Mr. Galway does a great performance of these.

    FRANZ JOSZEF HAYDN Father of the symphony. He wrote over 100 of them, the best ones being the nicknamed ones ("Surprise";, "Drum Roll", "Farewell"). But there's a lot more to Joe than that, much of his stuff is richly melodic:
    - trumpet concerto; THE trumpet concerto, often found paired with The Other One (Hummel's; they were both written for the same man, Anton Weidinger, court trumpeter of the Esterhazy family and born tinkerer). Hakan Hardenberger is a good choice here, but also The Ace of Space himself, Maurice André can be found on mid-price labels).
    - cello concertos; very tuneful.

    So, we arrive at the borders of the baroque, and I'm about to break my rule and suggest some items that are listenable for newbies.

    GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
    - Water Music; One of the best pieces of light music ever written. Trevor Pinnock's early 1980s version is still the one to go for, ditto his performance of the Music for the Royal Fireworks
    - "Messiah"; familiarity often disguises the fact that this is one of western music's towering masterpieces. Handel (who needed the money) wrote it in three weeks. He said he was divinely inspired. I believe him. My personal favourite is, again, Pinnock, who combines light textures with plenty of oomph in the big numbers. Hal-le-lu-jah!
    - the Coronation Anthems. The best known, "Zadok the Priest", is played in coronations to this day. Splendid in every sense of the word. Go for Nev Marriner's, which knocks spots off anyone else's.
    (Edited to add) Dixit Dominus - the young Handel's version of Psalm 110, written in Rome before he moved to England, is one of the most exhilarating bits of choral writing in existence. It takes a virtuoso choir to master its demands, but when one does it's tremendous.

    JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH The greatest of a family of musicians (there were so many of them that a musician was called a "bach" in parts of E.Germany. Unlike his great contemporary Handel, the man of the world, he existed in small courts and towns and was only the fifth choice for his final job in Leipzig (they really wanted Telemann). As a result, completely forgotten until Felix Mendelssohn found the St. Matthew Passion score in Leipzig public library while looking for something else. Suggested J.S.:
    - Orchestral Suite No.3; features the famous "Air on a G string", but the rest is all trumpets and drums.
    - Brandenburg Concerto No.3; the best known and loved of the six Brandenburgs.
    - Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; the best-known and most show-offish of Bach's (many) organ works. Also worth listening to; Toccata and Fugue in F Major and the Passacaglia in C, with its relentless bass theme.
    - the violin concertos , two solo and one double concerto; top of the heap is Anne-Sophie Mutter's with Salvatore Accardo and the ECO. Seventh-Day Authenticists may complain of the lack of original instruments, but The Divine Ms M plays with such warmth and skill that it makes strong men (and me) weep.
    (Edited to add) Magnificat - the most approachable and joyous of Bach's choral pieces. Lots of big numbers with drums and stratospheric trumpets.

    ANTONIO VIVALDI The Red Priest (hair colour, not politics). An astonishing output. His "Four Seasons" is the most recorded work in the repertoire. I recommend the version by Sparf and the Drottningholm Ensemble on BIS. The double trumpet concerto is great. Indeed, most of the concertos are eminently listenable (and there's a LOT of them).

    BAROQUE "POPS"; Albums often come up with the following very listenable pieces from the baroque:
    - Pachelbel's Canon
    - Albinoni's Adagio
    - Handel's Largo (you all know this, played with great solemnity in church, notwithstanding that it's a serenade to a tree from a comic opera)
    - Bach's Air on a G string (but the whole Orchestral suite No.3 is eminently listenable; see Bach above)
    - Bach's "Sleepers Awake" and/or "Jesu, joy of man's desiring"; generally orchestrated versions fo chorales from Cantatas BWV 140 and 147 respectively. The two complete cantatas are often found on the same CD, and are worth a listen to get some insight into the cantatas.
    - Clarke, The Prince of Denmark's March; often known by the name "Trumpet Voluntary" and in the name of the wrong composer (Henry Purcell).
    - Charpentier, Fanfare of "Te Deum", the Eurovision tune to most of you folk. As a piece of totally useless information, this was the first record from Erato in the 1950s, featuring a young organist called Marie-Claire Alain and a young trumpeter called Maurice André

    THE GABRIELIS Uncle and nephew, wrote music for Venice. The Venetians liked their music Grand and the Gabrielis delivered in spades. The canzonas for brass are impressive and sonorous, but too many at a time feels like a meal consisting solely of your favourite ice cream.

    And now some personal favourites:

    AWAKE, THE TRUMPET'S LOFTY SOUND The three trumpet-playing Läubin brothers team up with organist Simon Preston for this spectacular. And spectacular it is; the final track, a marvellous rendition of Handel's "See, the conqu'ring hero come", is worth the price alone.

    RAMEAU The French court composers of the reign of le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV, were generally an undistinguished lot, churning out music for the royal court. (The chief one, Jean-Baptiste Lully, is distinguished as being the only man ever to kill himself accidentally with a baton). Jean-Philippe Rameau is an exception. The record/CD (I have both!) I have in mind is probably sacrilege to many; it's played on synthesisers by US jazzman Bob James. However, James remains true to the spirit of the music and the result is one of my favourite CDs (it's also a stereo spectacular). Far, far better than Walter/Wendy Carlos's "Switched-on Bach".


    MAURICE ANDRE Now past his use-by date, if recent reviews are anything to go by, the young André was simply the best trumpeter on the planet, perhaps the best the world has ever heard. The smoothness and beauty of tone, no matter how fast or how high he played, was uncanny, proof that some people are much more equal than others. Much of André's output is of transcriptions for trumpet (the baroque natural trumpet was a pig of an instrument with a limited scope, so nobody wrote very much for it). The best is a CD made with Nev and the Academy in the early 1970s, which contains works from noble Purcell stuff (actually written for the instrument) to a stunning Tartini transcription, which I still don't quite believe. The trumpet and organ stuff is also good, especially the Telemann heroic marches. The one with Jane Parker-Smith is also very good.

    (Edited to add) One of the greatest André records is sadly no longer available in any form. This is "Trompettissimo", which has André with organ, bass and drums playing jazzed-up classics and French folk songs. Yes, it sounds corny, but it was and is sensational, both from a musical and virtuosity point of view - the version of the Badinerie from Bach's Orchestral Suite No.2 is truly astonishing. The record was so successful in France that they made another "En toutes libertés avec...", but it wasn't nearly so good. At one point, Erato released both on a single CD; it was withdrawn some time ago, but I have my ancient vinyl copies. I would advise anyone who comes across these treasures to snap them up.

    "MADRIGAL HISTORY TOUR" Don't let the corny title put you off. This disc by the King's Singers (to go with their television series) is a marvellous introduction to the world of the madrigal, which reigned supreme all over Europe from about the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries. The album covers madrigals from all the major countries (including Thomas Morely's celebrated "Now is the month of Maying"). The prize is the amazing five-part "La Guerre" by Clément Jannequin, depicting the Battle of Marignano, complete with battle noises.

    (Edited to add) MICHALA PETRI The recorder version of Maurice André, a player of such astounding virtuosity that you swear that she can't possibly be human like the rest of us. She has gone off in odd tangents in recent years (especially since signing for RCA), but the early stuff, especially with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields providing suitably marvellous backing, is brilliant, spellbinding stuff (since I've got it on at the moment, try Philips 412 630-2 with the ASMF - the Vivaldi is stunning). Anything further from the recorder of your school days can't be imagined.

    TERPSICHORE Terpsichore ("Terp-SICK-or-ey") was the Muse of the dance in Greel mythology. The name is given to a huge collection (over 300 I believe) of dances of the Renaissance period, collected (not composed) by Michael Praetorius. Nobody has ever recorded them all, but a record of them belongs in every music lover's colection, because they're so much fun. First of all, there are the instruments. You have never heard anything like these absolutely delicious sounds. One of Praetorius's great contributions to music was a manual on instruments and practice, with reproductions so accurate that it has been possible to recreate the instruments even where authentic specimens no longer exist. So feast your ears on shawms, crumhorns, racketts, hurdy-gurdys, sackbutts... My reecommended recording is the one by Philip Pickett and the New London Consort. Everything from stately court dances to wild rumbustious things. The recording is also very good.

    RACHMANINOV: VESPERS Music of the Russian Orthodox Church and one of the most glorious bits of choral music you'll ever hear. The Church is very strict about liturgical music - no instruments are allowed, and the nature of the music itself is fairly narrowly defined. Within these constraints, Rachmaninov produced a masterpiece of a cappella choral, the lightness of sopranos countering the rumbling depth of basses. Listen to the Nunc Dimittis, where the basses sink to an astounding low B flat, creating standing waves in your floor. Some Western choirs have made reasonable fists of this music, but you really do need a Slavic choir. The greatest rocording is an old one, the RSFSR Academy Choir under Sveshnikov, recorded by Melodiya and still available (I think) on Le Chant du Monde. Considering that these people must have been all good card-carrying members when this recording was made, the fervour with which they produce the opiate of the masses indicates that the soul of old Russia never died.

    GrahamN
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    Joined: 25 Jun 2002
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    Posted: Mon Sep 02, 2002 11:10 am Post subject:

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    Well done Tones. I would agree with many of the recommendations, but here are a few more of my own.

    First a couple of bits of general information/advice. First up, the label. We all know what "Classical" means in common use, just like "pop". Most classical types wouldn't be able to tell R&B, rock, grunge, trance, metal etc apart (and I'm not far off than position myself) - lumping it all in the generic label "pop". "Classical" has its own major divisions too - renaissance (generally pre-1700), baroque (1700-1760), classical proper (1760-1805), romantic (1805-1910), 20th cent (self-explanatory), serial, modernist etc (although some may doubt the latter two's credentials to be included under the category of "music" ), and plenty of sub-divisions within those too.

    Try-it'n'see. I've found when looking for new music that the links to clips on Amazon are dead useful. You only get a minute or so, but it should give you enough of an idea about the general style to avoid one of those "Oh my God, what have I done?" moments.

    Another deeply held belief of the classical mafia is than "classical" has to be concertrated on and worked at, whereas "pop" is merely background music. This is not true (or should not be, it's one of the great debates with modern stuff) - good stuff should show itself pretty quickly, but it is true that the mark of a great classical piece is that it reveals more of itself on repeated hearing and increased concentration. You may also take time to get into the idiom - many of my favourites now I would have had a tough time with 30 years ago, and some of my favourites then have rather palled with time.

    However - if you do want to work at it (and there seems to be a fair view around that "I'd like it...but I don't know enough about it"), there is an excellent site at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/classical/index.shtml . On one of its pages, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/classical/discover.shtml , they have on demand programmes of "Discovering Music" - 45 minute programmes broadcast every Sunday where they pick a piece and take take you through a wonderful guided tour of it - and done with such enthusiasm you forget you're being treated to a lecture. The site currently has over 60 programmes on it. It also has performances for on demand streaming for free - albeit at lowish quality - so once again you can try-before-you-buy, but this time with the full piece.

    As for choosing recordings, I nearly always search the Gramofile site linked at http://www.gramophone.co.uk - containing over 26000 reviews! It's been pretty crap for the last year - e.g. searches only work with two pieces of information, you often fine the review doesn't match the track listing etc. - when they "upgraded" it, but they are promising to get it fixed soon (searches are failing completely today). When it does work, they give you a detailed review of the performance (and sometimes the recording quality too), with cross-references to normally between 2 and 8 other top performances. The really important point is that they tell you WHY they think its good/bad, so you can make up your own mind as to the overall evaluation.

    Sourcing recordings - most stores (e.g. your local HMV) may have a couple of recent recordings of the most standard repertoire, along with a load of rubbish from Sarah Chang, Vanessa Mae, Russel Watson etc. If you want to find a specific recording you'll normally need to get it on special order or go to e.g. Tower/HMV/Virgin in London. Better and cheaper is to use online: http://www.mdt.co.uk is the cheapest I've found, and there are some good 2nd hand sites too (but I'm not telling you what they are as the best recodings already go too quickly - like within an hour or two of being posted)

    It's also worth remembering that some of the best stuff (certainly post-1800) is over half-an-hour long, so it's tougher to dip in and out of.

    Enough of this lecturing already - what about the music?

    There are of course a number of compliations around that aficionados like us tend not to look at, as we mostly want the full thing rather than excerpts. This one does look a good selection though:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos...1453428-9429434

    I have nothing to add to Tones' baroque recommendations, and would endorse most of them (and I guess will probably try out those I don't know).

    Here's a few of my own, mostly the pieces that first grabbed me and hauled be into their particular genres crying "give me more"! My temperament is clearly a lot more towards the fiery and emotional than is Tones', so you may wish to consider how well this matches your own when judging our advice.

    CHORAL MUSIC:
    Maybe an acquired taste, but there's some lovely music writen for choir at both ends of the volume spectrum.

    The sublime and ethereal end tends to be pre-baroque church music. I would recommend "Allegri's Miserere", a piece jealously guarded by the Vatican for well over 100 years, with performance only in the Sistene Chapel - until the young Mozart heard it once, then later wrote it down from memory (well so the story goes). The Tallis Scholars on Gimell GIM 339 are excellent (and it's coupled with one of the best of the polyphonic settings of the Mass - Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli)

    At the more secular (and bawdy) end, Tones has already recommended Carmina Burana (which may be familiar from the "Old Spice" advert). I much prefer the Previn recording to the Jochum - on HMV 7676282, or there's an equivalent EMI release number.

    If you like these then you may also like to try:
    (Early churchy) - Tallis, Spem in Alium, Tallis Scholars again GIM006
    (20th Cent big) - Walton, Belshazzar's Feast (try Rattle/CBSO on EMI CDC 5 56592-2, others to look out for are Litton/Bournemouth on Decca, or maybe Hickox/LSO on HMV)
    Rutter, Requiem (smooth, laid back) or Gloria and Te Deum (bouncy and brassy, bit like Belshazzar) - both well done by Layton/Polyphony + the Wallace Collection providing the brass backup, on Hyperion

    OPERA/SONG:
    Even more of an aquired taste, but we all know "Nessun Dorma". If you like that, then you may well like some other Puccini. The first opera I bought was "La Boheme", Pavarotti and Freni on Decca. You may not want to go for the whole thing, but there are a fair number of highlights discs around. The best known Puccini arias are "O soave fanciulla" (duet) and "Che gelida manina" (your tiny hand is frozen - tenor) from La Boheme, "Visi d'Arte" (soprano) from Tosca, "Nessun Dorma" (tenor) from Turandot, "O mio babbino caro" (soprano) from Gianni Schicchi, "Un bel di" ("One fine day" - soprano) from Madame Butterfly - all absolute heart-on-sleeve stuff (get in extra hankies for the gf, and maybe yourself too).

    Be careful with Pavarotti though, in that he also does a lot of Neapolitan "easy listening" stuff - great vehicle for the voice, but a whole disc of his voice can get a bit wearing, and that music doesn't take too many repeats.

    I also love the sound of soprano with orchestra, and the piece that did it was Richard Strauss' "4 last songs" (or the misprinted version "4 last snogs"). There are a number of fine versions out there - particularly Gundula Janowitz on DG, Jessye Norman on Philips.

    The Janowitz version (DG Originals, 4474222) comes coupled with "Death and Transfiguration", a purely orchestral piece he wrote 50 years earlier, that Strauss quotes in the last song, when he's contemplating his own death. Highly recommended (if not particularly jolly)!

    20th CENTURY LISTENABLE
    Altert! Steer clear of anything by Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Dallapiccola, most Schoenberg!

    Now the good stuff - Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliet". The full ballet runs to about 2 hours, so there're excerts and suites to go for. The top recommendation for the full wack is Maazel on Decca 4529702 or Previn/LSO on EMI CZS5686072, both (2CDs for the price of 1, for as little as £11 - over 2 hours of music but worth it), and there's also a good highlights disc by Ozawa/Boston (DG 4394922). There's also the Lieutenant Kije suite - often coupled with Kodaly's Hary Janos - the "Romance" movement will be very familiar to Sting fans as he lifted the tune for "Russians", and the "Troika" movement is often used by the BBC for plugging its Xmas schedule (although I'm probably recommending this in spite of rather than because of that).

    Talking of Hary Janos - try Ivan Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Philips 462824-2, and you may wish to check your fillings (and speaker cones) are still in place after track 15 (and 16's just as good). The couplings are the Dances from Galanta and Marosszek - a classical muscian's take on traditional Hungarian folk dances - and some childrens choir stuff. This last may not be quite so enthralling, but it's giving a bit more of the tradition from which the music stems - and they're short so just skip the track if they're not you cup of tea. This is stunningly played and recorded - you'll never again say classical is soft and slow after hearing this (just ask robert_cyrus and whoever was in the Wilson Benesch/Audionet room at the Heathrow show when I subjected them to that!).

    If you get on well with this, then try "The Rite of Spring" by Stravinky - a bigger challenge and certainly not background music, but incredibly rewarding, and full of raw, vital energy. Not sure what to recommend here - I have Tilson-Thomas/SanFrancisco on RCA, but that's part of a 3CD set. There's a highly respected new disc by Gergiev/Kirov on Philips 4680352 - coupled with Scriabin's Poem of Ecstacy, not something I'd normally recommend as a starter piece, but it'll sure test out the hi-fi! Although I've not heard it I would imaging Boulez on Sony SMK64109 would be good (coupled with Petrushka), or Stravinsky himself conducting also on Sony SMK60011 (coupled with Firebird - the finale will be familiar to Yes fans, I believe it's what they used to bring them on stage) - I notice this last disc is also available on SACD - Sony SS89062.

    The other big name Russian is Shostakovich - best known for his 15 symphonies. He is uneven, and often manages to get some of the most overwhelming and draining music I've ever heard next to stuff of the most mind-numbing banality, but should definitely be heard. Best is probably No 10, most popular are nos 1 and 5, my favourite is no 8 (written following the Battle of Stalingrad), most notorious is the 7th, written and performed during the siege of Leningrad (has some truly spectacular moments but Ernest Newman - a famous critic/commentator - said that `the position of the symphony in the musical map of the future will be located between so many degrees longitude and so many degrees platitude') - 2 and 3 are unmitigated drivel. Big DSCH fans talk in hushed tones of Mravinsky's performances from the early '60s with the Leningrad Phil - his 8th has just been reissued by BBC Legends BBCL40022, Previn/LSO on 4632622 is also stunning.

    For something a bit more fun - Aaron Copland is a good bet, particularly played by Bernstein. His ballets "Billy the Kid", and "Rodeo" are great fun, and ooze the American west. There is of course also "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Appalachian Spring". Be a bit careful with some of his other stuff though because he had two very different sides: fun and astringent.

    Also stradling the Romantic/20th century boundary is Maurice Ravel - I guess you've pretty much all heard Bolero at some time. One of the best interpreters in this repertoire is Charles Dutoit, with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and there's a double CD dirt cheap at as little as £9, Decca 4602142. This has Bolero and La Valse (probably his second most famous piece), Rhapsodie Espagnole, and a superb (although slightly more challenging) ballet, Daphnis and Chloe.

    ENGLISH
    Almost anything by Vaughan Williams (probably not the 4th symphony though). There's of couse the ubiquitous "Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis" and "Lark Ascending", but for a bit more meat (and about an hour long) there's the "London Symphony" (e.g. the glorious but slightly controversial "original version" recording by Hickox/LSO on Chandos CHAN 9902).

    Holst - "The Planets". Excellent piece, despite( ) being so popular. Go for Charles Dutoit/Montreal on Decca/Pengiun (4606062), or Previn/LSO originally on EMI, but which doesn't seem to be available currently, but is/was also available on HMV's own label (7676212 - also seems to no longer be available). Again, Holst has two very different styles, so be a bit careful with his other stuff.

    ROMANTIC
    Tones has also covered this pretty well.

    For Brahms I would add Piano Concerto No 1 - written in his younger days while still full of passion, and before he'd come to terms with his (allegedly unrequited) love for his best friend/mentor's wife! Pf No 2 is probably technically better, but the fire and longing in No 1 just melts you.

    For Sibelius, the next step after Finlandia, the Karelia Suite and Valse Triste is probably Symphony No 2 - the finale really whips up the Finnish national pride - and then No 6. Avoid No 4 (just as for Vaughan Williams) until you're really sure you like his music. The front running interpreters here are probably Osmo Vanska, Sakari Oramo and Colin Davis.

    And as Beethoven changed music once, Wa**er (the official insertion is "gn", others may differ) changed it again. While I now love the singing bit, it was a big turn off for a long time. There's no-one who can conjour up deep dark colourations like Richard W though, so you may like to try some of the following:
    Lohengrin Prelude Act I (the Act III prelude is the more commonly played but is too bombastic even for me)
    Tannhauser: Overture
    Flying Dutchman: Overture
    Die Walkure: Ride of the Valkyries (and I said I found the Lohengrin bombastic )
    Gotterdammerung: Siegfried's funeral march
    Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod

    If you like that, you may also like to try some of Richard Strauss' tone poems. I've already mentioned Death and Transfiguration, but the other major popular ones are "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegels Merry Pranks" (although I suspect the translation is a bt toned down for English speakers). The undisputed master for Strauss' orchestral music is Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Phil on DG - but generally go for the pre-digital versions recorded in the 1970s.

    And another follow-on recommendation is Schoenberg's "Verklaerte Nacht" - despite my earlier health warning (the magic number here is "Op 11" - do not touch anything beyond that without very secure water wings!). Again, Karajan is pre-eminent here (DG 4577212, coupled with "Pelleas and Melisande"). Still at the heavy end, but on occasions using a much more delicate brush, there's the current top of the classical hit parade, Gustav Mahler. If you've got this far try Symphony no 2 - about 80 minutes long, so be sure you want to go there - it's glorious when you do though. My favourite for this is Georg Solti, who really cannot be beaten for drama - there's a good coupling of symphonies 1 and 2 on a two-for-one set (Decca 4489212 - ah big problem with the recording, so have to make big reservation on this recommendation - see below) - although the currently acclaimed front-runner is Rattle on EMI CDS7479628 (but v. expensive)

    BEETHOVEN
    As there's before- and after-Beethoven, there's also before- and after-Eroica, the 3rd symphony (and not "Erotica" - Mrs Richie may be good but she's not in this league). This piece, more than any other ushered in the Romantic movement in music. The funeral march (slow movement) can be quite overwhelming, and the final movement incresibly uplifting. I wouldn't start with this though.

    My starting point would actually be Zinman's recording of the 7th and 8th symphonies (Arte Nova 74321 563412) - a bit eclectic but full of life and fun, and cheap. Carlos Kleiber also has a couple of truly classic performances from the mid-70s (7th and 5th symphonies) on DG Originals 4474002.

    Next stop would be the 9th "Choral" symphony - one of the best and most invigorating pieces of music ever written. Go for Karajan (preferably 1977 DG 4158322, or 1962 DG 4474012) - but avoid his 1980s digital recording, aparrently crippled by the soprano Janet Perry.

    CHAMBER MUSIC
    We've mentioned little of any kind of chamber music so far - I guess as it's generally much more reserved in its presentation and appeal. Things that may appeal though are:
    Dvorak: Piano Quintet and "American" quartet, Op 96
    Schubert: Quintet in C major, Op. Posth.
    Mozart: Quintet in G minor K515
    Beethoven: in addition to those tones mentioned, two of the most transcendental are piano sonatas 31 and 32 (Op. 110 and 111)
    I have and love all the above, but as I've had them all for a very long time I'm not sure whether the versions I have are still recommendations (or even available).
    _________________
    Graham

    Thanks, Graham, that fills a few holes in mine quite nicely. I should have mentioned that well-known Jew-hating, wife-stealing weirdo Dickie Wagner - some of his stuff is magnificent, it's the bits between the magnificent stuff I find a bit of a yawn (yes, I know, total lack of vision). Mind you, he did like Beethoven's 9th. (which proves he wasn't all bad) and apparently he used to sit with the score open in front of him for inspiration).

    Speaking of the 9th., this was what made CDs what they are - Sony's insistence that the 9th. (enormously popular in Japan) fit on one disc made the length 75 minutes, not the 45 that Philips wanted. I always find the last movement a collection of bits - but they're magnificent bits and they include one of the greatest tunes ever written.

    I steered away from chamber music, because it tends to be more of an acquired taste, but there's a whole universe of it to explore. I recently acquired the Askenaszy/Perlmann/Harrell Beethoven piano trios set. Wonderful stuff, and nicely recorded.

    P.S. Why not the classic King's College/Roy Goodman version of Allegri's Miserere? It's cheaper than the Tallis Scholars one! (Is that the one with Alison Stamp as treble, or has there been another since then?).
    _________________
    Tones, whose Bach remains better than his byte

    Back to top

    Posted: Sun Sep 08, 2002 12:56 pm Post subject:

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Following on from the discussion with GTM on the subject of Wolfie, I should just like to add that, when deciding what classical music to buy, the old hi-fi adage, "Trust your ears" is even more important than it is with the equipment. You know what you like, so buy that, not what any reviewer likes. And that goes for even the likes of "Gramophone", many of whose reviewers are music scholars and authors. For example, my very favourite work is Monteverdi's marvellous Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610. My favourite version is Gardiner's extraordinary live performance in San Marco, Venice (I also have the video!). To me, this knocks spot off any other version, and if I lend it to anyone, it usually comes back quickly, because the borrower rushes out and buys his or her own. Yet, most critics "can" Gardiner, usually on the grounds of taking liberties with the piece. They all prefer Andrew Parrott's - this is excellently performed, but it sounds to me like a mildly rescusitated museum piece, rather than a piece of living, vibrant music.

    Moral of the story, use the reviewers as general guidelines, but make up your own mind. It matters not that you know nowt about matters technical (I don't - can't read music, can't play an instrument) - classical music is there to be enjoyed, not endured. So, if you don't like it, as GTM doesn't like Mozart, don't feel guilty about it, because you think you "should" like it, because of it's "quality" or something else. Heaven knows, there are enough musical snobs in the world. It can happen that, as your musical "palate" becomes more used to the genre, you come to like it. Another favourite is Bach's Goldberg Variations. If someone had presented me with this when I first started listening to classical, I would have run a mile. But there came a time when I was ready for it.

    Classical is a journey that will last a lifetime. It varies from plainchant and the songs of the troubadors to the various modern forms. There is something for absolutely everyone in there. The fact that you don't like it all is irrelevant (I still can't come to grips with modern stuff), but there's a lot more good listening out there. Go forth and enjoy!






    still tones wrote:

    "Trust your ears" is even more important than it is with the equipment. You know what you like, so buy that, not what any reviewer likes.


    Agreed 100% - and others may well hate lots of what we've recommended here, performance or piece. My pet hates in performers are Bernard Haitink as the most overrated conductor (detailed to the exclusion of the music), Yehudi Menhuin as the most overrated violinist (truly disgusting tone and apalling intonation), and Emil Gilels as the most overrated pianist (terrminally tedious and boring) - but these are all pretty sacred cows in most quarters. And of course Mozart wrote some dreadfully trite and repetitive music (in addition to some of undoubted genius)!

    BTW I've just added/corrected some more recording details to my original post - and cannot believe I omitted Ravel from the initial list.
    _________________
    Graham
    _________________
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 19, 2003
    tones, Jun 19, 2003
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  2. tones

    michaelab desafinado

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    FYI - I just increased the max. message length to 50000 chars.
    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Jun 19, 2003
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  3. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    Thanks, Michael. Would you please eliminate parts 2 and 3 now - I've amalgamated them in one post.

    And well done for getting the show on the road so quickly!
     
    tones, Jun 19, 2003
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  4. tones

    BaronSamedi

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    tones

    Well done and good to see you here! I will try to post a little more than I have in the past over at GH.

    It would be great to have the entire HFC thread over here, but it seems to have been deleted out there at some point in time. If you still have my own posts storaged somewhere, feel free to add those too.

    Regards
     
    BaronSamedi, Jun 19, 2003
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  5. tones

    michaelab desafinado

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    Done :)
    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Jun 20, 2003
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  6. tones

    PeteH Natural Blue

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    Well, what can you add to that excellent and comprehensive commentary? I'll take a few moments just to mention Pete's Core Classical Collection, which comprises what I reckon are the absolute essentials for anyone trying to start out. This is mostly romantic-to-late-romantic stuff as I personally always found this to be the most approachable - maybe I'll like Mozart when I'm tones's age. :D

    In each category, what I reckon to be the very first points of reference for the absolute beginner are indicated in bold.

    Symphonies
    Beethoven: 3, 5, 7, 9
    Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
    Brahms: 1, 2, 3, 4
    Dvorak: 7, 8, 9
    Rachmaninov: 2, 3
    Saint-Saens: 3
    Schubert: 8, 9
    Tchaikovsky: 4, 5, 6

    Violin Concerti
    Bach: all three (E major, A minor, 'Double')
    Barber
    Brahms
    Bruch: 1
    Elgar
    Mendelssohn
    Saint-Saens: 3
    Sibelius
    Tchaikovsky
    Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

    Brahms: Double Concerto (violin and cello)

    Cello Concerti
    Elgar
    Dvorak


    Piano Concerti
    Beethoven: 5
    Brahms: 1, 2
    Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
    Grieg
    Rachmaninov: 2, 3, Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
    Ravel: G major, Left Hand
    Saint-Saens: 2
    Schumann

    Miscellaneous Orchestral
    Brahms: Haydn Variations
    Debussy: La Mer
    Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice
    Elgar: Enigma Variations
    Holst: The Planets
    Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain, Pictures at an Exhibition
    Respighi: Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome
    Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
    Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
    Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

    Chamber
    Brahms: Clarinet Quintet; Piano Quintet
    Dvorak: String Quartet no. 14 American
    Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings
    Schubert: String Quartet in D Minor Death and the Maiden; Piano Quintet Trout

    Miscellaneous works for voices with orchestra
    Durufle: Requiem
    Faure: Requiem
    Mozart: Requiem

    Orff: Carmina Burana
    Verdi: Requiem

    The hard stuff...

    For the most part these are perhaps not the most approachable pieces of music - although they're not necessarily that 'difficult' either - and are not recommended for the absolute beginner. However, if you're after something a bit stronger than much of the above-recommended, here are a few places you might start looking. All of the below works, in my unashamedly personal, biased and limited view, provide an exceptionally intense experience in their own varied and sometimes flawed ways.

    Bartok: Piano Concerto no. 1
    Berlioz: Requiem
    Bruckner: Symphony no. 8; Symphony no. 9
    Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
    Mahler: Symphony no. 2; Symphony no. 9; Das Lied von der Erde
    Rachmaninov: The Bells; Symphonic Dances
    Schoenberg: Guerrelieder
    Shostakovich: Symphony no. 8; Symphony no. 10; Symphony no. 13
    (Richard) Strauss: Four Last Songs
    Szymanowski: Symphony no. 3
    Vaughan Williams: Symphony no. 4; Symphony no. 6
    Walton: Belshazzar's Feast
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 20, 2004
    PeteH, Oct 20, 2004
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  7. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    Careful, you might be dead by then (I know I am).

    Curious, Graham also doesn't like Wolfie but is big on romantic - you're not clones by any chance, are you? Perhaps you could say, as in the old fag advert

    You're never a clone with a band... :duck:

    (Michael, we desperately need that "groan" smiley!)
     
    tones, Oct 20, 2004
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  8. tones

    michaelab desafinado

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    I think perhaps "deaf" was the word you were looking for? :D

    I'll try and find a groan smiley. If you know of one let me know and I'll nick it.

    PeteH - nice list, much along my tastes, therefore good :D . I wouldn't have classed most of your "more challenging" pieces as being a "particularly extreme experience" ...but then I was brought up with my dad listening to the likes of Brian Fernyhough, Peter Maxwell Davies and Michael Tippet :eek: .

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Oct 20, 2004
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  9. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    No, actually - that was a grave mistake on your part.
     

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    tones, Oct 20, 2004
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    alanbeeb Grumpy young fogey

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    And do you still listen to that stuff? I am particularly fond of Maxwell Davies symphonies, espec 1,2 and 6. Worldes Bliss is another one for anyone up for a challenge.
     
    alanbeeb, Oct 20, 2004
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  11. tones

    michaelab desafinado

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    Now that really does deserve a groan smiley!

    Alan, I have to say I haven't listened to any of that stuff for some time (and don't have any on CD). I do like Tippett though, particularly the 2nd Symphony and of course the Piano Concerto. I didn't get on particularly well with Maxwell Davies and as for Fernyhough....nope...I just didn't get it.

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Oct 20, 2004
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  12. tones

    PeteH Natural Blue

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    Have edited to clarify. I wasn't saying that all of those works were extreme in the sense of Tippett or Maxwell Davies - ie. virtually impossible to listen to without earplugs :D - just that they took you to slightly different places, so to speak. For example, if you liked Tchaikovsky 6, you might like to try Mahler 9, which takes the neurosis and torment to whole new heights (depths?) of intensity - but due to the complex and challenging harmonic language of late Mahler, not to mention its great length, it's probably best to work up to it gently. And Strauss's Four Last Songs is extreme in the sense that it can easily reduce you to tears given a sympathetic performance, but again the sweltering, suffocating beauty of the late-Romantic style is probably best approached by coming through the earlier Romantics - in just the same way as the music itself did of course, historically speaking.
     
    PeteH, Oct 20, 2004
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  13. tones

    michaelab desafinado

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    It's funny, I was a late-Romantic fan right from the start and have gradually worked my backwards (not too far though, Beethoven, yes, but Mozart is acceptable as background music and not much else :torkmada: and as for baroque music....better not get me started ;) ). Also worked my way forwards and most early 20th century music is excellent but then it starts to get pretty patchy and as with anything written earlier than 1800, anything post 1950 has for me, a few pieces that I like but not a great deal more.

    Spot on about Staruss's Four Last Songs btw.

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Oct 20, 2004
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  14. tones

    pe-zulu

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    Dear Michaelab

    Come on - backwards in time, and forwards!
    The music you in the end will like the most, is often the music you have struggled most with to learn.

    Pe-zulu
     
    pe-zulu, Oct 20, 2004
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  15. tones

    michaelab desafinado

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    That's certainly true in many cases.

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Oct 20, 2004
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  16. tones

    PeteH Natural Blue

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    Actually I'd have to say that these days that's extremely rare for me - nowadays if I'm not hooked on something by about the third hearing then I basically never will be regardless of how hard I work at it.
     
    PeteH, Oct 20, 2004
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  17. tones

    michaelab desafinado

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    Well, as an example, allthough perhaps not quite what pe-zulu had in mind: when I first heard Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto I fell in love with it straight away, and it's hard not to really. I of course then immediately sought out the others, the first of those being the 3rd. On first listen I was a bit disappointed. However, over time the 3rd has become by far my favourite of the 4. It's the more profound work and so much more rewarding in the end.

    Another example: when I first heard Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony I thought it was just "more of that modern rubbish my father likes". Again, over time, it's become one of my favourite pieces of music.

    On the other hand, I simply see no way that I will ever enjoy large amounts of Bach, Handel, Haydn or Mozart despite repeated listening to large amounts. Even as a teenager learning the piano my teacher was impressed how easily I could get into the emotion of Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninov even if I didn't get all the notes right :shame: - whereas I could play Bach Preludes note perfect but it might aswell have been a machine playing. I simply didn't get it. And I still don't. It just doesn't move me at all.

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Oct 20, 2004
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  18. tones

    pe-zulu

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    Dear PeteH
    How hard have you tried?
     
    pe-zulu, Oct 20, 2004
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  19. tones

    pe-zulu

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    Dear Michael

    Well, whatever the example, Messian too- the expirience is similar.

    But it is dangerous to play Bach on piano , many will dislike it , because the piano is unsuited to Bach. You cannot express the true style of the music on piano. The piano is a romantic instrument, suited for romantic music with great gestures - Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninov to mention a few examples.
    Se the discussion otherwhere in this forum.
     
    pe-zulu, Oct 20, 2004
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  20. tones

    PeteH Natural Blue

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    I'm thinking here mainly of music I've had to learn for performance, as otherwise I'm not so likely to persevere with something I've decided I don't really get on with (unless I've a particular reason to believe that my initial impressions might be mistaken).
     
    PeteH, Oct 21, 2004
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