Note: As most of you know, I am both a pianist and a tenor. In another life — meaning a decade ago — I was a bassoonist who wanted to have a career in orchestral music or, perhaps, as a music teacher. Regardless of my future, I’ve spent most of my life listening to and studying classical music. From time to time, I am asked to share my favorites or recommend a piece for friends. Here’s my list of ten favorites. With the exception of the first three, they are not in any particular order.
Mahler, Symphony 2, Resurrection.
I first heard the Resurrection Symphony when I was fourteen or fifteen, after buying the Zubin Mehta recording at Barnes & Noble in Lafayette, Indiana. Like the Victorian novel, Mahler believed that a symphony should encapsulate all of life, so this symphony has everything. It is a cosmic battle between good and evil with numerous moody upswings into ecstasy and downturns into despair. Naturally, it fit my teenage angst perfectly! The final thirty minutes includes an offstage brass brand, a choir, two female soloists and solos for the wind section that I’ve always imagined were the birds flying over hell. It has been my favorite since I heard it over ten years ago. Honorable Mentions: Symphonies 8 & 9 and pretty much everything else.
Wagner, Tristan Und Isolde.
I never really got into Wagner because I never really got into opera until about two years ago. My first Wagner experience was the Met’s “Live in HD” telecast of the Robert Lepage staging of Die Walkure (yup, that’s the “Killlll the Wabbbbitttt!” one). I was breathless at the end of the first act when Siegmond and Sieglinde declare their love for each other in one of those famous I-can-sing-louder-love-duets. Shortly afterwards, I picked up a DVD of Tristan Und Isolde and was similarly blown away. Sensual to the point of erotic, Wagner resolves dissonances into other dissonances. You think resolution will come in the second act when the title characters meet up for some adulterous you-know-what in a forest, but the climax crashes when they are caught in in flagrante delicto. Resolution finally happens — six hours later — during Isolde’s Liebestod: while holding the dead body of Tristan, she sings how their love will be united in death. It is the most dramatically beautiful music you’ll ever hear. Honorable Mentions: The Ring Cycle and pretty much everything else.
Richard Strauss, Vier letzte Lieder.
This is a set of four songs for a soprano and orchestra, written only a year before the Strauss’ death. Sure enough, each of the songs focus on death. I hadn’t heard them until a few years ago when our former Choirmaster/Organist shared them with me. While I love them all, my favorite is the third, Beim Schlafengehen. After a gorgeous solo violin passage, the soprano (I prefer Jessye Norman’s 1983 recording) sings, “And my unfettered soul / wishes to soar up freely / into night’s magic sphere / to live there deeply and thousandfold.” And, basically, I DIE. The fourth movement floats in ecstasy and resignation with shimmering, diaphanous chords. Honorable Mentions: Elecktra, Salome, the horn concerto and the tone poems.
Feldman, Rothko Chapel.
From 1971, this piece for soloists, choir, percussion, violist and cellist sounds exactly like what a Rothko painting looks like: sparse, quietly disturbing and extremely beautiful. I had first heard of this piece while reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise and since I was a big fan of Rothko’s paintings, I thought I should check it out. A few months later, I was reading A Canticle for Leibowitz and it provided the perfect soundtrack for that post-apocalyptic theological thriller. For much of the piece, it hovers primordially over nothingness with a repeated pattern of creepy note from the strings, followed by a creepy chord from the choir. The last two minutes end with a beautiful solo from the strings. Honorable Mentions: I don’t know anything else Feldman wrote. I’m kind of scared to listen to anything else.
Tchaikovsky, Symphony 5.
I’ve written of my love for this piece here. It was the first piece of classical music I remember hearing. Honorable Mentions: Symphonies 4 & 6, Eugene Onegin, Serenade for Strings and his Liturgical music.
Glass, The Trilogy.
This is living composer Philip Glass’ trilogy of non-opera operas: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhenatan. Be warned: they’re long, contemplative and don’t really have a plot. Einstein is full of late-seventies synthesizers, spoken text and solfege-ing singers at the speed of light. Satyagraha was recently performed on a Met telecast and it was very moving, especially the final non-aria aria (see above). It’s about Ghandi and the entire text comes from the Bhagavad Gita and is sung in Sanskrit. Akhenatan is probably the most acoustic and organic of the three. Half the fun of these three Operas is hearing Glass’ development as a composer. Honorable Mentions: The Qatsi Trilogy Films, the soundtrack to “The Hours” and various piano pieces like “Mad Rush”.
Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers.
This is an entire setting of Vespers for the feast of the Assumption, including Psalms and antiphons. What I particularly like about Monteverdi is his ability to set up resolutions and somehow make them utterly beautiful on either side of the resolution. Of course, because he is of that time, it is full of all those great Renaissance dance rhythms. The preces, “O God, make speed to save us”, is one of the most dramatic openings. One can imagine what a surprise it would have been to show up at St. Mark’s in Venice and hear it. The Mag is also resplendent. Honorable Mentions: “Beatus Vir”.
Rachmaninov, All-Night Vigil (Vespers).
I am convinced that this is what heaven sounds like. This music is the perfect complement to the Orthodox liturgy that inspired it. It is full of shadowy moments of quiet weeping, followed by full-chested proclamations of faith. I have prayed more — and perhaps cried more — with this music in the background than any other. Not to be missed are the subterranean basses and the contralto soloist. It the earthiest of all my favorites. Honorable Mentions: His Second and Third Piano Concerto and various piano pieces.
Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht.
Written for pairs of violins, violas and cellos, the music tells the story of a poem about a woman who shares with her lover that she is bearing another man’s child while they are walking in the woods. The music is so full of tension you could cut through it with a knife. Yet, the end — when the male lover offers his forgiveness — it turns into something quite beautiful. You’d never know this was written by the founder of atonal music! Honorable Mentions: Seriously, avoid Shoenberg unless you like headaches.
JS Bach, Ich Habe Genug.
Bach wrote several cantatas for everyday of the Church year. Ich Habe Genug is for Candlemas. I’ve written of my love for it before. Honorable Mentions: Are you kidding me? Pretty much everything else Bach ever wrote.