My Life an Album a Year: Classical

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Here's the last of my retrospective articles inspired by my 50th birthday. It was the hardest one to write, because it involved the toughest choices in the music I love most. This is nothing like my Top 111 Composers list, where I'm relatively objective and tried to cover a representative sampling of major works; here I'm totally subjective. These are favorite recordings, and/or milestones in my listening life. So there are two sets of Chopin’s Nocturnes, and no Beethoven symphonies, and no Mozart at all. Don’t read anything into that. Going year by year, that's just how it worked out. Sviatoslav Richter is my favorite pianist, but he's not here (though if I'd been born earlier, his Prague-recorded "Appassionata" Sonata or his 1960 Carnegie Hall concert would've been included). 

1961 J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232
Maria Stader/Hertha Topper/Ernst Haefliger/Kieth Engen/Dietrich Fischer‑Dieskau/Munich Bach Choir & Orchestra/Karl Richter (Archiv)

Again I will state the obvious: in 1961 I wasn't listening to this album. I didn't really pay attention to LPs until around age 8 or 9. But Bach is an apt choice to kick off this list, because as a young pianist and choirboy, I deeply loved his music. This wasn't my first Bach record; that was a two-LP collection called The Greatest Hits Album: Bach, a 1972 Christmas present, featuring such stalwarts of the Columbia catalog as Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra (lots of arrangements), organist E. Power Biggs, Moog synthesizer whiz Walter Carlos, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Glenn Gould; I still have it but haven't listened to it in decades. Nor was this my first Bach Mass recording; that was a budget-priced version led, if memory serves, by Hermann Scherchen. But Karl Richter seemed the epitome of Bach scholarship at the time, and when I could finally afford his Mass (and Christmas Oratorio, and St. Matthew Passion), I was thrilled. Now, of course, his claims on authentic performance might be snorted at, but this still sounds good. (On iTunes, this is part of a large compilation entitled Bach: Sacred Masterpieces.)

For years this was THE version of the Brahms Horn trio, or at least it's the only one I remember hearing on WNCN, the excellent classical radio station (sad to say, defunct since 1993), which I listened to religiously. It was in a collection of recordings made at the Marlboro Festival, a collection my parents owned, to my delight (when I heard Mendelssohn's Octet on WNCN and immediately fell in love with it, it too was in that collection). Now the Brahms is on CD paired with another fine Marlboro Brahms performance (from 1967). There have been more polished recordings in the five decades since, but French horn player Myron Bloom, violinist Michael Tree, and pianist Rudolf Serkin play with infectious vigor, and this is still my favorite.

One of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, from one of its great pacifists. As a chorister I was eventually lucky enough to sing in a performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; nothing helps one appreciate a piece of music like learning to perform it. I wrote about the piece, this recording, and others at greater length.

Karajan recorded this more than once, and people put down his interpretation and this performance, but this LP was in my parents' collection and was my introduction to this great work. Yeah, I eventually figured out that there are better versions and Herbie's sounds more Germanic than Bohemian, but it was nonetheless a fine way to fall in love with this piece of music. And it was a DG LP pressed in the U.S. by RCA, so it sounds great on the vinyl, which I still have.

1965 Handel: The Messiah
Royal Choral Society; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Malcolm Sargent (Chesky)

To tell the truth, I didn't have this entire performance in my youth, just a one-LP selection of the most famous arias and choruses. The complete version in my house was the massive Goosens rearrangement (with its steroidal orchestration) that Sir Thomas Beecham recorded for RCA in his third go at The Messiah. Sargent's rendition is more sedate, and nowadays I’d go for Mackerras or Colin Davis, both of which are a lot more vigorous. But the mighty majesty of Sargent's massive choruses retains a certain appeal and a lot of nostalgia for me.

1966 J.S. Bach: Cantatas BWV 80, 140
Agnes Giebel, Hertha Topper, Peter Schreier, Theo Adam; Thomanerchor Leipzig; Mitglieder des Gewandhaus‑orchesters Leipzig; Erhard Mauersberger (Archiv)

Acquired by me in April 1973: I penned that info in ink on the back (back then, my anal-compulsive urge for documentation was stronger than the desire to have a collector-condition cover; I also added up the track times and wrote that on the back, and inside I added his birth and death years under Bach's name, although they already had that on the back cover). It was a bit of an anal package even before I got my hands on it: Archiv had some historical matrix planned, and this LP fit into "IX. Research Period/The Works of Johann Sebastian Bach" -- he was so big a figure in music, he was his own period, apparently -- and under that, "Series: Cantatas."  And all of this is in both German and English, and the back cover detailed the text source in the Berlin library, first print edition, performing edition and its editor, and the manufacturer and year of each instrument, and much more. Now, this might not seem all that amazing nowadays, but back then you were lucky if you even got a copyright date on the back of an LP (this one proudly proclaimed its actual recording dates, and you hardly ever saw that back then). But how about the performances? Pretty good, actually. Oh, the stiffly aspirated vocal lines on eighth-note runs fell out of fashion long ago, and good riddance; though they sing well, the heavy tones of the soprano and alto soloists would never be tolerated anymore, also to the better. But the warmth of the strings' vibrato is sinfully sweet, but I like sweets; the small size of the instrumental forces is around authentic levels; the boy sopranos and altos in the choir (resident at Bach's own church) very echt-Baroque. Even Mauersberger's tempos, which in longer works could drag things out tediously (though I didn't know that at the time -- maybe nobody but Nikolaus Harnoncourt did it differently back then), are perhaps a tad earnest at times, but not downright stodgy. I just listened again and still enjoyed it.

1967 Ivan Moravec Plays Debussy: Clair de Lune: Children's Corner Suite; Clair de lune; 5 Preludes (Connoisseur Society)

I'm going by copyright date on this early venture into used-LP buying (I think I found it at a yard sale, though I'd also discovered the wonders to be had at the local Salvation Army store). Boy did I hit the jackpot. First of all, the ability of this label to record and reproduce piano sound was unsurpassed, and they used high-quality vinyl. But most of all: Ivan Moravec in some of his greatest performances. Such finely gradated touch and dynamics! Such magical pianissimos! Such a seamless legato! Such organic interpretations! The five Preludes on side 1sustain their individual moods without the least hint of artificial imposition. I have yet to hear any other version of "The Engulfed Cathedral" that so perfectly embodies Debussy's ideal of the hammerless piano. And he plays the "hit," "Clair de lune," as if this little gem of a tone poem were freshly premiered: not as a warhorse, not as a cloying requirement to sell the album, not to distinguish himself from those who played it before him, but with unselfconscious naturalness and ideal proportions. On CD, all of this LP was on an out-of-print VAI two-CD Moravec set called French Keyboard Masterpieces; alas, I've never found it. The Preludes are also on the Supraphon CD Ivan Moravec Plays French Music.

1968 Philadelphia/Cleveland/Chicago Brass Ensembles: The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli (Columbia Masterworks)

My dad and I both played the trombone, so this was a big hit in our house. The brass sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra collaborated on two- and three-choir music by Giovanni Gabrieli, and it may not have been an authentic sound but we didn't care.Columbia wasn't much into the growing "early music" movement, and when they did pay attention to the Renaissance and Baroque eras, it was with recordings on modern instruments, such as this one and Glenn Gould's piano Bach. But when the results were this good, it was hard to complain. Nineteen of the best brass players in the country ('The Virtuoso Brass of Three Great Orchestras," the cover crowed) convened to play the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, drawn from 1597 and 1608 publications and written for St. Mark's in Venice, where the musicians would be split into two or three groups in opposing locations in the building that gave a physical component to the interplay among the groups.

1969 Franck: #Symphony in D minor; *#Symphonic Variations; @Prelude, Choral & Fugue
*Philippe Entremont, piano; #French National Radio Orchestra/Jean Martinon, cond.; @Pascal Devoyon, piano (Erato Bonsai, #1969, @1984, CD)

I certainly wasn't listening to this in 1969 or any time close. My Franck appreciation was slow to develop. I only picked up this album in the mid-'90s when, after realizing I’d been wrong about Mahler and Bruckner, I systematically went through the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and the Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide each year, and the composer overviews in the bi-monthly American Record Guide, to figure out what CDs I should get to fill in the gaps in my collection/knowledge (focusing on symphonies). Containing as it does not only the two 1969 orchestral recordings led by that paragon of French conducting, Jean Martinon, but also the 1984 piano recording added for good CD value, this provided one-stop shopping for Franck. His is the least sensual French music, though it does have a sort of stern intellectual passion at times; I'm still, 15-odd years later, coming to grips with its attractions and repulsions. (And the use of typographic symbols in the heading to sort out who plays what gives you a taste of how I catalog my collection, for the sake of which taste I also left in all the information instead of extracting instrumentation, dates, and format.)

Perhaps not quite the best Scriabin sonatas collection at this point, but it was for many years, even decades. More to the point, this was my first, and a fine, fine introduction to that strange man's strange music. From Chopinesque beginnings he went on to create a new and revolutionary harmonic system leaning more heavily on fourths than thirds. Laredo may not have the jaw-drop-inducing chops of Marc Andre-Hamelin in this repertoire, or the demonic intensity of Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Horowitz (neither of whom recorded complete sonata sets), but she handles the technical challenges with aplomb and her quiet intensity is often chilling. And beyond the 10 sonatas, she also includes a well-chosen assortment of other works, leaning towards the middle and late works, notably the unearthly "Vers la flamme," Op. 72. She's made considerable study of Scriabin's oeuvre and offers subtle insights and well-proportioned readings of these hothouse flowers, readings that still hold up quite well.

Jochum started recording this set in '71, continuing the next year and finishing in '73. This set is an ideal compromise between the older and heavier style of Haydn playing and the leaner, lighter period performance style that later came into vogue. The LPO plays with grace and elegance, mostly holding its power in reserve, but providing welcome heft in weightier movements (such as in No. 94, the "Surprise" Symphony). Everybody needs a healthy amount of Haydn, and these, his most mature symphonies, make an eloquent case for his witty genius. There's so much greatness in his music, even though it’s "easy."