As a beginner to classical music it's often difficult to know where to start and what to buy, so here is a brief guide to best classical music compositions and the best versions. "Best," in this case, means best for beginners - the most accessible and easy to appreciate.
What appears easiest for the beginner is music with a strong melody - something that can be hummed after listening only once, or at least after listening several times. Full orchestra works seem to be easier to appreciate than chamber music, and the Classical (1730-1820) and Romantic (1815-1910) periods are a bit more accessible than the Baroque (1600-1760) and Modern (from 1900) periods. Strictly speaking, Beethoven belongs to the Classical era, but his Third Symphony (Eroica) is often regarded as the start of the Romantic period and his subsequent music sounds more like Romantic music. Schubert was also composing at this transitional time, and from his Sixth Symphony onwards was writing Romantic music.
The list below is divided into Romantic, Classical and baroque periods and is top-heavy with Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms because they were the kings of melody. Each section starts with concertos (compositions for one or more soloist) because they are generally more interesting. DVDs are listed before CDs because a visual performance is closest to the experience of a live performance and brings the music to life in the way a CD can never do. However, there is far more music available on CD.
From the 1980s there was a trend towards playing Mozart and Beethoven in a more authentic style, and even with authentic instruments that sound quite different from today's instruments. However, the heavy Romantic style of earlier years seems to go down better with newcomers to classical music and is generally reflected in this list. Large orchestras with famous conductors are also favoured in the list, two of the most famous being the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. The former had a long relationship with the famous Herbert Von Karajan and the latter is renowned for its "sweet" sound, achieved by specially matched instruments, and an association with Karl Bohm and Mozart's music.
None of the DVDs and CDs below should disappoint a beginner. The trick to appreciating the music is simply to listen to it as much as possible until the melodies start registering. Some of the more complex Romantic pieces have abrupt changes in tempo or volume that make them more difficult to get into (eg. Brahms Piano Concerto 2 and Schumann's Symphony No. 4), and as a result are further down the list. But these are usually the most rewarding pieces in the end and well worth some extra listening.
Beethoven Violin Concerto
Along with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, Beethoven's Violin Concerto is one of the few pieces of classical music where every single note is a joy to listen to. Anne-Sophie Mutter's playing is superb here and she looks great. For a CD version, try this one with Itzhak Perlman and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim. It includes Beethoven's two beautiful romances for violin.
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
The Huberman Festival 2-disk DVD is one of the best buys available and one that cries out for a remastered version with DTS sound. It features a variety of violin works with orchestra played by world-famous soloists like Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Shlomo Mintz, accompanied by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. The stand-out performance is Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto performed by Shlomo Mintz - there's nothing like it on DVD. Filmed in the 1980s, the sound is only Dolby 2.0 and the picture is VHS quality, but the performances are superb. This one is a must-buy.
For a CD of the concerto, try Anne-Sofie Mutter with Karan
conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
Brahms Violin Concerto
Brahms' Violin Concerto is a passionate one and no one plays it better than Itzhak Perlman, accompanied here by Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Better still, this DVD features a his version of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, and it's as good as Anne-Sophie Mutter's.
For a CD of the concerto, try Anne-Sofie Mutter with Karan
conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and No. 6 (Pastorale)
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, with its four-note da-da-da-daa beginning, is perhaps the most well-known among the general public. It's an exciting symphony that deserves an exciting performance - which it gets from Karajan and the Berlin Symphonic. This is a version with a very animated orchestra that's thrilling to watch. The disk also features a visually unusual version of the beautiful 6th Symphony and the serene 4th Symphony. This cycle of Beethoven's symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon is available on three DVDs of three symphonies each or a box set of all nine symphonies. All of the symphonies should be in any music lover's collection.
For a CD box set of all nine symphonies at a reasonable price try
Karajan's 1963 cycle.
Brahms Symphony No. 4 and No. 3
All of Brahms' four symphonies are easy to appreciate. Buy a box set and try them in reverse order: 4, 3, 2 and 1. No. 4 and No. 3 contain some memorable melodies and, in fact, part of No. 4 was incorporated into a tune by the rock band Yes. The exceptional DVD recordings of the symphonies are by Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic and Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic. The Bernstein version features the incredibly sweet sound of the VPO and an explanatory introduction to each piece by the maestro himself, but Bernstein blows it by using a slow tempo at the climax of the last movement of No. 4. And, frankly, Berstein has some irritating mannerisms, such as jumping up and down and swinging his baton like a golf club. Karajan's version is a bit more exciting.
For a CD version of all four symphonies, try Karajan's with the BPO.
Dvorak Symphony No. 9 (New World)
With its "home on the range" type of melodies, Dvorak's Symphony No. 9
is something of an oddity in the classical repertoire, but it is full
of beautiful and memorable melodies. The
Europa Konzert from Palermo with Claudio Abbado conducting the
Berlin Philharmonic features a perfect performance of the piece as well
as Gil Shaham performing Brahms' Violin Concerto.
Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (Choral)
Beethoven's Symphony No 9 was the last the composer wrote and he
composed it while stone deaf. It is generally considered to be the
greatest symphony ever written. The most recognizable feature of the
work is that it incorporates a choral version of Schiiler's Ode to
Joy in the final movement. Although complex, it's not a difficult
one to appreciate, except perhaps for the first movement. Karajan and
the Berlin Philharmonic give an exciting performance on this
Deutche Grammophon DVD. The well-known 7th Symphony and the 8th
Symphony are also on the disk.
Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)
Beethoven's Eroica Symphony is the one that ushered in the Romantic
Period. Very different from the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, its
frequent tempo changes and use of dissonance make it less easy for the
beginner to appreciate. But it just takes time, and is well worth the
effort. Karajan's version on his own Telmondial label is more enjoyable
than the one on Deutche Grammophon and has better sound. Alternatively,
there is the amazing BBC movie Eroica, based on events
surrounding the symphony's first rehearsal and containing a full
performance in period costume (which can be played separately). The
performance features John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et
Romantique playing period instruments in authentic period style and is
the most moving piece of classical music ever filmed. Despite the small
orchestra and weird-sounding instruments, it's hard to go back to other
other versions after seeing this one.
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2
Piano Concerto No. 5 was his last and most Romantic piano concerto.
Here we have a powerful interpretation by Van Cliburn and the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. It's a recording
from the dawn of the stereo era but the sound is pretty good and there
is no other version quite like it. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2
is also on the disk. Very Russian, but very nice.
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto ranks in the top four violin concertos and Itzhak Perlman's raw passion suits it very well. Watch the master give a rivetting performance on the DVD and receive a thunderous ovation after the first movement.
Perlman's performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto with Eugene Ormandy is also available on CD.
Schubert Symphony No. 9 (Great)
Schubert was a contemporary and admirer of Beethoven, and only
his last two symphonies belong firmly in the Romantic Period. Symphony
No. 9 is a long work but very accessible. Unfortunately, this
DVD performance by Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic is only
available with Region 2 coding.
Schubert Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished)
Although Schubert didn't finish his Symphony No. 8 (among others),
its first two movements are extraordinary. Parts of the symphony could
almost be from the soundtrack of a movie like Lord of the Rings,
they conjure up such an other-worldly atmosphere. Carlos Kleiber's CD
with the Vienna Philharmonic sounds like no other.
Grieg Piano Concerto
Grieg was a composer from the late Romantic period. The dramatic beginning of his Piano Concerto is as
instantly recognizable as Tchaikovsky's and the whole work is very easy to like. This DVD also
includes a fine version of Chopin's 2nd Piano Concerto.
Chopin Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 2
Look no further than this CD for fine versions of Chopin's 1st and 2nd Piano Concertos. Eugene
Ormandy conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra with Emanual Ax as soloist. For a DVD
version of the 2nd concerto, try Arthur Rubenstein.
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4 (Italian)
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 (Scottish)
Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 may not be one of the greatest but it is a popular one and full of
melody. On this CD is is performed by Claudio Abbado and the London Symphonic and paired with the 3rd
Schumann Symphony 4
Schumann Piano Concerto
Schumann's Symphony No. 4 was his last and best although his 3rd (Rhenish) is perhaps better known. It takes time to fully appreciate the 4th Symphony, but it's well worth the effort. The same can be said for the composer's Piano Concerto, and both works are given an excellent treatment on this DVD by Riccardo Chailly conducting the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester with Martha Argerich as soloist.
For an excellent CD of all four concertos look no further than
George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Similarly, Van Cliburn's
version of the piano concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra is hard to beat. Both are from the early days of
stereo recording, though.
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2
Brahms Piano Concerto 2 is long and complex but ultimately one of the
greatest concertos ever written. On this DVD and CD we have a thrilling
version by Maurizio Pollini and the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by
Abbado. The DVD also features Beethoven's 3rd and 5th piano concertos
plus two Mozart concertos conducted by Karl Bohm.
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4
Beethoven's 4th piano concerto bears some resemblence to his 5th, although it doesn't quite have the latter's instant appeal. This DVD features an excellent version from pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. For an encore, Uchida plays the second movement of Mozart's charming Sonata in C, K. 545 (Sonata Semplice). The disk also contains Schubert's Rosamunde Overture and what is probably the only available performance of Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe on video.
For a slightly more exciting and muscular version of the 4th piano concerto, try the CD with
soloist Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Rossini Stabat Mater
Not everyone likes choral music, but Rossini's Stabat Mater sounds more like a passionate Romantic opera, featuring solos, duets and quartets in addition to ensemble singing. Carlo Giulini's version of the piece is absolute perfection.
Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 was the most beautiful ever written. Even Beethoven said he could never write anything like it, and it's almost guaranteed to give listeners goosebumps. This Europa Konzert from Lisbon DVD features a wonderful version of the concerto by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez, with soloist Maria Joao Pires.
The CD of Friedrich Gulda playing with the Vienna Philharmonic
conducted by Claudio Abbado is also a great version and it also
contains Mozart's excellent Concerto No. 21.
Mozart Symphony No. 40 and No. 41
Mozart's final six symphonies were his most mature, and 41, 40 and 38 are probably the best of the six. This DVD presents fine versions of Symphonies 40 ("Great 40") & 41 ("Jupiter") plus the beautiful Divertimento K.136 performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Muti.
On a double CD,
Symphonies 35-41 by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by
Karl Bohm. Bohm was known for the excellence of his Mozart
Mozart Symphony 38
Mozart Clarinet Concerto
A Mozart Gala from Prague DVD (Region 2) features an exciting performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto with soloist Sharon Kam, and Symphony No. 38 "Prague" performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. A real treat.
For a CD version of the
Clarinet Concerto try the version by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted
by Karl Bohm. Included is the Concerto for Flute, Harp & Orchestra, whose
slow movement was briefly featured in the film Amadeus.
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 and No. 24
Like his piano concertos 20 and 21, Mozart's concertos 23 and 24 are very accessible for the beginner and full of melody. This Mozart Great Piano Concertos Vol 2 DVD features both concertos 23 & 24 with soloists Zoltan Kocsis and Andre Previn performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn. Fine versions of two popular concertos.
On CD, try
Piano Concertos Nos. 8, 23 & 24 by the Berlin Philharmonic
conducted by Ferdinand Leitner, with soloist Wilhelm Kempff.
Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Strings
Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Wind Instruments
Sinfonia Concertante by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin and orchestra (K.364); the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and orchestra (K.297b). Very soulful.
Sinfonie Concertanti by the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Karl Bohm. The Sinfonia Concertante for violin and orchestra; the Sinfonia Concertante for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and orchestra. Lush and romantic.
Well known from the film, Amadeus, Mozart's Requiem is much easier to like than other religious music of the Classical period. There are heavy versions available, using huge orchestras and choirs, but this authentic performance from John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists works much better. The CD predates the DVD by several years but the performances are quite similar.
Mozart Violin Concertos No. 3 and No. 5
Violin Concertos 3 & 5 by the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Violin Concertos 1-5 and Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat
by the Vienna Philharmonic with Nicholas Harnoncourt conducting and
soloist Gidon Kremer. A 2-disk set featuring all five violin
concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin and
Mozart Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4
Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 4; Adagio in E by the Academy of St.
Martin-in-the-Fields (Sir Neville Marriner), Philharmonia Orchestra of
London (Riccardo Muti), with soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Not quite as
memorable as concertos 3 & 5 but the Adagio is beautiful.
Schubert Symphony No. 5
Schubert's Symphony No. 5 was the last of his classical symphonies. Here it is given an excellent
interpretation by Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic, and his paired with a beautiful version of
Beethoven's 6th (Pastorale) Symphony.
Mozart Haffner Serenade
Eine kleine Natchmusik/Serenata Notturna/Posthorn Serenade/Haffner
Serenade by the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic conducted
by Karl Bohm. Thomas Brandis' violin in the Haffner Serenade is a joy to
Mozart Symphony 25
Mozart Eine kleine Natchmusik
Symphonies (1,25,28,29,31,33,34,35,36,38,39,40,41) by the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony Orchestras conducted by Karl Bohm. A DVD box set of all the Mozart symphonies Bohm recorded on film, including Eine kleine Natchmusik and Symphony No. 25, which was used in the opening sequence of Amadeus.
Symphonien Nos. 25, 29 & 31 'Pariser' by the Berliner Philharmoniker
conducted by Karl Bohm. Symphony No. 25 was featured in Amadeus.
Mozart "Gran Partita" Serenade for 13 Winds
Serenade for 13 Winds "Gran Partita" by the Orchestra of St. Luke's conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. Featured in the "Voice of God" segment of Amadeus.
The most famous of Baroque concertos, Vivaldi's Four Seasons is given here a lush Romantic treatment by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Purists hate it, but it really is beautiful - a guilty pleasure.
The CD features a similar performance but with the Vienna
Bach Double Concerto
Bach Concerto for Oboe, Violin and Orchestra
Bach's Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra (Double Concerto), with Isaac Stern and Itzak Perlman, conducted by Zubin Mehta. Also the A minor and E major violin concertos, plus the beautiful Concerto for Violin & Oboe.
On DVD, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic give the Violin Concerto in E Major the Romantic treatment. Another guilty pleasure. Also on DVD, Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic perform the Concerto for Violin and Oboe.
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