And 10 Additional Classical Recordings that Almost Made the Top 50
1. J.S. Bach Cello Suites - Pablo Casals (Warner)
Building a Classical Music Collection is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Legendary Catalan and Puerto Rican cellist, composer, and conductor Pablo Casals recorded the complete cello suites by Bach between 1936 and 1939 in a recording for EMI (now Warner) that as a set has never been equaled. Casals, generally regarded as the greatest cellist ever, is credited with “rediscovering” the cello suites and for giving them the hearing they richly deserve. Bear in mind the recording is over 80 years old, so there are limitations. However, the sound is remarkable given its age, especially in the most recent remastering. The sets by Rostropovich, Ma, Starker, Fournier, Kirshbaum, Gerhardt, Isserlis, Clement, and Bylsma should all be heard. But, as Gramophone magazine says, “The Bach Suites are a monument to be studied, learned by heart, communed with, and made a part of one-self. At least this is the way they sound when Casals plays them, and his interpretation is a classic in the best sense of the word.”
2. Sir Edward Elgar Symphony no. 1 - BBC/Sir Adrian Boult (ica)
Completed in 1908, it is my opinion that Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 in A flat major is the greatest symphony composed in the 20th Century. It was enthusiastically received at its premiere, and the public response was unprecedented at the time. I also feel Elgar is very underrated in general as a composer (with the exception perhaps of in the U.K.), and should be heard more. If you are not familiar with this symphony, I urge you to hear it. English conductor Sir Adrian Boult who founded the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930, knew Elgar personally and became the composer’s greatest advocate. This recording, taken from a live 1976 Proms Festival recording at the Royal Albert Hall, has a sense of occasion and energy to it. It was issued on the ica label, paired with a very good Brahms’ 3rd Symphony. Boult was 87 years old, but had such a great feeling for Elgar, and indeed all English music, and here Boult brings out the nobility, nostalgia, and sentiment that are the hallmarks of Elgar’s music. A too swift approach renders these elements too superficial, while taking it too slow makes it too sentimental and flaccid. Boult brings out the drama expertly, sharper passages are brought out ideally and the more lyrical ones maintain enough momentum. This is a life-affirming recording I return to often. Other Elgar 1 recordings worth exploring include Sir John Barbirolli’s final recording with the Halle Orchestra, Barenboim’s second recording from 2016 on Decca with the Staatskapelle Berlin, Sir Colin Davis with the Staatskapelle Dresden from 1997 on the Profil label, Jeffrey Tate with the London Symphony Orchestra from 1991 on EMI/Warner, and Andre Previn with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 on Philips/Universal.
3. Benjamin Britten War Requiem - Vishnevskaya/Pears/LSO/Britten (Decca/Universal)
English composer Benjamin Britten, a pacifist and conscientious objector, wrote his War Requiem in 1961-1962 as a commission to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in Coventry, England in 1962. The previous Coventry Cathedral, a gothic 14th century church named St. Michael’s, which had become a Cathedral in 1918, was destroyed in World War II, leaving just a shell.
Britten used this opportunity to use the traditional Latin setting of a Requiem Mass interspersed with the extra-liturgical poetry written by English soldier Wilfred Owen. Owen was tragically killed in action in November 1918 while commanding a rifle company only one week before the World War I armistice. Britten wrote the piece on a large-scale, with two orchestras (regular orchestra and chamber orchestra), choir, soprano, tenor, and baritone. Britten’s intention was to use soloists Galina Vishnevskaya (Russia), tenor Peter Pear (England), and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Germany) at the premiere to show a spirit of unity. The Soviet authorities would not allow Vishnevskaya to travel to the U.K. for the premiere, although they did allow her later to travel to London to appear on this recording.
Britten requested no applause at the first performance in Coventry. The work was immediately hailed as a triumph by critics and audiences alike and is certainly one of the greatest works of the 20th century, even if its anti-war message has not been practiced in our world. This is not music for easy listening or for background music. The motifs and themes used by Britten are serious, and much of the work is rather dark and dissonant. Britten dedicated the work to some personal friends of his that were killed in World War II. This recording was made soon after the premiere, and almost immediately sold over 200,000 copies, unheard-of for a classical record. It remains a legendary recording due to its authenticity, but also due to the excellent performances given by the soloists, orchestra, and choir.
4. The Three Tenors in Concert - Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Mehta Live in Rome (Decca/Universal)
Once the best-selling classical album of all-time, the original Three Tenors album began a trend of record companies bringing together all sorts of top singers for similar awalbums, and the original Three Tenors themselves did two follow up concerts in Paris and Los Angeles. The follow up concerts were not as successful as the original, but fans just couldn’t get enough. In this original concert, broadcast live on PBS in America and also around the world on the eve of the World Cup final in 1990, tenors Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras joined with conductor Zubin Mehta and orchestras from operas houses in Rome and Florence to sing famous tenor arias from various operas in a round-robin format. The concert was held at the amphitheater located at the ruins of the Baths of the Caracalla in Rome. The singers used microphones and were recorded by Decca. (SIDE NOTE: I attended an opera there once, Verdi’s Aida, a few years after this concert, and the natural acoustics were truly awful and it was difficult to hear anything. More recently, concerts were stopped at the Caracalla due to the sound vibrations causing crumble and decay of the ruins).
The concert captured Pavarotti and Domingo still in brilliant voice, even if Carreras’ voice was only a fraction of his prime due to his recent bout with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (doctors gave him a 1 in 10 chance of survival, but he overcame the disease). Highlights include Pavarotti’s most famous rendition of Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, with the closing repetition of “Vincero! Vincero! Vincero!” (I will win) becoming symbolic of the 1990 World Cup, and Pavarotti holds the last note for what seems like an eternity. Arias that became favorites of mine due to this concert include Carreras singing Il Lamento di Federico by Cilea, Domingo singing Dein ist mein ganzes Herz by Lehar, Pavarotti singing Italian folk songs Rondine al nido by De Crescenzo and Torna a Sorriento by de Curtis, and Carreras singing the Spanish folk song Granada. The encore numbers are not nearly as successful or enjoyable, and indeed descend into schlock territory. My firm opinion is that opera singers generally should avoid singing popular songs or broadway tunes (sorry, but I have my opinion). Fortunately O Sole Mio and a reprise of Nessun Dorma finish the concert (although having all three tenors joining in at the end was a gimmick that did not work entirely).
5. George Szell conducts Haydn Symphonies (Sony)
George Szell was one of the greatest conductors of all-time, and his years with the Cleveland Orchestra resulted in many exceptional recordings. His readings of Dvorak, Beethoven, and Mozart in particular are fresh and direct. Szell was also known as a stern taskmaster with his orchestras, and the discipline he instilled led to crisp, detailed recordings. You may think the joyful exuberance often found in Haydn’s symphonies would not be a good fit for someone so stern and rigid. But you would be wrong. Indeed, as evidenced by this splendid Haydn symphony collection, Szell was an extraordinary Haydn conductor. These are sparkling, buoyant, joyful performances which are in some ways the opposite of Szell’s image. The two small nits I have to pick here are that Szell almost never took the repeats in his performances and recordings of Mozart and Haydn, which is a personal annoyance of mine. The other regret is that Szell never recorded all of the “Paris” symphonies (nos. 82-87) and all of the “London” symphonies (nos. 93-104). These latter 19 symphonies comprise the best of Haydn’s symphonies, and I wish Szell had recorded all of them. This set includes symphonies 88, 92-99, and 104. Regardless of those small issues, this is a set to cherish and to play on repeat. Amazing.
6. Richard Strauss Complete Orchestral Works - Dresden/Rudolf Kempe (Warner)
Other conductors have certainly made their mark with recordings of Richard Strauss: Karajan, Haitink, Solti, Ormandy, Szell, Reiner, and Previn to name a handful. But for sheer consistency, quality of sound, and an inside understanding of Strauss’ music (many of Strauss’ works had their premieres with this Dresden orchestra, and Kempe was a Dresden native), this collection is far and away the best. It includes all of Strauss’ major works for orchestra, including very good to outstanding performances of favorites such as Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels, Ein Heldenleben, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, Don Quixote, Eine Alpensinfonie, Metamorphosen, and Der Rosenkavalier Suite. Lesser known works such as Sinfonia Domestica, Burleske, Le Bourgeouis Gentilhomme, Aus Italien, and especially the concertos, are given in my opinion their definitive performances here. There are certainly other wonderful, or more sumptuous sounding, recordings of many of these works elsewhere. However, for the consistent performance quality, the sound quality, and its comprehensive coverage of Strauss’ major works, this set cannot be beat.
7. Leon Fleisher Plays Beethoven and Brahms (Sony)
American pianist Leon Fleisher (who passed away in 2020 at age 92) recorded these legendary accounts of all five Beethoven piano concertos and both of the Brahms piano concertos in the late 1950s, all made with The Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell and recorded by CBS/Columbia. On performance grounds, these performances of the Beethoven concertos have never been surpassed in my view, and the Brahms concertos are among the finest available. The orchestral accompaniment also is crisp, warm, detailed, and shows all the hallmarks of Szell’s direction. Highlights include magisterial accounts of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 1, 4, and 5 especially, and a particularly moving account of Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1, with the most lovely slow movement that never fails to bring me to tears (a movement that has personal sentimental value for me). The only drawback is that despite several remasterings there is a rather persistent background hiss, but eventually the ear does adjust. A bonus is a beguiling account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25.
Rivals are many for the concertos, and for the Beethoven I especially enjoy complete sets by Alfred Brendel (with Levine in Chicago), Claudio Arrau, Murray Perahia, Barenboim (with Klemperer), Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Stephen Kovacevich, Jan Lisiecki, Leif Ove Andsnes, Friedrich Gulda, and Wilhelm Backhaus. For the Brahms, I also enjoy Emil Gilels, Helene Grimaud, Nelson Freire, Claudio Arrau (with Giulini), and Nicholas Angelich. But if you only need one set of all these concertos, the Fleisher set is the one to have.
8. Mahler Symphony no. 9 - Vienna Philharmonic/Bruno Walter (EMI Warner/Dutton)
Bruno Walter, a close friend of Gustav Mahler, conducted the premiere of Mahler’s expansive and emotionally wrenching Symphony no. 9, the final symphony Mahler completed, in June 1912 with the Vienna Philharmonic. Some 16 years later, Bruno returned to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in this live recording from 1938 released on various labels over the years, the first complete recording of Mahler’s 9th. Some of the more recent incarnations boast improved sound. Beyond the historical significance of Walter conducting the first recording of the 9th, the recording itself is quite good for the time, in very listenable sound. The performance is on fire, with Walter taking faster speeds than later became customary, and a world apart from Walter’s later recording in 1961.
Furthermore, eight weeks after this recording, Austria was annexed by Hitler’s Third Reich. What must have been on the minds of those in attendance at this concert? Walter himself fled westward after this performance, and no doubt many Jewish members of the orchestra were removed in the months and years following. This performance has the feeling of a true occasion, a window into an era fraught with anxiety. When the record producer played the recording for Walter a few weeks later in Paris, Walter reportedly had tears in his eyes. The version on EMI is taken from the original master tapes, while other versions come from other sources, but some have resulted in improved sound. It is worth exploring the Dutton release, which is also quite good.
Leonard Bernstein said about Mahler’s 9th: “It is terrifying, and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate ... in ceasing, we lose it all. But in Mahler’s ceasing, we have gained everything.” What Walter brings to the work in this recording is a consistent sense of line, almost as though it is being sung. There is also a sense of nostalgia, in a work where Mahler depicts not death itself, but the process of dying (although he had a heart condition, at the time of its composition Mahler did not know he would not live to see the premiere). Walter and the Viennese really dig into the second movement, creating a rustic and almost harsh environment, without softening the edges. In the third movement, we become aware of some imprecision in the playing, but we must bear in mind this is probably one of the first times they played it, and also the 9th is a grueling work to perform. The final movement again is played quicker than later custom would dictate, but it is consistent with Walter’s overall approach and is no less valid than more ponderous or melodramatic approaches taken by Bernstein, Karajan, and Horenstein. If you love Mahler, as I do, you cannot be without this recording.
9. Hildegard von Bingen A Feather on the Breath of God - Gothic Voices/Christopher Page (Hyperion)
German Benedictine Abbess Saint Hildegard (b. 1098 - d. 1179), also known as the “Sibyl of the Rhine”, and also known as Hildegard von Bingen, was multi-talented. Along with composing music, she was a writer, philosopher, mystic, and medical practitioner during the middle ages. For our purposes here, she is one of the most well-known composers of polyphony in history, and now the most recorded of all polyphony composers. Polyphony is the style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other. This style is ancient, having started in the middle ages.
A Feather on the Breath of God was released in 1982, and it caused an absolute sensation when released. What followed could be called a von Bingen “craze” as the composer’s popularity soared. The album is performed simply, as the Gothic Voices layer voices on top of one another, but that simplicity of format reveals a beauty of sound that is transcendent and timeless. This album was the first exposure for most of us to soprano Emma Kirkby, and wow what an impression she makes. Kirkby’s ethereal voice cuts through the fog with grace, rising above this weary world. There is a calmness and serenity in this performance that is almost meditative and centering, at least for me. The poetic imagery and the extraordinary texts from von Bingen are also memorable and captivating. The sound is clear and resonant, but not overly antiseptic, which fortunately results in a true to life ambience. This album sparked many more recordings of von Bingen’s compositions, including several from the excellent group Sequentia. They are also worth seeking out. But for me this is the original and remains the finest of von Bingen recordings.
10. James Horner - Titanic Original Soundtrack Anniversary Edition - Horner/I Salonisti (Sony)
The original soundtrack to the 1997 movie Titanic is the best selling classical album of all-time, and of course is one of the best loved movie soundtracks of all-time as well. Are we stretching the definition of “classical” here? Perhaps, but in this case, I believe it is warranted. Beyond the collaboration that became an enormous worldwide pop hit for Celine Dion, the song My Heart Will Go On, the rest of the music by Horner is memorable and moving. Purists may argue that the use of electronic instruments and other effects puts this in the realm of pop music or merely movie soundtracks. But there really is some wonderful stuff here, most of it classical in nature. The reason the soundtrack is so successful is the music carries us along on the emotional roller-coaster that the movie tries to capture. The sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy on so many levels, and the music follows the triumphant moments as well as the brutal and tragic ones.
But the real bonus here, in the Anniversary Edition, is the inclusion of 15 tracks played by the chamber music ensemble I Salonisti, the same group that performed in the actual movie. While mostly short “salon” music pieces (light music), there are a few more serious tracks, along with heart-felt pieces such as Nearer My God To Thee and Song of Autumn. This is historically accurate in that we know many of the actual pieces the musicians played on the Titanic, and several survivors that remember the musicians continued playing even as the boat was going down. Sadly all of them perished in the sinking.
I hope you have enjoyed this list of some additional recordings I believe are worth hearing. Of course, there are always more and I could continue listing great recordings in the hundreds. But with the next installment, the focus will move to specific classical works and choosing the best recordings of each in order to build a great collection. See you then!
Bernstein, Leonard. The Unanswered Question.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1992: p411.
Decca Records Classical (2010-06-10), The Three Tenors - Nessun Dorma, retrieved 2019-07-15.
Duggan, Tony. Musicweb International. 2001. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2001/aug01/Mahler9Walter.htm
Evans, Peter "Britten since the War Requiem" in Listener, 28 May 1964: cited in Cooke, p.79 (1996).
Fairman, Richard. "Battle of Britten". Ft.com. May 2012. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022.
Moss, Stephen. "Golden cords". March 2000.ewdz The Guardian. UK.
Reed, Philip. "The War Requiem in Progress" in Britten: War Requiem by Mervyn Cooke (1996).
Salter, Lionel. Bach Cello Suites Review. https://www.gramophone.co.uk/review/bach-cello-suites-12
"Women of Historic Note". Washington Post, By Gayle Worl 9 March 1997.
1962 Coventry Cathedral Festival and Michael Foster: "The Idea Was Good – the story of Britten's War Requiem" pub. Coventry Cathedral Books 2012.
Britten-Pears Foundation War Requiem web site. Retrieved 14 November 2014. Further details of the war service of Burney, Gill and Halliday are available on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
Building a Classical Music Collection is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.