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Posted by gustav at 10:01PM, Saturday, December 02nd, 2000

The Wide World of Fat Chicks in Armor and Horns

A friend recently asked for some suggestions for getting into the whole classical music thang via recordings. I wrote up my reply in an email, and Rocky suggested it would make a good article, so here it is -- my suggestions for starting to listen to classical.

As classical music goes, what you will enjoy listening to, shockingly enough, will depend on what you like. There's about as much variability in taste and style here as in pop or jazz or anything else, so the best I can do is offer recommendations that tend to be fairly universal, and important in that they influenced (and continue to influence) the composition of other music. Personally, I'm no big fan of Mascagni, or most Italian opera for that matter, so I'm not going to recommend a lot of that right off the bat. Your responses may vary.

I also tend to think that jumping into the deep end, without having a fairly broad exposure to some more accessible stuff to provide context, can be a mistake. So, as much as I love the music, I wouldn't start off with Mahler or Bruckner or Wagner, if you're coming to this world with no previous exposure. Your ears will be overwhelmed. I think it's better to start with some texturally and orchestrally lighter music with clearer structure, counterpoint, and harmony, in order to start building this contextual framework of experience.

Beethoven piano sonatas are all good, but it's not worth getting a recording by a non-phenomenal pianist. Alfred Brendel, maybe Serkin, Kempff, Argerich, and to a lesser degree, Ashkenazy (more of a Chopin guy) are all good. Glenn Gould is interesting -- particularly for his emphasis on counterpoint -- but probably not a great first Beethoven recording. I can't stand Barenboim's playing. Rubinstein wouldn't be my first choice for Beethoven though he too is phenomenal on Chopin. I really wouldn't get anyone I haven't mentioned for the Beethoven sonatas.

All the Beethoven keyboard music is pretty accessible. It's also worth getting familiar with his Symphonies, since they've influenced pretty much all orchestra music since, and are referred to, directly or not, in a vast number of subsequent pieces. Everyone knows bits of almost all of them, but they're rewarding to hear in detail, over and over. Karajan and Bernstein made good recordings of them, and the Toscanini ones, although they're older and in mono, are great.

Other good stuff to start with includes, of course, Bach. The Glenn Gould recordings of any of his keyboard music are great. Getting familiar with three- and four-voice Bach-style counterpoint opens a lot of doors to other classical, just like the Beethoven symphonies do. The cantatas and the solo cello and violin music (Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin -- here the Perlman recording is actually quite good) are some more great Bach.

I'd also recommend some of the minimalists -- Steve Reich primarily, but Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and John Adams, as well -- for a completely different perspective. A lot of their early tape and electronic stuff is fascinating. Listen to Reich's "Drumming" and maybe "Come Out." It's good to hear a little Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland for the 20th Century "American" sound. Appalachian Spring is horribly popular but not undeservedly so, along with other Copland ballets like Rodeo. The Bernstein symphonies are decent. I like the Serenade/Symposium after Plato, Candide (the Bernstein recording with Christa Ludwig as the old one-buttocked woman is one of my favorite opera/operetta recordings), and his Clarinet Sonata.

Something that makes a big difference to whether listeners find music accessible on first hearing is the melody. If something has lots of lyrical melodies that you're going to walk away singing after hearing it for the first time, chances are you'll come back and listen again. A lot of minimalist and other 20th Century music doesn't have this, yet remains accessible, but I think it really helps for people just getting their ears adjusted to this whole space. That's another reason 18th and early 19th Century music can be good to cut your teeth on. It's also a reason that vocal music can be great for beginners. For melodic 20th Century instrumental stuff, I'd get the Elgar Cello Concerto (get the Du Pre/Barbirolli recording) and the Barber Violin Concerto (the Shaham recording is decent).

As for vocal music, that's a whole nother can of worms. There are lots of good recordings of German songs by Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven, Wolf, etc. Get good performances by people like Christa Ludwig, Peter Schreier, Arleen Auger, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Swcharzkopf, Walter Berry, Fritz Wunderlich, Gottlob Frick, James King... If the German stuff is too heavy, the Italians always wear their hearts on their sleeves, and have catchy melodies in their arias. There's lots of decent Italian opera (even if I don't like most of it). Pavarotti and Domingo are actually okay; stay away from Bocelli at any cost; I like Callas in some stuff, but she can be an acquired taste when it comes to vocal color, timing, diction, and even pitch and vibrato; Tebaldi's good; di Stefano, Corelli, Caballe, Tito Gobbi, Alfredo Kraus, and Luciana Popp are all big names. There are lots of great recordings of Puccini operas -- Tosca, Butterfly, and Turandot all have some good arias that you'd probably recognize. Verdi's La Traviata is a classic, as is Carmen by Bizet. Handel has a lot of interesting, musically lighter operas. Sutherland and Marilyn Horne are good for that stuff, as is Cecilia Bartoli.

Whatever the music, it's always worth it to find a good performance. The singers and instrumentalists I've listed usually put out good stuff. There are a bunch of artists who I really can't stand for one reason or another (Barenboim, Yo Yo Ma...), and some whose output varies from great to awful (Perlman...). Conductors with generally good recordings are Sir Georg Solti, Bruno Walter, Szell, and Furtwaengler. Kennedy, Oistrakh, Anne Sophie Mutter, and Gil Shaham are good violinists. Birgit Nillson and Kirsten Flagstad are a couple more good singers.

Like I said, I like a lot of heavy-handed stuff by late Romantic Germans like Mahler and Bruckner and Wagner, and even the Second Viennese School, but that tends to turn off people whose ears aren't attuned to classical music (I don't mean that in a patronizing way at all. It took years for me to be able to appreciate Mahler.) If you start out with lighter music -- Bach and Beethoven, Handel, Vivaldi -- you'll gradually start to yearn for more gutsy stuff. Above all, give it time. Much of this is immensely rich music that rewards repeated listening, and listening to a lot of different recordings and live performances, much more than a lot of pop music can. But don't expect to be in love after the first ten minutes.

End of tome.

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