Classical Recordings to Hear Before You Die

←back to the main page

Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Béla Bartók

Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Fritz Reiner, cond.)

Everyone should experience the thrill of hearing a hundred or more musicians racing toward and then landing on the same downbeat at the same millisecond, with nary a whisker out of place. When a great orchestra is in sync, there’s nothing quite like it in all of music—the mass of sound registers as something more than precision, a no-room-for-doubt chop that splits the air cleanly into “before” and “after.” The notes become secondary to the slashing exactitude of placement.

You don’t encounter this kind of precision every day. James Brown’s bands had it. The Count Basie Orchestra, too. Prince has it. Many orchestras don’t have it anymore—a mushy, behind-the-beat approach has taken root in the wind sections of some major symphonic groups. In the 1950s (and for a while after), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was among the most detail-oriented; its recordings under Fritz Reiner, including this pair of unconventional Bartók works, are shining examples of group togetherness on a grand scale.

With its angular lines and abrupt changes of direction, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is a showpiece for those dramatic downbeats, offering a series of challenges that can vex even the most precision-minded ensemble. The Chicago Symphony rises to the task, putting serious oomph into those attacks—particularly during the frenzied and thrilling final movement, when the piano becomes the knife edge of the percussion section.

The longer and somewhat more substantial Concerto for Orchestra is an odd beast. It doesn’t adhere to concerto form or the template for a symphony. Bartók envisioned it as a series of dialogs between various soloists and the larger group, and also between various sections. That’s how it starts, with a foreboding low-strings murmur and an answering theme played by winds and harp. Similar exchanges crop up throughout—the second movement, subtitled “The Game of Pairs,” is a capricious exercise in which the long and winding theme is carried by pairs of instruments that trade off at unexpected intervals. The third movement “Elegia,” which is organized around a flowing melody, contains some of the most beautiful hallucinations ever played by a symphony orchestra.

There, and, really, throughout the piece, Bartók expects his interpreters to animate the material with crisp execution, but not overshadow its intricate web of themes and variations with too many interpretive flourishes. Reiner, who was Hungarian and knew Bartók personally, does this instinctively. He brings each crescendo to a satisfying brink, and then leaves space so that the individual attacks register as distinct events. Approaching the score not as notes but a series of textural challenges, Reiner brings Bartók to life with the balance of force and finesse that only happens when a hundred musicians play as one.

GENRE: Classical.
KEY TRACKS: Music for Strings: Adagio. Concerto for Orchestra: “Elegia,” Finale.
ANOTHER INTERPRETATION: Chicago Symphony Orchestra (James Levine, cond.).

Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes

Erik Satie

Reinbert de Leeuw

The early piano works of Erik Satie (1866–1925) are the audio equivalent of slow-motion tai chi exercises. Melodies of arresting melancholy and overwhelming calm, they move as though suspended in molasses, with a deliberate grace. Very little ornamentation clutters up the foreground. Everything is measured: Each note is a halting step, the movement of a blind person navigating a strange house. The main ideas repeat at regular intervals, and for this reason, some consider Satie the father of New Age music. But when a master, such as the Amsterdam-born pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, digs into Satie, each new recurrence has its own temperament. The restatements come with distinct inflections—for Satie, a half-swallowed, barely glanced-at grace note can signify as much as a huge orchestral downbeat.

Satie was a strange figure, an absinthe alcoholic who lived in a single-room Paris apartment, spent most of his time alone, and died of cirrhosis of the liver. He attended Paris Conservatoire but rarely showed up for classes. His primary source of income was work as a cabaret pianist. He was “discovered” by philosopher Jean Cocteau in 1915, well after he’d composed what became his most famous works (the ones heard here). This disc opens with the meditative “Gnossiennes,” whose title was inspired by the Palace of Knossos in Crete. De Leeuw reduces the piece to its stark essence, following Satie’s winding path as it stretches across barlines. On that suite and a similar one in waltz meter, “Gymnopédies,” de Leeuw’s rounded, contemplative phrasing puts listeners right inside Satie’s mind-set, in a way that illuminates the composer’s choices on almost a note-by-note basis. Satie starts a piece intending to make one point and one point only. Each chord is aimed at that ultimate goal—a singularity of focus that gives Satie’s music the quality of an M. C. Escher maze: though these singleline themes seem nursery-rhyme simple at first, they exude a strange hypnotic resonance as they unfold—if you’ll let them, they’ll pull you away from everything you think you know about the world.

GENRE: Classical.
RELEASED: 2003, Universal. (Recorded in the 1970s.)
KEY TRACKS: “Gymnopédies,” “Gnossiennes,” “Ogives.”
OTHER INTERPRETATIONS: Pascal Rogé: 3 Gymnopédies and Other Works; Steve Hackett and John Hackett: Sketches of Satie.

The Late Symphonies

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Vienna Philharmonic (Karl Böhm, cond.)

It took Mozart practice to write meaningful works for symphony orchestra. The scholars list forty-one finished works, with some additional bits and sketches. Of those, some of the early ones are small, rather juvenile studies. Slightly later works adhere almost too closely to the early symphonic templates used by Haydn and others; they show Mozart as the good student, not yet the great composer.

Near the end of his life, though, Mozart found his orchestral “voice.” Beginning with No. 35 (the “Haffner,” which was written in 1782) and continuing with the three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41) he wrote in the summer of 1788, Mozart developed an authoritative style notable for symmetry and logic—each event, right down to the tympani in the slow introductory passages of No. 38, functions as part of the melodic framework.

These seven symphonies are high points in the history of music. They’re notable for their wildly exuberant dances, their floral colors, and the way Mozart links seemingly disconnected four-to-six-note motifs into larger thematic groups. Some of his writing feels densely packed: By the end of the first movement of No. 38, you feel as if you’ve lived through a year or two of musical experience. Striking in a different way is No. 40, in G minor, which displays a thicker sense of orchestration and stormier, tempestuous proto-Beethoven moods; some believe this hints at the type of music Mozart might have made had he lived longer.

As in all of his composition, Mozart is extremely attentive to form. The basic outline of a symphonic work hadn’t been codified all that long when Mozart began, and most of the late Mozart symphonies follow the accepted blueprint. The first “movement is written in “sonata allegro” form, with two themes of contrasting character going through elaborate exposition, then a development “jam” in the middle, then a recapitulation. The second is a reflective, moodier songlike piece; one deeply moving example happens in Symphony No. 38, when after nearly five minutes of a gossamer melody in major key, Mozart moves into minor, broods a bit, and then brings the theme back into the major-key sunlight. The third is usually a dance or a march; the fourth, a blazing finale. These final movements make lots of “That’s All, Folks” wrapping-up noises, and of them, No. 41 is beloved for its melodic gyrations, set at a torrid gallop.

These performances, led by the Austrian Karl Böhm, have all the colors of a big modern orchestra and the agility of the small ones prevalent in Mozart’s time. Lately much effort has been expended by music historians trying to re-create exactly the instruments, orchestral configurations, and tempi that Mozart and his peers would have used. Hearing these modern renditions, which have that aristocratic high-classical precision but also a brisk dancing-in-the-streets animation, you wonder if academics make too much of the niggling details. When executed with the instinctive feeling Böhm engenders throughout the rapt and responsive Vienna Philharmonic here, Mozart’s intentions seem not only honored, but furthered.

GENRE: Classical.
RELEASED: 1967, Deutsche Grammophon.
KEY TRACKS: Symphony No. 38: first and second movements. Symphony No. 41: second and fourth movements.
ANOTHER INTERPRETATION: Vienna Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein, cond.).

Music For 18 Musicians

Steve Reich

Ensemble Modern

The rhythm that underpins Music for 18 Musicians approximates the nervous second hand of a ticking clock. It’s played first by a constellation of mallet instruments, and once the relentlessly rigid ditditditdit pulse is established, it becomes the canvas on which the rest of this fifty-eight-minute experience unfolds. Its tightly wound rhythm evokes the relentless pace of modern urban life, and also suggests something of its inhabitants—people who might be victims of a dehumanizing mechanization, or those who valiantly struggle against it.

Reich helped pioneer minimalism, a compositional style dominated by repetitive phrases arranged in a kind of grid and offset by slow-to-congeal, often hidden, melodies. In minimalism, the harmonic ripples are few and far between. And they don’t always resemble those of most classical music—when chords change in Reich’s works, it feels like a massive ocean liner is slowly changing course. Originally a Cornell philosophy major, Reich became intrigued by tape manipulation while he was in college. His early works utilized multiple tape machines to explore the concept of “phasing,” in which sounds that start out together gradually drift out of sync, forming unexpected polyrhythms. Soon after, Reich began to work with live instruments. He studied drumming in Africa, wrote a piece for four hands clapping, and eventually developed the juxtaposed patterns and crystalline sonic scheme (mallets against flute and bass clarinet, vocal percussion against strings against piano) of Music for 18 Musicians, which premiered in 1976.

Sometimes built around a single instrument and sometimes made of interlocking parts, the entrancing rhythm of 18 Musicians is its primary attraction. But this pulse isn’t the only thing happening. On top of it, Reich places incongruous, oddly placid textures—sustained notes that hover in a glacial choreography of slow-motion collisions. These give the piece its remarkable contours, moments when the relentless computer-code staccato is transformed by slight but unmistakable traces of messy humanity.

Reich intended the piece for his own ensemble, and never wrote an official note-by-note score. A graduate student at Cornell assembled one, and it served as the “text” for this version, which is more fanciful than Reich’s initial ECM recording.

GENRE: Classical.
RELEASED: 1999, RCA Red Seal.
ANOTHER INTERPRETATION: The 1976 ECM recording, with Reich’s ensemble, was the first.