I’m sure everyone who has decided to purchase classical music recordings have faced this problem: you want to find the best recording of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, for example. Which one should you buy? Now, in researching questions like this, I’ve learned that there really is no such thing as the best recording. Or to be more precise, the best recording will depend on the individual, to a large degree. However, a part of me feels like classical music enthusiasts should be able to narrow down the choices and provide some helpful descriptions, allowing listeners to select the version that would best match their tastes and interests. I haven’t found any guides that do this, so if you know of any let me know. Really, though, I hope some of the more knowledgeable people can help address this question. What I have in mind is for people to talk about great pieces of music and suggest a few of the best recordings of that music. (I’m starting this thread because there’s a classical music record/cd sale that I might go to tomorrow.) If people want to ask for recommendations for recordings of specific pieces of music, that would be great as well.
I’m by no means an ‘expert’ in classical music and I can’t really explain why I prefer one piece over another (I think it’s even harder to articulate why I like a particular piece of music than why I like a certain film). All I can say is that one piece just seems ‘right’ to me. It seems mostly to be to do with the tempo more than anything for me. I’m a big fan of requiems, and my favourite is Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. I’ve listened to many versions of this piece and they’re actually all quite different, which I find very interesting. By far and away my preferred version though is the one conducted by Peter Schreier. It just seems ‘right’ to me. I’d thoroughly recommend it, though it may not strike you the same way. It seems to me that the (unfortunate from your point of view) method of selecting the ‘best’ recordings is largely a matter of trial and error, at least that’s the way it’s been for me.
I haven’t listened to anywhere near enough classical music to comment on this with any authority, but I wonder if maybe it’s similar to films in that a particular director (conductor) may do things the way you prefer, and so seeking their recordings of your favourite pieces may be a good place to start.
It seems to me that the (unfortunate from your point of view) method of selecting the ‘best’ recordings is largely a matter of trial and error, at least that’s the way it’s been for me.
Yeah, that is definitely unfortunate for me, and that’s what I’m hoping (against hope) to avoid.
My sense is that while a director may be really good, each conductor has strengths and weaknesses and these make them ideal for some pieces of music and less ideal for others. (This may also include their knowledge and comfort level with some pieces of music.) But your suggestion is worth keeping in my mind.
Here are the factors that people seem to consider when evaluating or selecting specific recordings:
1. Sound quality. Pretty self-explanatory.
2. Accuracy and fidelity to the score and intentions of the composer. This is a big issue for some classical enthusiasts, and it makes sense to me. Ideally, you want the conductor and musicians to play the music the way the composer intended. At the same time, I sense that these intentions are not also clear and without controversy—so that makes this makes the issue a bit more complex.
3. Personal taste and preferences. One may actually prefer a interpretation that differs from the original intentions of the composer. I’m not sure how a critic would be able to help listeners decide if the music would suit their tastes, though.
I think critics can address these three areas as a way to help listeners to decide which recordings to purchase.
I always used to look at Gramophone’s reviews; you can do a search at http://www.gramophone.net/ClassicReview/ and most recordings should pop up. They generally compare recordings of the same piece and give you a good idea of why they recommend one over another.
What I’ve generally found is that almost every recording is very good. They’re all by professional orchestras and conducted by professional conductors, and they record over and over until they get the piece to sound the way they want. Unless you’re sitting with the score and following every detail, you would have a hard time going wrong. The one thing you might look at is when the recording was made, since some of the older recordings will sound noticeably older, though even then a lot of them have been remastered.
If you can give some examples of what type of music you like, it would be easier to give recommendations.
First things first – I think Karajan’s Beethoven symphonies are the best (and most consistent) recordings I’ve heard. That being said, talking specifically about the 5th, I think I prefer the 3rd and 4th movements on the Joseph Krips & the London Symphony Orchestra recording, but I like the 1st movement better on the Karajan recording. Also, Zinman has recorded all of Beethoven’s symphonies at ridiculous speeds, and that makes the first movement of the 5th really interesting. All of Zinman’s are interesting as curiosities, but if I want to actually listen to Beethoven I’ll go to the Karajan.
Something that makes this a little more confusing is that Karajan did I think four separate recordings of all of Beethoven’s symphonies, and I’m not totally sure which one I have. I think the one I listen to is from 1968, or sometime in the 60’s, but I’m not totally sure.
Aside from Beethoven, though, I think most of the time any of the “big name” conductors (Karajan, Ormandy, Bernstein, etc… basically anyone you’ve heard of before and liked) will give a pretty solid performance. Other than that, I think it’s pretty helpful to read Amazon reviews. A lot of reviewers will give in-depth descriptions of the recording and conducting quality, and compare it to other recordings and conductors. And I think you just kind of have to read those and try to figure out which one you’ll like the best based on your existing preferences.
Are there any specific pieces / recordings you have in mind, Jazz?
What I have in mind is for people to talk about great pieces of music and suggest a few of the best recordings of that music.
There are really only a handful of composers whose work I like enough to compare multiple recordings, but here are some of my favorites:
Beethoven: Karajan’s Beethoven symphonies are the most consistent, I think. Other conductors may get certain movements or passages better, but Karajan has the best complete cycle for your money, IMO. Zinman is kind of a curiosity if you already love Beethoven, because he takes all the symphonies way too fast.
Shostakovich: Don’t listen to any of the symphonies recorded by Ladislav Slovak with the Czecho-Slovak Symphony Orchestra. I thought they were all just terrible.
For the 10th, my favorite recording is Yoel Levi with my hometown Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. It’s absolutely riveting, and I think it gets the tempi perfect. Not to fast, but not too slow, and it seems like it’s so easy to take the second movement too fast.
For the 8th, the recording by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Harmonic Orchestra. This one just blows all the other recordings I’ve heard totally out of the water, and may be my favorite recording of any classical work ever. It gets the manic intensity and breathless satire of the symphony absolutely perfectly.
For the 9th, I like the recording by Yakov Kriezberg and the Russian National Orchestra. That one gets the manic intensity and satire best for this symphony, I think. It also comes with the 5th symphony (actually the headline work for this disc), but to be honest, I don’t particularly care for the 5th.
Stravinsky: I don’t think you can really beat Robert Craft. Apparently he was a friend of Stravinsky, and his Rite of Spring is my favorite, although Boulez’ is a close second. I don’t much care for Ormandy’s recording of it. I haven’t compared all that much Stravinsky outside of the Rite of Spring, though.
Ok, so looking through my favorites, I think maybe I would say that the “big name” conductors will almost always give a pretty solid performance, but it’s not necessarily the best. I think they’re pretty consistent, but it looks like my favorite recordings come from some of the lesser-known conductors who might do really well with one work, but totally bomb another.
One other factor that I just thought of when choosing a recording is that I usually try to pick one that matches the nationality of the composer. I think that Russians (or at least Eastern Europeans) tend to conduct Russian works best, while Germans tend to conduct German works best. This could just be a subliminal bias of mine that I subconsciously force myself to see, though.
And one last factor I thought of is that, at least for more recent composers, it’s usually possible to find a conductor that was (or is) close to the composer. For example, Robert Craft was a close friend of Stravinsky, Maxim Shostakovich is Dimitri Shostakovich’s son, Michael Riesman works closely with Philip Glass, etc.
Hope this helps! Let us know what you decide to buy, if anything.
A few questions/ideas before someone with real expertise comes along to offer real, authoritative advice and direction:)
While i love Karajan’s 1968 cycle that has already been mentioned. It might be best to stay away from cycles. Most conducters tend to have an affinity for one or more pieces over others so you have little chance of finding “definitive” readings of any composers complete cyle. Mixing and matching might be better when first starting out.
Mixing and matching also might help prevent listening fatigue. A big juicy botxset of the complete whoever might tempt you to listen to them one after another and form quick, misguided opionons like you’re listening to pop music (not really a caveat for you, Jazz, since your very name implies musical patience, but in general this is a potential listening hazard.)
I don’t read scores so i have no idea what the correct tempo is for any given piece. If you’re like me, you will have to have a bit of trial and error. Personally, after much listening I’ve found that I prefer opposites in composer/interpreter. What I mean is, when music is alomst inherently romantic and leaning toward the sentimental ( I’m not using Romantic in it’s proper usage here) I prefer a tough, hard-hitting conductor/interpreter. guys like George Szell or Jascha Heifetz who were accused of having no humanity. When the music is inherently intelectual/mathematical, I prefer a more leisurely, rmoantic approach. As an example of the latter, I love Bartok’s String Quartets. The set produced by the Julliard Quartet is quite awesome but It sounds, technical, like they are trying to make the music perfect. The set by the Takacs quartet almost sounds like different music. It sounds more like the folk music Bartok was inspired by.
My favorite piece of music of all time remains the 5th movement from Bach’s 3rd Partita for solo violin, commonly known as the Chaconne. I first heard Hillary Hahn’s version which I believe runs for 17 minutes. My favorite version now is Nathan Milstein’s which is about 13 minutes. The difference is a lesson itself that i haven’t full learned. I also like Gidon Kremer’s strangely snarling version. This piece is heady and I just think that Hahn, by extending it so, loses the fiercely uplifting side of the piece in favor of the melancholy.
It’s hard to go completely wrong with a professional recording of this music by almost any acclaimed musician. Experts will argue differently, of course, and I bow to them, but at out level there is so much great stuff!
Some stuff just, for lack of a better term, swings for me. I have a collection of Carlos Kleiber’s DG recordings that has his Brahms 4th Symphony. I like many versions of this piece but this one swings and sways and just sounds crisp and hard-hitting without losing romance.
Some of the music, like Jazz, requires many listenings. i hated Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring when I first heard it and now i can’t get enough of it.
I too recommend reading the Amazon reviews. Some of them are very knowledgeable, even the ones who sound like assholes ( of course I’d say that:)) Also, reading about 1 piece and then, reading other listeners is less daunting than a big old Penguin or Grammophone guide.
I can’t help with sound quality except that i think that is rarely an issue except when dealing with bargain basement studios. This music is very cheaop these days anyway thanks to the degradation of all culture so try to avoid cheap stuff. Amazon reviews should help with that. As far as the age of the recording that doesn’t bother me as my eatrs naturally adjust to the hiss and crackle and focus on the performances. If you can take Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens then very little in the classical world will make your ears bleed.
Not to be a broker record but you can’t avoid trial and error and trial again, repeat. I was underwhelmed by the famous Furtwangler version of Beethoven 9 and only loved Karajan’s for years. Then I listened again and was overwhelmed by the beauty. I bought about 4 different versions of Tchaikovsky’s 5th and 6th symphonys before I found great versions by Abbado and Szell and still need to pick up a set by Mravinsky ( I think that is his name) There are still things that are growing on me. When i first listened to a Sibelius symphonic cycle from conductor John Barbirolli, I was bowled over by the 2nd symphony, which is generally considered somewhat trite. I wasn’t all that moved by his 5th, generally considered the best of his cycle. That impression is slowly reversing itself with more listening.
I assume you’re taling specficially about instrumental music? Well, if you decide to jump into Opera my first advice would be to not read the libretto on your first listen as this will only distract you from the beauty.
There’s a lot more to say but I’ll have to wait for another time since i should be working right now:)
I buy all my classical from the same store, and rely heavily on the advice of the staff.
Next I rely on musicians I know I like.
Couldn’t agree more with Mike that you can have many versions of the same piece.
Online sellers such as Amazon often supply excerpts you can listen to before buying. Youtube is good source for historical recordings. Check out your local library.
I’m just out of reception range for NPR, but there’s a classical music program I listen to when I get the chance, by this man who compares different interpretations of the same piece — very interesting.
I remember reading a few years ago a review of a piano piece that the reviewer had played for many years.
The review was of a recently discovered and remastered Gramophone of the original composer’s performance.
The reviewer was surprised at the many differences in tempo, phrasing etc.
And still preferred his own.
I generally prefer performances by smaller orchestras that attempt original instrumentation, and from companies and musicians like Christopher Hogwood that specialize in such.
L’Oiseau Lyre, Nonesuch, Hamonia Mundi…
“Youtube is good source for historical recordings.”
Absoulutely! It’s a great way to check out the older stuff and a great way to see live performances to get a better handle on how much of the deviation from the accepted interpretation is intentional.
“The review was of a recently discovered and remastered Gramophone of the original composer’s performance.
The reviewer was surprised at the many differences in tempo, phrasing etc.”
That’s another interesting discovery. The fact is that sometimes the original composer either conducting or performing their own piece may not be the best. In other words, except for historical value, it might not be all that great to hear Mozart play Mozart. Okay it would be great but maybe his interpretation wouldn’t be as exciting, without the novelty, as a great modern conductor/performer. I do love Stravinsky’s recordings of his Symphony in 3 Movements and Symphony in C, however, but I haven’t yet heard any other interpretations.
Not at the moment.
I would be interested in learning about any recordings that seem to have a wide consensus. For example, Karajan’s version of the Beethoven Symphonies seems to have broad consensus. (And, yes, he’s done it several times, but I recall that one of the versions had the greatest degree of consensus.) A better example might be Carlos Klieber’s version of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.. A lot people seem to think that’s the best version—at least that’s impression I got. I’d be interested in hearing about other recordings that have that degree of consensus.
Honestly, I wouldn’t know if the performance was faithful to the score or original intentions of the composer. (I’m not sure how much that would matter to me, too.), and I imagine that many of the recordings that exist are decent at the worst. If the compositions are any good, I imagine I could enjoy many of the existing recordings. The problem is, I don’t purchase many classical recordings, and if I do make a purchase, I’d like to buy the best version. See what I’m saying?
OK, I’m thinking of some music that I’d be interested in. I like what I’ve heard from Mahler. How about a recording for his 2nd and 5th Symphonies?
I’ve also been wanting to get a version of Dvorak’s 9th. I’ve been thinking about getting the version with Kubelik conducting.
Here’s a list of 100 “best” recordings from Norman Lebrecht. (Lebrecht’s write-up of each recording used by online, but I think it’s been taken down. Anyway, I found his write-ups convincing.) What do you guys think of the list? (Just to clarify, Lebrecht made his list not only on the quality of the performances, but also the significance of the recording—i.e., the impact the specific recording may have had on the larger culture.)
I’m a sucker for collecting second-hand vinyl records (from stores in person, not online), and so I discover much great classical music performers and composers in this way. It’s really the luck of the draw, but the hunt excites me, and I prefer doing this than reading reviews. One advantage of this approach is that they are extremely cheap; I often haggle big stacks for small dollars, sometimes averaging 20 cents per record. Plus, the performances are generally always of great quality, and it’s very refreshing to hear and compare multiple renditions of a masterwork such as Beethoven’s 5th.
I agree with Mike Spence that “cycles” and box-sets can be tricky, because if a conductor is great at performing early-period Beethoven it doesn’t mean that he’ll also be great at performing late-period Beethoven, and so on.
Jazz- You’ll never find consensus on any of this, but here goes:
The Kubelik version of Dvorak’s 9th is very good. If you can find it packaged with his 7th and 8th symphonies, it’s worth it.
For Mahler’s 5th, the Barbirolli is considered a classic, though the Solti is also considered very highly. The Mahler 2nd by Klemperer is very good. It’s hard to go wrong with Mahler recordings in my experience, unless you know a certain vocalist you like for the ones that have soloists or choruses. Try the Solti version of Mahler’s 1st as well. As I recall, Bernstein was big in reviving Mahler, so his recordings have a bit of historical significance.
If you’re interested in Mahler and Beethoven, you might try Bruckner’s symphonies as well. The 4th is probably his most popular, though I like the 7th a lot. The Jochum recordings are generally very highly thought of, though I personally like the Barenboim recordings.
For what it’s worth, the releases by the Naxos label are generally less expensive, and in many, though not all, cases they’re quite good. They just won’t be the historic recordings or from big name conductors or orchestras. Take a look at some of the reviews and see if they’re worth it.
I’ll second the Naxos recommendation! I haven’t really gotten into Mahler or Dvorak, though, so I can’t really compare recordings. I haven’t heard Klieber’s recording of Beethoven’s 5th, but I guess I need to check it out!
I do agree that most recordings that you can buy are at least decent. I’ve even had good luck with some bargain-basement sets! But there are a handful of really really awful performances out there. I had heard Slovak’s recording of Shostakovich’s 8th, and thought the whole symphony was just terrible. It wasn’t until I heard Petrenko’s previously-mentioned recording that the symphony became one of my absolute favorites. I don’t really know what the moral of that story is, though…
I agree that the composer’s interpretation of their own work isn’t always the best. I’ve listened to Rachmaninov’s recordings of some of his own works, and thought they were really boring. (Sidenote: I think Rachmaninov once heard Vladimir Horowitz play his 3rd Concerto and said it was so good that he gave up ever playing it himself! Come to think of it… that sounds like pretty good consensus to me – you should get that one, Jazz!)
Anyway, I really need to get back into listening to more pre-20th century music. For a long time I’ve just been listening to 20th century composers.
Now I’m trying to go through Amazon to find the “best” recording of Shostakovich’s symphony cycle, and it’s really difficult. Any recommendations from anyone?
I personally choose according to the cover art.
Though I’ve listened to music for a number of years, my ear isn’t anywhere near as refined, nor my knowledge anywhere near as adequate as the average triangle player in an average high school band. That being said, if one doesn’t play at least one instrument fair, can’t read music, hasn’t at least attended some courses in music harmony, instrumentation, composition, not to mention having learned the basics in audio recording at some time in their lives, and then specialized in listening to many, many, many versions of a specific piece of music, I don’t believe anyone can judge one against another with any accuracy—if then. Fortissimo opinion perhaps, but little more. The word “Best” which titles this thread rankles as a poor indicator of one’s abilities of appreciation, an adjective I doubt any musician would use when regarding the work of others. There are many adjectives which might fit better than best. It’s an overly simplified concept for an exceptionally vast and intricate art form which demands education, technique, intelligence, artistic thinking, historical knowledge, good to excellent instruments, willingness to fail, drive, energy, imagination, luck, coordination, the ability to focus each of the senses while playing, a full sense of confidence, intimate knowledge of the score and other master performer’s interpretations and many more qualities just to play anywhere in the world in the lowliest professional classical music position, not to mention the qualifications required of one who records as a soloist, or a conductor for a world class orchestra. What arrogance to imagine we will chose the “best” Beethoven symphony performance, or J.S. Bach violin parita. Better to merely listen to the music and learn without declaring ourselves public fools.
“1. Sound quality. Pretty self-explanatory.
3. Personal taste and preferences. One may actually prefer a interpretation that differs from the original intentions of the composer. I’m not sure how a critic would be able to help listeners decide if the music would suit their tastes, though."
Generally, I would agree with these are guidelines, though there are some instances where #2 may not be so important. I actually enjoy some of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach and some of the later albums of classical music played on synths, for example.
if one doesn’t play at least one instrument fair, can’t read music, hasn’t at least attended some courses in music harmony, instrumentation, composition…..
BOOOO!!! Music belongs to the people! :P
Can we just come up with a standard Mubi disclaimer to post along with any use of words like “best”, “greatest”, etc., so that we don’t have to debate the semantics of word choice every time?
I agree with much of Brotherdeacon’s post. I do think that some musicians might use “best” but that’s not really important.
DFFOO, I don’t think this is any kind of elitism. The courses he mentions don’t need to be actual university courses. One can get music textbooks and study at home IF one really wants to understand the music fully. I know everyone is sensitive to the idea that one opinion is better than another but at least let’s clarify that Brother isn’t talking about denying anyone enjoyment, his last sentence actually seems to celebrate that. He’s talking about a rush to the ranking stage that isn’t necessary.
Again, i know we all like raking stuff because it’s fun and it doesn’t hurt anyone, or at least it shouldn’t. Still, i think Jazz is pretty serious when he wants to learn about something and that Brother’s words offer a sobering reminder that, while we may never achieve a full understanding of these works, if we want to understand them even a little bit it will require qork and dedication. For what it’s worth, i haven’t really put the work in myself and everything I said earlier should be read as intuitive more than informative.
That being said, it’s easy to let this music just wash over you and lull you into a relaxed state or even to sleep. It’s more difficult to stay with each moment and allow the music to carry you without warning from one mood to another. To fully appreciate structural rhymings, musical humor and a million other nuances that this stuff offers requires work.
Outside of rigorous study, i also think it helps to think, after you listen of course, about why you respond to certain stuff. Are there parallels between the kinds of classical music you like and the kinds of Jazz, Rock, movies, novels, poems, etc., that you like? Those other things may carry too much baggage for you to easliy break away from your normal responses because of the reliance ( for the most part, excepting instrumental Jazz music) on words or other concrete signs and symbols but this classical music may be an oppotunity for us to explore moods and “ideas” that normally don’t appeal to us. I’m not necessarily saying that there’s anything wrong with just liking what you like but that this is an opportunity to have more to like. To clarify, I may be a normally bouncy Mozart/Haydn kind of guy and that may or may not bear out in my tastes in different mediums of expression. While I may never care for a Stravinsky/Schoenberg kind of movie or novel through those mediums, i may come to like this kind of music and that may be a doorway to an appreciation of other things. Yes, i realize there are a lot of huge differences in these kinds of things and that they don’t easily parralel each other but I still think that this music can be a great mind/soul opener.
@Mike and Brotherdeacon
Before I comment on your posts, no offense, but I think you guys are missing the point of the thread. I’m not willing to purchase a lot of classical recordings—I only would like to purchase a few. But there are thousands of recordings available. When you go to the classical section of a store, there can be a zillion choices. How the heck do you make a choice? If I want a recording of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, how should I decide which one to buy? Wouldn’t you want to buy the “best” one—i.e., the one a person should buy if they were only going to purchase one recording of that music.
Now, there are some recordings that are so widely praised that it seems like the “best” recording. I mentioned the Carlos Kleiber version of Beethoven’s 5th. I’ve seen many people say that’s a really excellent, if not the best, recording of that work. Is it the “best?” Who knows? But if you’re only going to get one recording of that work, this is not a bad way to make that decision, imo.
In jazz, there are recordings that have the same type of consensus. I don’t know a jazz fan that doesn’t highly respect Kind of Blue. If you’re only a casual jazz fan, and you want to only purchase a few recordings, I’d put KOB on the list (unless your explicit tastes ran counter to that style of jazz).
That’s what I’m looking for. If I’m only going to buy a few classical recordings or if I want a recording of a specific work, which ones should I get?
Okay, then I would suggest looking up the list of recordings that have been given Rosetta’s by the penguin guide. You can look it up through a search or through a website called
Presto Classical. The guide itself is pretty good for telling you the choices that are generally considered desert island recordings.
Goldberg variations – 1968(?) and 1981
Mass in B Minor – Gardiner
Cello Solo – Casals or Rostropovich
Violin Solo – Milstein
Well-Tempered Clavier – Richter
Piano Sonatas – Perahia
Late Symphonies – Bohm ( I prefer Szell right now)
Flute Concertos – Rampal
Symphonies Complete – Karajan
Symphonies 5 & 7 – Kleiber
Missa Solemnis – Klemperer
Symphony 4 – Kleiber
Symphonies Complete – Furtwangler
I’ll post more later!
Sorry, the Goldbergs are Glenn Gould.
Yeah, Presto Classical is a really useful site.
@Jazz,— I’d say you have excellent choices already on this thread. My opinion is that one doesn’t need the best of any music to begin an enjoyment of it. Though it’s a tad embarrassing, I think Mike Spence explained my two-cents better than I did. I agree with him. I also hope you begin to enjoy the music no matter what you purchase, it can become gloriously addictive. Trust a few friends more advanced than you, or like I’ve actually done, buy them for the pretty covers: either way, you can’t lose.
@DFFOO, I also believe “music belongs to the people,” so does science, painting, and good sex. Each takes a bit of self-eduction and experience, which only raises the appreciation higher. It’s not intended at all as an elitist qualifier.
^ Oh yeah, I was mostly joking when I said that. Although I am kind of opposed to the whole idea that you have to “study” music to truly enjoy or even “understand” it. But studying it can be pretty fun, although all of my “studying” has been mostly in the wikipedia and cd liner notes sense.
Also, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but this book is a pretty good reference, because it describes composers and individual works, and it gives you recommendations (and usually descriptions) of the “best” recordings. This book was good, too, although it contains a lot less information than the other one, but that also makes it a little less intimidating, so it’s pretty good if you’re trying to get into classical music.
And finally, it’s not completely relevant, but if you’re at all interested in 20th-Century music, The Rest is Noise is just an incredible book. It’s an entertaining read while still being amazingly informative.