home | site map | about us | contact us
Getting Started
Top 10 CDs
Top 20 CDs
Top 10 by Composer
Top 10 by Era
Top 10 by Genre
Top 10 Books
CD Buying Guide

Top 10 Schubert CDs and MP3s for your Classical Music Collection

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was the first true Romantic composer. His works are characterized by an unprecedented depth and intensity of emotion. He had a gift for lyrical melody, which shows most clearly in his more than six hundred songs. He forged new trails in compositional technique as well, experimenting with form and harmonic relations. These characteristics show most clearly in his final works, including the late chamber works, the "Unfinished" and "Great" Symphonies, and the final three Piano Sonatas.

Schubert lived in Vienna, the capital of the European musical world, his entire life. Born to a schoolmaster, he had little formal training in music theory. After following his father's profession for three years, in 1817 he decided to go it alone as a freelance composer. He was successful enough to maintain a living, but he was shy and unskilled in the art of self-promotion, and thus never achieved anything close to the fame that posterity would award him. In 1822 he contracted syphilis, which in those days was a death sentence. This condition had if anything a positive effect on his output: from 1824 to 1828 he enjoyed one of the most remarkable bursts of creative genius ever witnessed, composing his greatest masterpieces of chamber, orchestral, and vocal music. He died in 1828 still largely unknown to the public, and it is only through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann that his works achieved widespread recognition.

Back to Composers Index

1 "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet -- Amadeus String Quartet
A dying man's outpouring of grief. Review...

2 Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished" -- Carlos Kleiber
The torso of a symphonic giant. Review...

3 String Quintet -- Emerson String Quartet, Mstislav Rostropovich
Chamber music on a symphonic scale. Review...

4 Impromptus for Piano -- Murray Perahia
Exquisite piano miniatures. Review...

5 Winterreise -- Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten
A bleak song cycle reminiscing of lost love. Review...

6 Symphony No. 9, "The Great" -- Sir Georg Solti
A symphony with "life in every fiber." Review...

7 String Quartet No. 15 -- Italian Quartet
Schubert's last quartet, brimming with intensity. Review...
8 Piano Trios -- Beaux Arts Trio
Bridging the gap from Beethoven to Brahms. Review...

9 Piano Sonata D. 960 -- Alfred Brendel
Continuing the Viennese piano tradition. Review...

10 Trout Quintet -- Clifford Curzon, Amadeus Quartet
A popular favorite written at the age of 22. Review...

11 Songs -- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gerald Moore
A collection of Schubert's best. Review...

12 Octet for Winds and Strings -- Vienna Octet
Viennese exuberance. Review...


String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, "Death and the Maiden"
Amadeus String Quartet

In the last few years before he died of syphilis at the age of 31, Franz Schubert experienced one of the most prolific periods of creative genius humankind has ever seen. This quartet is one of the fruits of that period. In the first movement, Schubert develops a simple descending-scale motif into an intense outpouring of grief. The quartet takes its name from the theme of the second movement, a song which Schubert wrote when he was twenty. In its quartet incarnation, Schubert takes the simple melody through a whole range of moods, building to an impassioned frenzy and then relaxing. The Amadeus Quartet offer a convincing performance at a reasonable price.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, "Unfinished"
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber, conductor

Franz Schubert completed only the first two movements of his eighth symphony, but what a pair of movements they are! The first packs in more tragedy and pathos than most composers could work into a full symphony, while the second, in a sunny major key, provides a welcome catharsis. Carlos Keliber coaxes the utmost lyricism from the Vienna Philharmonic in this emotionally charged recording. For those performing a more leisurely approach, Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic is just as recommendable.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
String Quintet in C major, D. 956
Emerson String Quartet, Mstislav Rostropovich, cello

Unlike his late string quartets, which depict a uniformly bleak landscape, Schubert's great string quintet celebrates life to the fullest. The addition of the extra cello to the usual string quartet allows Schubert to give the cello some of the most exquisite melodic lines ever written. The quintet is full of captivating melodies and surprising harmonic twists, and even though it is nearly an hour long it still feels too short. Mstislav Rostropovich and the Emerson String Quartet give an intensely passionate performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Impromptus for Piano, Op. 90, Op. 142
Murray Perahia, piano

Schubert's Impromptus are among the greatest short piano pieces ever written. Each explores a different mood, from the march-like first impromptu to the subdued and lyrical third to the jaunty final piece, and together they form an encyclopedia of nineteenth-century piano style. Murray Perahia gives the definitive performance of these eight pieces, combining both Classical clarity and Romantic passion.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Winterreise, D. 911
Peter Pears, tenor; Benjamin Britten, piano

This cycle, whose title translates as "Winter's Journey," consists of twenty-four songs for solo voice with piano accompaniment. During the journey, which begins and ends in winter, the singer sings nostalgically of a failed summer romance. Written just months before the composer's death, the cycle expresses an irreparably bleak outlook on life. The mood is captured perfectly by the great British tenor Peter Pears, who is accompanied on the piano by his lifelong partner, composer Benjamin Britten.

Similar works: Top 10 Song

Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944, "The Great"

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, conductor

For more than a decade after his death, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony was thought to be his last. However, Schubert had written another symphony, which was given a private performance in 1826 and then forgotten. The score languished on a dusty bookshelf until the composer Robert Schumann discovered it and passed it on to Felix Mendelssohn, who gave its first public performance in 1839. The symphony takes its nickname as much from the majesty of its music as from its "heavenly length," in the words of Schumann: it is the longest of Schubert's symphonies, and it is longer than all of Beethoven's symphonies except the ninth. According to Schumann, “Here, beside sheer musical mastery of the technique of composition is life in every fiber, color in the finest shadings, meaning everywhere, the acutest etching of detail, and all flooded with a Romanticism." Sir Georg Solti gives a compelling reading of this expansive work.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies

String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D. 887

Quartetto Italiano

Though he only has four instruments to work with instead of a whole orchestra, Schubert's last quartet is just as long and intense as his last symphony. The crescendo at the beginning is a microcosm of the piece as a whole; the intensity builds throughout the piece and comes to a climax after nearly fifty minutes of music. The Quartetto Italiano's classic recording comes with splendid performances of Schubert's other three late quartets, including the great unfinished "Quartettsatz."

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets

Piano Trios: No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 99; No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 100
Beaux Arts Trio

These two gems are among the multitude of great chamber works that Schubert produced in the last few years of his life. While both are expansive pieces that demand a great deal of the players, their characters differ considerably. The first trio is sunny and exuberant, while the second takes a more solemn and stately approach. The trios represent a bridge between Classical and Romantic styles of chamber music, and the Beaux Arts Trio, who have recorded numerous trios from all eras, are perfectly equipped to help us hear this historical context.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music

Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960
Alfred Brendel, Piano

While Beethoven composed masterful piano sonatas throughout his career, Schubert only came into his own in this genre towards the end of his tragically short life. The Sonata D. 960, Schubert's last, is the pinnacle of the composer's large-scale keyboard works. As usual it is filled with warm, lyrical melody, but there is always a sense of trouble brewing under the surface. Alfred Brendel is one of today's greatest Schubert interpreters, and this two-for-one set combines performances of Schubert's three final sonatas.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667, "Trout"
Norbert Brainin, violin; Peter Schidlof, viola; Martin Lovett, cello; J. Edward Merret, double bass; Clifford Curzon, piano

Schubert's "Trout" quintet was written in 1819, when the composer was twenty-two. The quintet takes its name from its fourth movement, which is a set of variations on Schubert's song "Die Forelle," or "The Trout," written two years earlier. While it doesn't have the depth of emotion of Schubert's later chamber works, its naïve cheerfulness has made it one of Schubert's most popular compositions. Clifford Curzon and members of the Amadeus Quartet give a graceful and spontaneous performance of the Trout, and this two-for-one set also includes a spectacular performance of Johannes Brahms's momentous Piano Quintet.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Gerald Moore, piano

Schubert composed nearly a thousand works during his thirty-one years, and nearly six hundred of them were songs. This bargain-priced CD presents a sampling of the most famous, sung by the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Highlights include "Der Erlkönig" ("The Elven King") which protrays a father riding furiously on horseback to save his sick child from the Elven King, a symbol of death, and "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden") which is more famous as the theme of the second movement of Schubert's fourteenth string quartet.

Similar works: Top 10 Song
Octet for Winds and Strings in F major, D. 803
Vienna Octet

Judging by the joy and exuberance that fills this chamber work, one would hardly guess that when Schubert wrote it he had already contracted the disease that would end his life. The instrumentation is unique for Schubert: he combines the elegance of the string quintet with the rich sonorities of the clarinet, horn, and basson. Throw in some lyrical melodies and harmonic surprises, and the result is a Romantic twist on the late eighteenth-century tradition of the serenade. The Vienna Octet, hailing from Schubert's hometown, execute the music effortlessly and have fun while they're at it.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music