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Top 10 Tchaikovsky CDs and MP3s to Start Your Classical Music Collection

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) had a very tumultuous personal life. He was perpetually haunted by feelings of guilt about his homosexuality; wanting a settled domestic life, he undertook a brief and disastrous marriage to a young admirer. This tumult finds expression in his music, whose defining characteristcs are lush textures and a hypercharged emotionalism. His last works, most notably the Pathétique, are filled with a bottomless despair. Tchaikovsky enjoyed great popularity during his lifetime, and his works have always been audience favorites. Though Tchaikovsky was almost an exact contemporary of Brahms, the two composers' styles are markedly different. Brahms's music is known for its "braininess"; Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, wrote directly from the heart. This aspect makes Tchaikovsky the most instantly lovable of all the great composers.

Tchaikovsky came to composition late, beginning his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 22 after a brief attempt at a career in law. He worked with the great Russian composers of the time, including Anton Rubinstein and Mili Balakirev, who inspired him to undertake some overtly nationalistic compositions. As his style matured and became more personal and emotional, Tchaikovsky began to attract a following across Russia. One fan was the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, who corresponded prolifically with Tchaikovsky in his later years and also gave him financial support, but whom he never met in person. When Mme. von Meck withdrew her support in the 1890s Tchaikovsky plunged into depression, and he died in 1893, nine days after conducting the premiere of his greatest work, the Pathétique Symphony.

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1 "Pathétique" Symphony -- Mariss Jansons
So tragic, it must have been written by a Russian. Review...
2 Piano Concerto No. 1 -- Van Cliburn, Kiril Kondrashin
The incarnation of Romantic excess. Review...

3 Nutcracker Suite -- Mstislav Rostropovich
The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies, and much more. Review...

4 Symphony No. 5 -- Valery Gergiev
A wholly unified symphony. Review...

5 Violin Concerto -- Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta
Music that inspires "continuous bliss." Review...

6 Souvenir de Florence -- Raphael Ensemble
Six musicians on an Italian journey. Review...

7 Symphony No. 4 -- Mariss Jansons
There's no escaping Fate. Review...

8 1812 Overture -- Antál Dorati
The famous orchestral battle piece -- complete with real cannon. Review...

9 String Quartet No. 1 -- Emerson String Quartet
The captivating Andante cantabile -- and a whole lot more. Review...

10 Romeo and Juliet Overture -- Leonard Bernstein
A musical portrayal of Shakespeare's drama -- in 15 minutes. Review...
11 Symphony No. 1, "Winter Daydreams" -- Mariss Jansons
Sparkling snow and ice. Review...


Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique"
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, conductor

Tchaikovsky's sixth and final symphony is aptly named, for it is filled with pathos from beginning to end. The slow introduction lasts more than two minutes, and the tension slowly mounts until the orchestra bursts forth with a jarring brass fanfare. The turbulence rises and falls and eventually subsides; as the first movement draws to close one hears the sun coming out and a rainbow appearing. The second movement is a gentle waltz that is subtly disfigured by the fact that it is counted off in five rather than the traditional three beats. The finale, instead of being the usual rousing conclusion, is slow and quiet, trailing off so gradually into nothing that one almost can't tell when the music stops. Mariss Jansons's set of Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic is widely regarded as the best available on record, and this recording of the Pathétique shows the ensemble at its finest.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Van Cliburn, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, conductor

Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto is the incarnation of Romantic excess: a blockbuster orchestral work dripping with lyricism and requiring extreme virtuosity of both the orchestra and the soloist. The concerto features a majestic first movement, an intensely passionate second movement, and a fiery finale. This famous recording features the lanky Texan Van Cliburn, who in 1958 traveled to hostile Moscow at the height of the Cold War and came back an international hero as the Grand Prize winner of the First International Tchaikovsky Competition. Cliburn made this recording at Carnegie Hall in New York just a few months later, and it captures all of the drama and power that blew the socks off the Soviet judges.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Ballet Suites: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor

Tchaikovsky's ballets contain some of his most popular music; his Nutcracker in particular is a staple around the Christmas season. This CD features highlights from the composer's three greatest ballets. Particularly notable are the haunting oboe melody from the introduction of Swan Lake, which recurs throughout the work, and the "characteristic dances" (including the famous "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies" and "Trépak") from the Nutcracker. Mstislav Rostropovich shows in this recording that he is just as skilled with the conductor's baton as with the cellist's bow.

Similar works: Top 10 Orchestral
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor

Tchaikovsky's Fifth is the most unified of the composer's symphonies: the brooding melody announced in the introduction reappears in each successive movement. More upbeat than the depressing Sixth, the Fifth also demostrates Tchaikovsky's mastery of orchestration, particularly in the sweeping effects he achieves by setting different sections of the orchestra against each other. This recording shows why Valery Gergiev is today's premier interpreter of Russian orchestral music.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Itzhak Perlman, violin; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, conductor

Tchaikovsky composed his Violin Concerto during a stay in Switzerland in 1878. He wrote, "in this atmosphere composition loses all character of work and is a continual bliss." Indeed, one is enveloped in bliss listening to the concerto, from its mysterious opening tune to the fiery finale. The concerto is so difficult that its dedicatee Leopold Auer declared it unplayable. Itzhak Perlman must not find it too difficult, for he has made no fewer than four stellar recordings of the work. His live recording with Zubin Mehta is particularly special; it reaches a level of intensity and excitement not quite achieved in his studio recordings, bringing all listeners to the edge of their seats..

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
String Sextet in D major, Op. 70, "Souvenir de Florence"
Raphael Ensemble

Tchaikovsky wrote the string sextet "Souvenir de Florence" near the end of his life. As its name implies, it consists of musical images of Florence and the surrounding countryside. The decision to use six rather than the traditional four strings increased the range of textures and colors available to Tchaikovsky, and the composer took full advantage of these resources. The Raphael Ensemble give an authoritative performance of this graceful work.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, conductor

Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony has a secret program which he only revealed in his correspondence to his patron Nadezhda von Meck. The blaring horn call at the beginning represents Fate, which according to the composer, is "that inevitable force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized." This musical idea is interwoven throughout the movement, and Tchaikovsky acknowledged that he was using Beethoven's Fifth as a model for the idea. The second movement, a lyrical Andante, represents nostalgic yearning for the past. The third movement is unusual because the strings put down their bows and pluck their instruments, creating aural images of carnivals, street songs, and parades. The fourth movement depicts bucolic life in the country, but in the midst of it Fate rears its ugly head, proving that "it is inescapable and can never be overcome." Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic give a compelling performance that brings out both the symphony's drama and its tender and expressive moments.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Festival Overture Op. 49, "1812"
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, University of Minnesota Brass Band, Antál Dorati, conductor

Tchaikovsky's famous 1812 Overture commemorates the Russian defeat of Napoleon's armies in the winter of 1812. One of the great orchestral showpieces, it calls for extra brass, church bells, and even cannon shots. This legendary recording features fine playing by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, but the stars of the show are actual French cannons from West Point and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Carillon in New York, which create a sound so realistic you'll think that the French are invading your living room. The CD even includes a bonus track explaining how the recording was produced.

Similar works: None
String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11
Emerson String Quartet

Tchaikovsky wrote his first string quartet while he was still a student, and it was not published until 1940. The lyrical second movement is particularly appealing, and today it is often played in concert as the Andante cantabile for Cello and Strings. The other movements are equally appealing; the scherzo blazes with intensity, and the finale brings the work to a rousing conclusion. This fine performance comes paired with another Russian favorite, the Borodin Second Quartet, as well as Dvorák's popular "American" quartet.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets
Romeo and Juliet Overture
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture lauched him on the international scene when it was written in 1869. The composer revised the work in 1880, and it is in this form that it has become an orchestral favorite. The fifteen-minute work tells the story of Shakespeare's drama, with musical motifs representing the different characters and musical effects illustrating important scenes such as the ball, the fight, and the death scene. This CD features the overture as well as several other popular Tchaikovsky orchestral works.

Similar works: Top 10 Orchestral Works
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, "Winter Daydreams"
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, conductor

Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies have never been as popular as his last three, but the former are all sparkling orchestral works with much to recommend themselves. His first symphony, which depicts images of a wintry Russian landscape, may not be as polished as his later works, but it is as charming and tuneful as any. Mariss Jansons's performance brings to life the sparkle of the snow and ice.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies