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Top 10 Baroque Era CDs and MP3s to Start Your Classical Music Collection

The Baroque era is the period of musical history from around 1600 to around 1750. This period acquired the name "Baroque" from nineteenth-century historians for its flamboyant, decorative, and expressionistic tendencies. These trademarks can be seen in the two most notable features of Baroque music: complex counterpoint (multiple melodic lines occurring simultaneously) and elaborate ornamentation (improvised "extra" notes that decorate the melody). The development of modern string instruments caused instrumental music to flourish; the most popular genres of instrumental music were the concerto grosso (one or more soloists playing with an orchestra) and the trio sonata (two melodic instruments and a keyboard instrument). However, vocal music held its own as well. Composers continued to write masses and other sacred music, and opera enjoyed immense popularity in Italy.

The two giants of Baroque music were Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Bach was a church composer from central Germany whose works were never very popular during his lifetime; it was only the "Bach revival" in the nineteenth century that brought him to prominence. Handel, on the other hand, was extremely well-traveled and well-known, and he was asked to compose for royal courts in Germany and England. Other Baroque notables include Antonio Vivaldi, who composed more than five hundred concertos; Dietrich Buxtehude, a master of the organ; Domenico Scarlatti, who brought the keyboard sonata to a new level of perfection; and Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was as famous as a theorist as he was as a composer.

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1 Bach: Brandenburg Concertos -- Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Baroque bravura. Review...

2 Handel: Messiah -- Trevor Pinnock
Far more than a Christmas carol. Review...

3 Vivaldi: The Four Seasons -- Anne-Sophie Mutter, Trondheim Soloists
The musical score to the film of Time. Review...

4 Bach: Goldberg Variations -- Glenn Gould
From a simple song to complex counterpoint. Review...

5 Handel: Water Music -- Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
How to get in the good graces of a king. Review...

6 Bach: B Minor Mass -- John Eliot Gardiner
The Baroque master's greatest choral work. Review...

7 Corelli: Concerti Grossi -- Nicholas McGegan
Before there was Vivaldi, there was Corelli. Review...

8 Handel: Coronation Anthems -- Sir David Willcocks
A naturalized subject celebrates his new king. Review...

9 Purcell: Dido and Aeneas -- Dame Janet Baker, Anthony Lewis
The undisputed masterpiece of Baroque opera. Review...

10 Vivaldi: Gloria -- Sir Neville Marriner
A stellar choral work from the master of the concerto. Review...

11 Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas -- Mikhail Pletnev
The third fruit of a great vintage year. Review...

12 Rameau: Pièces de clavecin en concerts -- Terakado, Uemura, Rousset
Chamber music from a late bloomer. Review...

13 Telemann: Tafelmusik -- Richard Edlinger
The most prolific composer ever. Review...


Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

There is no better introduction to the Baroque style than these six orchestral masterpieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. The works are in the style of the concerto grosso, which is an orchestral genre that features a dialogue between small groups of soloists and the full orchestra. Taken as a whole, the six concertos explore the diverse tonal possibilities of both solo instruments and orchestra. The first two concertos are festive, featuring horns and oboes, while the third is written for strings only and is more meditative. The fourth and fifth concertos feature virtuoso playing of the violin and harpsichord respectively, while the concluding sixth -- probably the most famous of the set -- has a jaunty atmosphere and emphasizes ensemble playing over solo work. The conductorless Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment gives a delightful performance on authentic Baroque instruments, and at less than $12 for two CDs this set is clearly a first choice.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Concertos
George Frideric Handel: Messiah
Arleen Auger, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo soprano; Howard Crook, tenor; Michael Chance, countertenor; John Tomlinson, bass baritone; English Concert Choir, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, conductor

Messiah is by far the most popular choral work ever written in English, and the "Hallelujah" chorus has become part of our cultural lexicon. The work is an oratorio, which is a dramatic work that is meant to be sung in concert rather than acted on stage. The texts are taken from both the Old and New Testaments, and are divided into three parts. The first part, especially popular around Christmastime, depicts the birth of Christ. The mood becomes more somber for the second part, which depicts the crucifixion, but as Christ rises from the cross the chorus comes together to sing "Hallelujah." The third part, depicting the resurrection, recalls the joy of the beginning, and the oratiorio concludes with a great choral "Amen." The English Concert's authentic Baroque instruments help give the ensemble a feeling of lightness during the outer parts and a piercing intensity in the middle.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Antonio Vivaldi: Violin Concertos Op. 8, Nos. 1-4, "The Four Seasons"
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Trondheim Soloists

This set of four concertos for violin and orchestra is a fine example of program music -- music designed to conjure specific images or tell a particular story. Each concerto is accompanied by a sonnet describing events of the given season, and Vivaldi's music presents musical depictions of the same events. The "Four Seasons" have been recorded and performed so often that they are in danger of being clichéd, but Anne-Sophie Mutter lays that danger to rest with her exciting performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Glenn Gould, piano

Legend has it that Bach wrote this set of variations for his student Goldberg to play for an insomniac Count. Scholarly research has shown that the legend is probably not true, and listening to the piece will affirm that conculsion -- it would be nearly impossible to fall asleep to it. Bach takes a simple aria and constructs a set of thirty variations on this theme, employing all of the keyboard styles of his time and ranging widely in mood before coming back to a restatement of the theme at the end. Glenn Gould, perhaps the most famous of all Bach interpreters, recorded the Goldbergs twice. The first recording, from 1955, is a virtuosic performance that revolutionized Bach keyboard playing, while the second, from 1981, is a far more introspective interpretation by an artist nearing the end of his life. This three-disc collection offers both recordings of the Goldbergs as well as a revealing inteview in which Gould discusses his performances, all for the cost of one full-priced CD.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Piano
George Frideric Handel: Water Music, Suites Nos. 1-3
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

At the precocious age of 25, Handel was appointed music director at the electoral court in Hanover, but he immediately took a long leave of absence in London. When his master was crowned King George I of England in 1712, Handel felt he had to save face with his boss. Legend has it that Handel regained King George's favor by writing this set of three instrumental suites to be played as a surprise for the king during a boating party on the Thames. The pieces were a success, and Handel enjoyed royal patronage for the rest of his long and prosperous career in London. The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra gives a sparkling performance of the Water Music as well as another work written for a king, the Royal Fireworks Music.

Similar works: Top 10 Orchestral
Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Bach assembled the B minor Mass near the end of his life from various pieces he had composed earlier in his career, adding new music when necessary. The result is a tour de force that sums up all of the composer's extensive knowledge of sacred choral music. Bach demonstrates his versatility by writing movements for one to four soloists as well as choruses in four, five, six, and even eight parts. Some of the move famous movements are the Crucifixus, which consists of a set of variations over a repeated bass line, and the final Dona nobis pacem, which starts quietly and builds into a grand fugue. John Eliot Gardiner's gripping performance on period instruments is widely hailed as the best interpretation available on record.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Choral
Arcangelo Corelli: Concerti Grossi, Op. 6
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, conductor

Before there was Vivaldi, there was Arcangelo Corelli. Corelli's Concerti Grossi, among the earliest works in the genre, contrast a small group of instruments (the "soli") against a larger orchestra (the "tutti"). Corelli composed twelve concerti, which he published in 1714. By far the most famous is No. 8, the "Christmas Concerto." Corelli wanted to use this concerto at the Christmas Mass, so he added a slow movement in a pastoral style to this concerto. The result is five of the most exquisite minutes of the High Baroque. This recording cements Nicholas McGegan's place among today's great Baroque interpreters.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
George Frideric Handel: Coronation Anthems
Choir of King's College, Cambridge; English Chamber Orchestra; Sir David Willcocks, conductor

One of the last acts the dying King George I performed in 1727 was to sign "An Act for the naturalizing of George Frideric Handel and others," and Handel's first commission after the Act was to write music for the coronation of the new king. By all accounts, the coronation itself was a disaster -- all of the ceremonial rituals took place out of order -- but the set of four anthems Handel wrote has become one of his best-loved works. Particularly notable is the opening anthem, "Zadok the Priest," with its hushed arpeggios in the strings and its magnificent "Alleluia." Sir David Willcocks's recording sounds truly royal, and this two-for-one set is a steal -- for the price of one CD you get nearly two and a half hours of great Handel choral works.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Janet Baker, alto (Dido); Raymond Herincx, bass (Aeneas); St. Anthony Singers, English Chamber Orchestra, Anthony Lewis, conductor

The first great opera written in English, Dido and Aeneas is also one of the shortest full operas ever written, running less than an hour.  A period piece of Greek mythology composed in the Baroque age, Purcell’s minimal libretto leaves much interpretation to each specific production, and performances can range from simple to grand. Adapted from part of Vergil’s story Aeneid, the opera follows the main character, Dido, the sullen queen of Carthage, through her love affair with Aeneas, a Trojan prince. Witches and spirits present complications for the lovers, and the antagonists ultimately lead Dido and Aeneas to destruction and despair, a tragic ending unusual for seventeenth-century opera. Particularly notable is Dido’s moving lament, "When I am laid in earth." Under the direction of Anthony Lewis, Dame Janet Baker sings the most beautiful Dido on record and Raymond Herincx brings the thinly drawn Aeneas to life. For a more authentic Baroque recording, it's hard to go wrong with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Antonio Vivaldi: Gloria in D major, RV 589
Jean Rigby, soprano; Barbara Hendricks, soprano; Ann Murray, alto; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Sier Neville Marriner, conductor

Antonio Vivaldi composed more than five hundred concertos during his lifetime, but this choral gem ranks with any instrumental piece he wrote. Since Vivaldi chose to set only one movement of the Mass, he was able to take his time with each stanza of the text. The music of each verse underscores the mood, from the jubilant "Gloria in excelsis deo" to the sorrowful "et in terra pax" to the stately concluding "cum sancto spiritu." This recording features the Gloria as well as another staple of the Baroque choral literature, Bach's Magnificat.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Domenico Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas
Mikhail Pletnev, piano

The year 1685 was one of the great vintages for composers: not only were Bach and Handel born that year, but in Italy the composer Alessandro Scarlatti fathered a son Domenico, who was to become the principal Italian keyboard composer of the eighteenth century. Domenico wrote 555 sonatas, one-movement works that are usually played on the harpsichord; these sonatas brought keyboard technique and expression to new heights. Many of Scarlatti's keyboard techniques foreshadowed those of Chopin and Liszt. Mikhail Pletnev brings a refreshingly modern approach to this selection of some thirty of Scarlatti's best sonatas on this super-bargain two-disc set.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Pièces de clavecin en concerts
Ryo Terakado, violin; Kaori Uemura, viola da gamba; Christophe Rousset, harpsichord

Jean-Philippe Rameau's career was unusual in that he first made a name for himself as a music theorist and only in his fifties became known as a composer. He is best known for his operas but also composed cantatas and keyboard works. This set of five pieces is entitled "keyboard works" but actually consists of trio sonatas, which are works featuring two melodic instruments and a keyboard instrument.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Georg Philipp Telemann: Tafelmusik
Alexander Jablokov, Quido Hölbling, Anna Hölbling, violin; Zdenek Tylsar, Bedrich Tylsar, horn, Capella Istrapolitana, Richard Edlinger, conductor

Georg Philipp Telemann was the most prolific composer ever, writing more than three thousand works in his lifetime. Telemann's tuneful melodies and simple accompaniments make his music immediately appealing, and when he lived he was more well-known than Bach. However, Telemann's music is not as substantial as that of Bach or Handel, and Telemann is best listened to as background music. The set of suites entitled "Table Music" was intended for just that purpose and is among his finest. This recording features two concertos from Tafelmusik (one for three violins, one for two horns) as well as a recorder concerto and a viola concerto.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos