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Top 10 Early Modern CDs and MP3s to Start Your Classical Music Collection

The period from around 1880 to around 1920 saw the beginnings of the fragmentation that would be the defining characteristic of classical music in the twentieth century. Some composers, such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, persisted in writing in the Romantic style. Their music features more and more daring harmonies and ever thicker washes of sound, but the underlying structure of their music is similar to that of Beethoven's. Others, most, notably Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in France, chose to use the orchestra or piano in more experimental ways, creating sound images that exist purely for their own beauty and do not necessarily fit into a predefined structure such as a sonata or a symphony.

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1 Mahler: Symphony No. 1, "Titan" -- Leonard Bernstein
The last of the great symphonists. Review...

2 Debussy, Ravel: String Quartets -- Belcea String Quartet
Ethereal harmony. Review...

3 Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 3 -- Vladimir Ashkenazy
The most difficult piano concerto ever? Review...

4 Sibelius: Violin Concerto -- Anne-Sophie Mutter, André Previn
Jewel of the North. Review...

5 Puccini: La Bohème -- Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Herbert von Karajan
The timeless classic of true love that inspired a Broadway sensation. Review...

6 Debussy: Préludes -- Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Painting pictures with the piano. Review...

7 Elgar: "Enigma" Variations -- Sir Adrian Boult
A musical mystery from an enigmatic Englishman. Review...

8 Janácek: String Quartets -- Lindsay String Quartet
Chamber music with a Czech flavor. Review...

9 Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde -- Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak, Bruno Walter
A celebration of tragedy. Review...

10 Ravel: Bolero; Debussy: La Mer -- Herbert von Karajan
Illustrating an orchestral landscape. Review...

11 Scriabin: Piano Works -- Vladimir Horowitz
Masterful miniatures from a Romantic Russian. Review...

12 Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks -- George Szell
That trickster is always at it. Review...

13 Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 -- Sir Colin Davis
An emotional crescendo. Review...

14 Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht -- Hollywood String Quartet
The founder of Modernism looks back to Brahms. Review...


Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan"
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Whereas Beethoven's nine symphonies paved the way for the Romantic era, Gustav Mahler's nine symphonies brought the era to a close. Mahler's symphonies are very long (several do not fit on a single CD) and complex. Mahler's great innovation was in his orchestration: he combined the various instrumental colors in daring and imaginative ways. Song was also important to Mahler, and the First Symphony contains themes from a set of songs he had composed a few years earlier.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G major; Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F major
Belcea String Quartet

While Arnold Schoenberg and his followers in Germany were getting all the attention for breaking the conventional rules of composition, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in France were quietly experimenting with their own revolutionary style, which has since come to be called Impressionism. The hallmark of Impressionism is new combinations of sounds that exist purely for their own sake, and don't need to lead to or follow from any other sounds. These two quartets exemplify the style; Debussy's quartet makes the listener feel she is floating on air, and Ravel's, while remaining firmly on the ground, takes some surprising turns. The Belcea Quartet give exquisite -- and very French -- performances of these two masterpieces, and at super-bargain price this is a recording not to be missed.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos No. 2, Op. 18; No. 3, Op. 30
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, conductor (No. 2); London Symphony Orchestra, Anatole Fistuolari, conductor (No. 3)

Though he lived most of his life in the twentieth century, Sergei Rachmaninoff's style was firmly rooted in nineteenth-century Romanticism. His music is grandiose, passionate, melodious, and virtuosic. The Second Piano Concerto is his most popular work, and the Third (made famous in the film Shine) is said to be the most difficult piano concerto ever written. Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the world's greatest Rachmaninoff performers, has no difficulty with the two concertos in these legendary recordings.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Dresden Staatskapelle, André Previn, conductor

Though Jean Sibelius was devoted to the literature of his native Finland, his music has few characteristics which one can single out as Finnish. Its mood, however, has been described as "somber," "bleak," and "elemental," and it is easy to imagine that these aspects were inspired by Sibelius's love of nature and the Scandinavian landscape. Anne-Sophie Mutter gives an intense performance of this powerful work, and the album also includes several other Sibelius works for violin and orchestra.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
Mirella Freni, soprano (Mimi); Luciano Pavarotti, tenor (Rodolfo); Elisabeth Harwood, (Musetta); Rolando Panerai, baritone (Marcello); Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (Colline); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Schöneberg Boys Choir, Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

The music, plot, characters, and environment of La Bohème represent the Romantic Era in complete and full flavor. As starving artists in Paris around 1830, the roommates Rodolfo and Marcello and their friends Colline and Schaunard yearn to find love in their art and lives while trying to survive under impoverished circumstances. Daunted by their lovers, the endearing Mimi and fickle Musetta, Rodolfo and Marcello undergo a series of woes in their romantic affairs. The story follows the group of friends through several months, as they band together to fight the enemies of loneliness and depression.  However, they soon discover the real enemy is something they cannot overcome even with love, which leads to one of the most tragic endings of all time. In recent years, La Bohème has enjoyed a surge of revivals: in 1996, Rent, a Broadway musical adaptation of La Bohème, emerged as a phenomenon, and in 2001, Baz Luhrmann, the director of Moulin Rouge, revived La Bohème as a “pop opera” on Broadway. Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti give a passonate performance as Mimi and Rodolfo, and Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic wonderfully.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Claude Debussy: Préludes, Books I & II
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Claude Debussy was the premier composer in the style that has come to be called "Impressionism." Unlike earlier composers, Debussy did not seek to express a deep emotion or tell a story, but rather to evoke a mood or an atmosphere. He does this admirably in his two books of preludes for piano. Each is a short work with a brief descriptive title which is perfectly illustrated by the music. It is a wonder that the same instrument that can play Beethoven's most fiery sonata can also play this ethereal music. Jean-Yves Thibaudet gives a splendid performance of the preludes as well as several other popular Debussy piano works.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, "Enigma"
London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, conductor

Edward Elgar, known chiefly today as the composer of that interminable march heard at every graduation, was England's first great composer in nearly two hundred years. England had a strong musical tradition, but after Henry Purcell died in 1695 all of the island's favorite musicians -- Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn -- were imports. This composition takes its mysterious name from the fact that although we hear twenty-four variations on the same theme, the original theme itself is never presented. Sir Adrian Boult was one of the great Elgar conductors, and this recording of the Enigmas and Gustav Holst's popular suite The Planets demonstrates Boult's distinctively English flair.

Similar works: Top 10 Orchestral
Leos Janácek: String Quartets No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"; No. 2, "Intimate Letters"
Lindsay String Quartet

Leos Janacek, the greatest Czech composer after Dvorák, made a point of including Czech influences in his works; his mature style grew out of the rhythms and inflections of Moravian peasant speech and song. He enjoyed his greatest burst of creativity near the age of seventy, after he had fallen in love with a woman half his age, and these two chamber masterpieces are from that era. Until Supraphon reissues the Janácek Quartet's famous recording, the Lindsay Quartet comes the closest to capturing the true Czech flavor of these two works.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Kathleen Ferrier, contralto; Julius Patzak, tenor; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Walter, conductor

In 1907 Gustav Mahler was struck by three successive tragedies: his daughter died, he was forced to leave his beloved Vienna Opera, and he was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. His tragedy and sorrow at this time found expression in his greatest song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which he composed in the usmmer of 1908. The text consists of six melancholy songs adapted from The Chinese Flute, a German collection of Chinese poems. Though he was to compose one more symphony, this cycle, and especially its final poem, "Der Abscheid" (The Farewell) was Mahler's farewell to this world. The greatest performance ever committed to record is the 1952 recording conducted by Bruno Walter, who conducted the work's premiere, and featuring contralto Kathleen Ferrier. Not only does Ferrier have a beautiful voice, but she communicates the work's essence in a way no other singer has before or since -- for she herself was dying of cancer at the time.

Similar works: Top 10 Song
Maurice Ravel: Bolero; Claude Debussy: La Mer
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

A description of Ravel's Bolero would make it sound like the most boring piece of music ever written: a simple melody is repeated more than twenty times. But the interest is not in the melody but in the instruments that play it: with each repetition Ravel introduces new instruments in the orchestra, so that no two repetitions sound alike. The result is a masterpiece of sound painting that is Ravel's most popular work. Claude Debussy's most popular work, La Mer, was inspired by a Japanese painting entitle "The Wave" and uses novel orchestration to illustrate three scenes from the sea. Herbert von Karajan gives compelling performances of these two French classics on this mid-priced CD.

Similar works: Top 10 Orchestral
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Works
Vladimir Horowitz, piano

Alexander Scriabin was a mystic who sought to unite music, poetry, drama, and dance unto a new art form he called the "Mystery." Though he did not succeed at creating this fusion, he did continue the Romantic piano tradition in the manner of Chopin, writing preludes, nocturnes, études, and mazurkas as well as full sonatas. His harmonic idiom, on the other hand, points toward twentieth-century developments, and his late works are nearly atonal. This collection features some of Scriabin's most popular works, played by one of the best Scriabin interpreters ever, Vladimir Horowitz.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28
Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, conductor

Strauss and Mahler were the two greatest German composers around 1900, but whereas Mahler was a symphonist in the tradition stretching all the way back to Haydn, Strauss was a more radical Romantic in the model of Berlioz and Liszt. Strauss wrote primarily operas and tone poems, which are single-movement orchestral works that portray a nonmusical subject. Till Eulenspiegel is his his most famous, telling of the comic adventures of an appealing rascal. This recording contains memorable performances of Till Eulenspiegel and two of Strauss's other great tone poems, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration.

Similar works: Top 10 Orchestral
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor

The great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius composed his second symphony while on vacation in Italy in the summer of 1901. The premiere in Helsinki was an overwhelming success, and it today it is still the most popular of Sibelius's seven symphonies. The symphony features warm orchestral scoring and memorable themes, and the emotional crescendo throughout the piece comes to a climax at the very end. Sir Colin Davis conducts an uplifting performance of the Second, and it comes on a two-for-one set with three other Sibelius symphonies. If you don't mind a scratchy recording, Thomas Beecham's famous 1954 performance -- recorded on Sibelius's 89th birthday with the composer in the audience -- remains the most impassioned and energetic account of the piece ever commited to record.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Arnold Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4
Hollywood String Quartet, Alvin Dinkin, viola; Kurt Reher, cello

Though he became famous as a revolutionary composer who broke all the accepted rules of harmony, Arnold Schoenberg saw himself as the next composer in a line extending from Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms. This string sextet, one of Schoenberg's early works, takes its inspiration from Brahms and is written in a lush late Romantic style. Entitled "Transfigured Night" after a poem by Richard Dehmel, the music depicts a discussion between two lovers in which the woman confesses she is pregnant with another man's child. The music is powerful and ultimately comes to a happy conclusion, though there are moments in the middle that foreshadow Schonberg's dissonant later works. The Hollywood Quartet so impressed Schoenberg with their performance that he offered to write the liner notes for the recording. With an equally legendary performance of Schubert's String Quintet, this is a must-have CD for any chamber music fan.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music