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Top 10 Essential Song CDs and MP3s to Start Your Classical Music Collection

In classical music, a song (lied in German; chanson in French) is a setting of poetry for a solo singer with piano or orchestral accompaniment. Unlike choral music, which usually draws on religious texts, songs are usually based on secular poetry. The composer's goal in writing a song is to use music to illustrate and enhance the meaning and emotions of the text. Sometimes this can be achieved through direct musical effects, such as having the singer sing high notes to climb up a mountain or reach up to god, but more often it is achieved through contrast, dynamics, and harmonic coloring. A great song takes the listener on an emotional journey culminating in joy or catharsis or (as is often the case) despair.

In the eighteenth century songs usually consisted of a vocal melody with simple piano accompaniment, but in the nineteenth century the piano had risen to equal status with the singer, as the two worked together in partnership to illustrate the text. In the Romantic era the German lied for voice and piano achieved a special status as the vehicle for the composer to express his sensitivity to poetry, a traid valued highly at the time. The greatest composers of lieder were Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Hugo Wolf. Later in the nineteenth century composers began to set songs for voice and orchestra, making use of the increased possibilities for color that the full orchestra provided; the supreme masters of the orchestral song were Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss. In the twentieth century the crown of song writing moved from German-speaking lands to English- and French-speaking ones. Twentieth century song composers include Claude Debussy in France, Benjamin Britten in England, and Samuel Barber in the United States.

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1 Schubert: Winterreise -- Peter Pears
A bleak song cycle reminiscing of lost love. Review...

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

3 Schumann: Dichterliebe -- Fritz Wunderlich
A newlywed writes of unrequited love. Review...

4 Debussy: Mélodies -- Véronique Gens
Charming chansons. Review...

5 Wolf: Spanisches Liederbuch -- Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Sublime Spanish songs sacred and secular. Review...

6 Brahms: Four Serious Songs -- Hans Hotter
A dying man asks, "What happens next?" Review...

7 Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915 -- Dawn Upshaw
Southern nostalgia. Review...

8 Strauss: Four Last Songs -- Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Swan song of an octagenarian. Review...

9 Mozart: Lieder -- Elly Ameling
Sparkling little gems from a jack of all trades. Review...

10 Schubert: Lieder -- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
A collection of Schubert's best. Review...

11 Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings -- Peter Pears
The fruit of a lifelong partnership. Review...



Franz Schubert: 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 Schubert, Top 10 Romantic
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 Early Modern
Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe, Op. 48
Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Hubert Giesen, piano

In the year 1840, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck fought a protracted legal battle to obtain permission to marry without the consent of Clara's father. In the same year, by no coincidence, Schumann composed some of the greatest German song cycles ever, establishing himself as the true successor to Schubert in this medium. The cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love) consists of sixteen songs set to texts by Heinrich Heine, a poet to whom Schumann would return many times throughout his career. The cycle does not tell a narrative story, but the songs' pervasive theme is one of unrequited love. Fritz Wunderlich, who possessed one of the most beautiful voices of the twentieth century, gives an incredibly moving performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Claude Debussy: Mélodies
Véronique Gens, soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano

Debussy's songs transfer to the medium of voice the impressionistic style he cultivated at the piano while adding the lyricism of French poetry. In these works, singer and pianist work together seamlessly to illustrate the poetic text. Debussy's favorite poets included Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and the fifteenth-century poet François Villon. Veronique Gens is an outstanding interpreter of the French art song, and she sings eleven of Debussy's greatest "Mélodies" as well as songs by the composer's contemporaries Gabriel Fauré and Francis Poulenc.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Hugo Wolf: Spanisches Liederbuch
Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, soprano; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, tenor; Gerald Moore, piano

Hugo Wolf was, along with Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, one of the great composers of German Lieder, but unlike those other three, he composed little else besides songs. Wolf was extremely sensitive to the poetry he set, and all of his compositional choices were made in order to achieve a consummate marriage of voice and text. The "Spanish Songbook," consisting of twelve sacred poems and thirty-four secular ones, is one of his masterpieces. The sacred texts are set with extreme devotion, while the music of the secular pieces perfectly reflects the emotions of the poetry. This legendary recording features two of the greatest voices -- and artists -- of the twentieth century: soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Johannes Brahms: Four Serious Songs, Op. 121
Hans Hotter, bass; Gerald Moore, piano

These songs, based on texts from the Old Testament, were the last songs Johannes Brahms composed, and have been described as the composer's "musical last will and testament." Seeing death approaching, Brahms posed some of the central questions about the human spirit and man's relationship with death. The result is a profoundly moving work that still resonates powerfully today. Hans Hotter's 1951 recording of the four songs has for more than fifty years remained unsurpassed in intensity and emotional power.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic
Samuel Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915, Op. 24
Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Orchestra of St. Luke's, David Zinman, conductor

Though he is best known for the popular Adagio for Strings, Samuel Barber was one of the great song composers of the twentieth century. "Knoxville, Summer of 1915" is a setting for piano and orchestra of a prose text by James Agee. The song describes the images and sounds of a warm summer evening in the south long ago, and Barber's music perfectly suits the nostalgic feeling of the text. Dawn Upshaw, one of today's leading sopranos, gives a heartwarming rendition of this lovely work.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, George Szell, conductor.

Like Brahms's Four Serious Songs, Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs is the work of a man who saw death approaching. The cycle, written when the composer was in his eighties, was inspired by Strauss's discovery of the poem Im Abendrot (Evening's Glow) by Joseph Eichendorff. Strauss planned to round out the cycle with four songs to texts by Heinrich Heine, but he only completed three: Frühling (Spring), September, and Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep). Interestingly, Strauss did not specify an order of performance for the four songs; most performances conclude with Im Abendrot, the song that was actually composed first. The poem is a fitting swan song to an illustrious career, concluding, "How exhausted we are with our wanderings -- can this then be death?" Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was one of the finest Strauss interpreters, and her expressive performance with George Szell has achieved legendary status.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Lieder
Elly Ameling, soprano; Dalton Baldwin, piano

The Lied is usually not a genre associated with Mozart, but these little gems demostrate that Mozart was indeed master of every musical form known to his time. Soprano Elly Ameling sparkles in her renditions of thirty-five Mozart songs, and this two-disc set also includes six notturni for voices and woodwind.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Franz Schubert: Lieder
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 Schubert, Top 10 Romantic
Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31
Peter Pears, tenor; Dennis Brain, horn; New Symphony Orchestra, Sir Eugene Goossens, conductor

Britten wrote this serenade in 1943 during the darkest days of World War II, and its text consists of six poems by British authors on the subject of death. He wrote it as a vehicle for the great horn player Dennis Brain, who commissioned the work, and for the legendary tenor Peter Pears (pronounced "Peers"), who was Britten's lifelong partner. This recording, made in 1953, features both Pears and Brain in a moving performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Song