The 411 on the Classics

By By Christie Franke and By Christie Franke

By Christie Franke

Let it not be said that enormous music halls are the only places to listen to the music regularly talked about in this column. With the availability of iTunes, music stores and even the public library, such a statement is kind of stupid. The music is everywhere. You don’t even have to look. There’s so much of it that one piece of music — say, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” — can merit 20 different recordings. However, knowing which recordings are gems and which aren’t as good can be a matter of trial and error — and that can get expensive quickly. It can be simpler than that, a lot simpler.

The main thing to know about any CD is the label. If the company that put the record out is Deutsche Grammophon, you can bet that the recording is of high quality and is worth listening to.

The next important things are the orchestra performing and the conductor under whom they are playing.

Vienna Philharmonic? Gold.

Berlin Philharmonic? Prepare for a spiritual experience.

For composers, look for James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera or Herbert von Karajan, for starters. Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is another for which to look out. (Hint: if the album is under the Grammophon label, played by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Karajan, buy it. You aren’t going to get better than that.)

Singers are an entirely different story. If they’ve managed to get a CD made, you can bet they’re good. However, singers are tricky — what one person might love, another might hate. This is true for any genre of music, so the only thing you can do in this instance is take a risk.

Even with this advice, picking the right album can be hard. So, here follows a list of suggested recordings for anyone looking to enhance his or her musical collection. We’ll start with singers, because they’re the most notoriously difficult.

Tutto Mozart, Bryn Terfel. Terfel is a Welsh opera singer, widely acknowledged around the world as one of the finest bass-baritones of this generation. In this album, which was released during the celebrations for Mozart’s 250th birthday, Terfel sings a mixture of operatic and concert arias — and yes, there is a difference. It’s a sublime mix of songs, ranging from extremely well-known pieces to lesser-known insertion arias (which could be stuck into an opera if a singer wanted it to be, in place of one of the songs he was supposed to sing). Terfel has a voice like sex and dark chocolate — pure seduction. He has been known to induce temporary paralysis and flailing of the limbs.

Sempre Libera and Opera Arias, Anna Netrebko. Netrebko is a Russian Cinderella story: she was a cleaning lady before she auditioned for a part in the Mariinsky company in St. Petersburg, Russia. These two CDs display her vocal power: as a soprano, Netrebko is well equipped to sing the gamut of arias, from Mozart to Verdi and beyond. Netrebko’s voice is rich and full, and she is one of the greats.

Operetta Arias, Thomas Hampson. Thomas Hampson is gorgeous. Vocally, he is utterly sublime, but, perhaps, not as seductive as Terfel. He is also completely addicted to singing lieder — literally “songs” in German, but more commonly defined in English as “German Romantic music songs.” Think Schubert, Mahler and Schumann. Also an accomplished opera star, Hampson imparts a great sense of fun into his music. One of America’s leading baritones, he is a gem in any collection. It’s also worth checking out his screamingly hilarious Largo al factotum (“Figaro! Figaro! Fiiiiiigaaaaarooooo!”) on iTunes or YouTube.

Il tenero momento, Susan Graham. This is a compilation of arias by Mozart and his predecessor Gluck. Graham is another American opera singer who managed to conquer the world. This album is filled with completely romantic music, suited to Graham’s mezzo-soprano voice. The operas range from comic to tragic to heroic, and they encompass some of the best of both composers. Graham weaves a spell: her voice is at once strong and passionate, and melancholy and sobbing. She’s fantastic.

Symphonic Music:

Ludwig van Beethoven: 9 Symphonien, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. All nine of Beethoven’s symphonies, recorded in 1963 and digitally remastered, to be as utterly fantastic as they come. This is one of the incidences of a Karajan/Deutsche Grammophon/Berlin Philharmonic collaboration, and it is a must for any collection. It goes without saying that all of Beethoven’s symphonies are fantastic, and the recording of the Ninth — the Ode to Joy — will knock you flat.

Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. 1, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. The title says it all. This album includes the 19th, 20th, 21st, 23rd and 24th piano concertos by Mozart, the 20th being one of the most fantastic. This album is good if you like piano music and Mozart.

Martha Argerich Plays Chopin: The Legendary 1965 Recording, Martha Angerich. Once again, the title says it all. Chopin wrote extensively for the piano, and his compositions are utterly gorgeous.

Naturally, this is a small sampling of the fantastic albums out there. It takes time to make a collection, to learn which sorts of music you like best. Consider it an adventure.

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