The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings

The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings

by Allan Kozinn

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A dazzling appraisal of the definitive classical music performances available today

For classical music lovers, there is nothing more beguiling and exciting than the range of technique and emotion that can capture or transform the great works in the hands of a conductor and musicians. But with hundreds of recordings released every year, discovering the jewels is a challenge, for newcomers as well as for connoisseurs.

New York Times classical music critic Allan Kozinn offers the ultimate collector's guide, packed with a rich history of the composers and performers who stir our souls. From Bach's eloquent Goldberg Variations performed by master pianist Glenn Gould at the beginning and end of his career in startlingly different interpretations, to a lyrical performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade conducted by Kiril Kondrashin shortly after his defection from the Soviet Union, Kozinn places each work in the greater context of musical development and stretches the listener's understanding of each pivotal composition. These original essays on the one hundred greatest recorded classical works provide both practical guidance for building a library and deep insight into the transcendent power of music itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429997713
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/02/2004
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Allan Kozinn is a classical music critic for The New York Times. Before joining the staff of the Times in 1991, he was a contributing editor for the classical music magazines High Fidelity, Opus, and Keynote, and he was the music critic for The New York Observer. He lives in New York City.

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O Jerusalem

SEQUENTIA (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472-77353-2)

Includes the title work as well as Quia felix puerita — Magnificat, O felix apparitio, O beatissime Ruperte, O tu illustrata, Cum erubuerint, O frondens virga — Gloria patri — Ave generosa, O quam preciosa, O ignee spiritus, O quam magnum miraculum est, and instrumental works.

Recorded 1995

It took until the second half of the twentieth century for women to come into their own as composers, that is, for more than one or two to be recognized as important voices in the global musical dialogue. But women have always composed, and the earliest known female composer, Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), was also one of the great intellects of her era. Having experienced religious visions from the age of five, Hildegard took up studies at the monastery at Disibodenberg when she was fourteen. Eventually a convent was established there, and Hildegard succeeded her teacher, Jutta von Spanheim, as its prioress, in 1136. In around 1150, Hildegard established her own convent at Rupertsberg, near Bingen; and when that house became too crowded, in 1165, she established another at Eibingen.

Hildegard's writings include Scivias, a collection of fourteen extended poems in which she describes twenty-six revelations that came to her in her visions, as well as works on science and medicine, a trilogy of allegorical religious works, and the lives of Saint Disibod and Saint Rupert. Having achieved a reputation for prophecy and working miracles, Hildegard maintained correspondence with popes, emperors, and other leaders, and when challenged on matters of religious doctrine or practice, she held her ground.

As a Benedictine abbess, Hildegard naturally devoted her musical energies entirely to sacred works, most of which are settings ofecstatic texts drawn from her own poetry. There are a few basic hallmarks in her musical language. She wrote long before the invention of the modern scale and the system of keys that we now take for granted. For Hildegard, music was rooted in the church modes, which you can think of as (roughly speaking) a series of scales based on the white keys of the piano keyboard, with no sharps or flats. Each of these modes had a distinct character, and was used to stir a particular kind of feeling: works in the mode beginning on G, for example, were joyous; those on D evoked purity.

Also, Hildegard's music is monophonic: her compositions are single melodies, with no harmony or counterpoint (polyphony), whether performed by one singer or many. Yet a single line is hardly a limitation: sometimes Hildegard sets her texts simply and syllabically, but often a word is painted with expansive, soaring melismas that, in extreme cases, reached more than seventy notes.

Among Hildegard's musical works is a morality play, Ordo Virtutum, in which the soul is tempted by the Devil, but is persuaded back to the right path by the Virtues. Sequentia recorded this extraordinary work twice (in 1982 and 1997, both for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi). But the group's vividly sung O Jerusalem collection seems a better and more varied introduction to her music. It proposes an imaginative (if also imaginary, or at least fanciful) reconstruction of the dedicatory ceremony at Rupertsberg. Several of the pieces, including the title work, include paeans to Saint Rupert; indeed, considered in the context of a dedication ceremony, there is a suggestion that the convent represents an earthly analog to the vision of a spiritual Jerusalem that Hildegard's text describes.

Several early-music ensembles have recorded these works, and typically they have given the pieces straightforward, devotional performances that bring out their beauty but, compared with Sequentia's reading, sound a bit staid. Sequentia gives its performance of the title work a context: the first sounds one hears are the bells and ambience of the Bamberg Cathedral. Like other ensembles, Sequentia gives most of the work to its female singers, although one —"O ignee spiritus"— is performed by men. (Men's and women's voices would, of course, not have been heard together in the church music of Hildegard's time.)

But here, too, Sequentia takes a different path than most groups. Although in works performed by compact vocal forces (two or three voices) they sing with polish and precision, those qualities are not presented as an ideal. Rather, in works for the massed ensemble, Sequentia's singers give the pieces the slightly rough-hewn, earthy, real-life sound that one might actually have heard in a convent or monastery. The vibrant acoustical ambience of St. Pantaleon, Cologne, abets this feeling.

I question the group's inclusion of three brief instrumental works based on themes from Hildegard's vocal pieces, but if they seem out of place in the context of this reconstruction, they offer an opportunity to hear Sequentia's players, and to hear Hildegard's music from a different perspective. Certainly less harm is done here than in, say, Illumination (Sony Classical, 1997), a poorly conceived melding of Hildegard's music and new age electronic instrumentation.

The notes booklet for O Jerusalem includes superb annotations by Barbara Thornton, who founded Sequentia with Benjamin Bagby in 1977. Included are quotations from Hildegard's mystical writings and correspondence, all of which bring her to life nearly as vividly as the music. Thornton, who died of a brain tumor in 1998 at age forty-eight, was the driving force behind Sequentia's Hildegard project, which yielded several other highly recommendable recordings, including Ordo Virtutum (I prefer the 1997 version), Canticles of Ecstasy (1994), Voice of the Blood (1995), and Saints (1998), all on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label.

There are two non-Sequentia Hildegard recordings worth special mention as well: A Feather on the Breath of God (Hyperion, 1984), a varied overview, beautifully rendered by Gothic Voices; and 11,000 Virgins (Harmonia Mundi USA, 1997), Anonymous 4's exquisite collection of chants for the feast of Saint Ursula, mostly by Hildegard but also including works from as late as the fifteenth century.


2. GUILLAUME DE MACHAUT Messe de Notre Dame (Notre Dame Mass) ENSEMBLE ORGANUM, MARCEL PÉRÈS, CONDUCTING (Harmonia Mundi 901590)

Recorded 1995

For most record collectors with a special fondness for early music, the works of Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377) represent the pinnacle of the fourteenth-century French style, and, indeed, Machaut was esteemed in his day, both as a composer and as a poet. Little is known of his early life, but in around 1323 he became a clerk in the household of Jan de Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, a position that involved considerable travel in Europe, and in 1340 he became a canon at the Cathedral of Rheims, for which he wrote this justly celebrated Mass in the early 1360s.

To modern ears — especially ones that haven't taken in a lot of medieval music — the Notre Dame Mass will probably have a decidedly alien quality. And well it should. The ideas about harmony that drive the classical and romantic styles didn't begin to evolve until more than a century after Machaut, and they didn't coalesce into the musical language that we now consider standard until the seventeenth century. By then, the compositional notions of Machaut's day (how rhythm worked, how voices related to one another, and what constituted acceptable harmonies) were supplanted and forgotten.

Still, the Notre Dame Mass is a seminal work in the history of Western music: in some ways it represents the dawn of the age of the modern composer, and of new ways to think about music. It is the earliest known four-part polyphonic setting (that is, a work in which four distinct vocal lines move independently) of the complete Mass by a single known composer.

That's a mouthful, and it requires some parsing.

First, one has to define what is meant by a Mass, from a musical perspective. There are two components: the five sections of the Ordinary — Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei — are texts that remain constant, and have therefore been prime candidates for musical setting through the ages (since, from a completely utilitarian view, they could be used at any time in the liturgical year). The other sections, which make up the Proper, are tied to specific feasts or seasons. Typically a church in Machaut's time, and for centuries after, would use polyphonic settings of the Ordinary, with the Proper drawn from the plainchant (traditional church chant melodies) related to the occasion. So the designation of Machaut's work as the first complete setting of the Mass refers to its status as a composition of all five sections of the Ordinary plus, in Machaut's case, the concluding Ite Missa est section.

Before Machaut, the standard practice appears to have been for cathedral musicians to assemble Masses from settings of the individual movements, written by different composers at different times. It may be that the six sections of the Machaut Mass were composed at different times as well, but the scholarly consensus is that the Notre Dame Mass is a coherent setting, composed and meant to be performed together. In the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa est, the cantus firmus — actually a plainchant melody — is sung in long notes in one of the lower voices, while the higher voices move more quickly above and around it. The Gloria and the Credo use a different form: all four voices move together, chordally, in the same rhythm.

Equally important is the fact that Machaut signed the work. His predecessors generally worked anonymously; in fact, the only reason we can affix the names of certain earlier church composers to specific works is that traveling musicians took the trouble to discover the music's authorship, and included transcriptions, with attribution, in their own manuscripts. (Oddly, the compilers of many of these manuscripts are themselves anonymous.) Indeed, Machaut devoted much effort during the final decade of his life to the task of collecting and editing his works, musical and poetic, for preservation.

There have been several notable recordings of the Mass over the years, and they show the degree to which scholarly thinking about the performance of this music has changed. Two classic versions — those by the Deller Consort (Vanguard, 1961) and the Munich Capella Antiqua (Teldec, 1970) — were based on the belief that although the work would have been sung by an all-male chorus, thetop voices would have been countertenors, or male altos. Those recordings also present the work with instrumental accompaniment (using early instruments, of course); and they offer only the polyphonic Mass movements.

Those remain important recordings, but by the mid-1980s ideas had changed. When Andrew Parrott and his Taverner Choir recorded the Mass (Angel, 1984), they used only bass and tenor voices, and dispensed with the instrumental accompaniment on the grounds that one would not have been used in church music of that time. (Unlike the scores of later eras, the performing forces were not indicated in medieval manuscripts.) Moreover, since research by then had established that the Mass was written for one of the four annual Feasts of the Blessed Virgin, Parrott chose one (the Feast of the Nativity) and included the relevant plainchant.

But Marcel Pérès ups the ante further. Like Parrott, he presents the Mass in an unaccompanied vocal performance, and has interpolated the plainchant for a Marian feast (this time the Feast of the Purification). Pérès's innovation, though — and what makes this such a fascinating disc — is to try to revive the ornamentation and even the timbre and sense of ensemble that Machaut's choir would have had.

This effort is almost entirely conjectural, and we will never know how close or far Pérès is to the sound Machaut heard. The hallmarks of his approach are, first of all, a very plain style of singing: instead of the smooth, highly polished timbres and tight ensemble one would expect of a modern group, the Ensemble Organum gives a reading that is earthy and slightly rough at the edges (though by no means slovenly). And the upper vocal lines are adorned with an unusual form of improvisatory ornamentation — everything from wiggled notes and sliding attacks to more ambitious expansions.

As Pérès writes in his liner notes, "Ornamentation is essential, for it creates the active force of the work, renders its rhythmic substance tangible, ensures the transition from one harmony to another and sometimes unbalances a chord to strengthen the sound of the next one. By means of ornamentation, the singer betrays the extent of his involvement with the work."

Recordings of antique church music don't get more involved than this.



Missa Fortuna Desperata


Includes Josquin Desprez's Missa Fortuna Desperata, "La Plus des Plus," "Bergerette Savoysienne," "Adieu Mes Amours," "Consideres Mes Incessantes/Fortuna"; "Fortuna Desperata" attributed to Antoine Busnois; Heinrich Isaac's "Bruder Contrat/Fortuna"; Ludwig Senfl's "Herr Durch Dein Bluet/Pange Lingua/Fortuna"; Matthaeus Greiter's "Passibus Ambiguis/Fortuna"; and an anonymous composition entitled "Fortuna Zibaldone."

Recorded 2000

Around the time this recording was released, Edward Wickham and his Clerks' Group — a superb English ensemble that specializes in early choral music — were touring the United States with The Original Josquin, a concert of works by Josquin Desprez (c. 1450–1521), the French composer widely regarded as the towering figure of Renaissance polyphony. It is not only in hindsight that Josquin enjoys such high regard: he held positions at various courts and chapels in France and Italy — including the papal chapel, in Rome, from 1489 to 1495 — and with the invention of the printing press and moveable music type, his works became extremely well traveled. The early publisher Petrucci opened his four collections of motets with works by Josquin, and his publication, Misse Josquin (1502), was the first printed book of music devoted fully to the work of a single composer. By 1514, Petrucci had published two more volumes of Josquin masses.

While it could undoubtedly be argued that Josquin's fame at the turn of the sixteenth century made him attractive to a publisher like Petrucci, it is also true that publication expanded his fame considerably, a point that Wickham openly explored during their concert tour. Had music publishing been invented a couple of decades later, at the time of Josquin's death, it is possible that we might regard him merely as one of many great composers of the age, rather than as the greatest. Josquin was, in this view, an early media star who benefited from the printing press in much the same way Madonna benefited from music videos nearly five centuries later.

Still, Josquin's music magnificently represents the prevailing styles and practices of its age. This recording includes works by both Josquin and his contemporaries, but the centerpiece is Josquin's Missa Fortuna Desperata, a Mass based on (and named for) a popular chanson that is generally attributed to Antoine Busnois (1430–1492). In Josquin's time, "Fortuna Desperata" was well known throughout Europe, and today early music collectors run into it periodically in versions by several composers. The Clerks' Group, though, proceeds from the logical assumption that "Fortuna" is no longer hummed in every household, so they open the disc with the presumed Antoine Busnois setting (Wickham, in his notes, expresses doubts about the attribution), followed immediately by the Mass.

In some ways, this is an expansion of a practice we encountered in Machaut's Notre Dame Mass: an existing melody — plainchant in Machaut's case, a popular tune in Josquin's — becomes the theme (or cantus firmus) around which the work is built. Still, there are touches that make this more than a straightforward cantus firmus Mass. The melody makes its principal appearances not only in the tenor, but in each of the voices, and there are times when the Mass text is fit to all three vocal lines of the Busnois version — a technique known as parody.

Josquin, of course, does a great deal more than bend "Fortuna" to the contours of the Mass; rather, he uses the melody as the starting point for a brilliant, wide-ranging contrapuntal structure (counterpoint, like polyphony, is the interplay of independent musical lines), and within that structure, the "Fortuna" theme is treated — rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically — to elaborate processes of variations and expansion. Listen, for example, to the quotation of the theme at the start of the Agnus Dei, where it is stretched and embellished almost beyond recognition — and, in fact, turned upside down, a move that one twentieth-century analyst suggested may have been meant to symbolize Fortune's wheel turning.


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Table of Contents

Title Page,
2. GUILLAUME DE MACHAUT - Messe de Notre Dame (Notre Dame Mass),
3. JOSQUIN DESPREZ - Missa Fortuna Desperata,
4. CARLO GESUALDO - Madrigals, from Books III, IV, V, VI,
5. JOHN DOWLAND - First Booke of Songes,
7. CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI - Vespro della Beata Virgine (1610),
8. CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI - Madrigali Guerrieri ed Amorosi(Madrigals, Book VIII),
9. HENRY PURCELL - Odes for St. Cecilia's Day and Music for Queen Mary,
10. JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH - Brandenburg Concertos,
11. JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH - Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin,
12. JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH - Mass in B minor (BWV 232),
13. JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH - Glenn Gould-A State of Wonder,
15. GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL - Israel in Egypt,
21. WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART - Divertimento in E-flat (K. 563),
22. WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART - Requiem (K. 626, completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr),
23. FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN - String Quartets: op. 20, no. 5; op. 33, no. 2 (The Joke); op. 54, no. 12; op. 64, no. 5 (The Lark); op. 74, no. 3 (The Rider); op. 76, no. 2 (Fifths); and op. 77, no. 1,
24. FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN - The London Symphonies, Vol. I,
25. FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN - Die Schöpfung (The Creation),
27. LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - The Nine Symphonies, Overtures,
29. LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - The Late Piano Sonatas,
30. FRANZ SCHUBERT - Lieder,
31. FRANZ SCHUBERT - Winterreise (D. 911),
32. FRANZ SCHUBERT - Quintet in C for Two Violins, Viola, and Two Cellos (D. 956),
34. HECTOR BERLIOZ - Symphonie Fantastique,
39. JOHANNES BRAHMS - Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) (op. 45),
42. BEDICH SMETANA - Má Vlast (My Country),
48. LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN AND CÉSAR FRANCK - Music from Saratoga: Beethoven and Franck,
50. CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS - Symphony no. 3 (op. 78),
51. GIUSEPPE VERDI - Requiem and Four Sacred Pieces,
53. GUSTAV MAHLER - Symphony no. 4 in G,
54. GUSTAV MAHLER - Symphony no. 9,
55. JEAN SIBELIUS - Symphony no. 2 (op. 43),
58. CLAUDE DEBUSSY - Preludes, Books I and II,
59. MAURICE RAVEL - The Orchestral Works,
60. ERIK SATIE - L'Oeuvre pour Piano (The Piano Works),
62. RICHARD STRAUSS - Tone Poems,
64. IGOR STRAVINSKY - Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps,
65. IGOR STRAVINSKY - The Mono Years,
66. REYNALDO HAHN - La Belle Époque: The Songs of Reynaldo Hahn,
69. SERGEI RACHMANINOFF - Concerto no. 3 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra (op. 30),
70. EDGARD VARÈSE - Ionisation, Amériques, and Arcana,
71. CHARLES IVES - Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set no. 1) and Orchestral Set no. 2,
72. GEORGE GERSHWIN - Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris,
73. AARON COPLAND - The Copland Collection-Orchestral and Ballet Works, 1936-1948,
76. ALBAN BERG - Violin Concerto,
77. DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH - Symphony no. 5 in D minor (op. 47) and Symphony no. 9 in E-flat major (op. 70),
78. DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 1 in A minor (op. 77),
79. BÉLA BARTÓK - The Six String Quartets,
80. BÉLA BARTÓK - Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings,Percussion, and Celesta; and Hungarian Sketches,
81. KARL AMADEUS HARTMANN - Concerto Funèbre; Symphony no. 4;and Chamber Concerto,
82. OLIVIER MESSIAEN - Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time),
83. HEITOR VILLA-LOBOS - Bachianas Brasileiras, nos. 1, 2, 5, and 9,
84. BENJAMIN BRITTEN - War Requiem (op. 66),
85. BENJAMIN BRITTEN - The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra(op. 34), Simple Symphony (op. 4), and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (op. 10),
87. LEONARD BERNSTEIN - Candide Overture; Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront; and Fancy Free,
88. BERNARD HERRMANN - The Film Scores,
89. MILTON BABBITT - Three Compositions, Duet, Semi-Simple Variations, Partitions, Post-Partitions, Tableaux, Reflections for Piano and Synthesized Tape, Canonical Form, and Lagniappe,
90. JOHN CORIGLIANO - Richard Stoltzman: The Essential Clarinet,
91. STEVE REICH - Early Works,
92. STEVE REICH - Tehillim,
93. PHILIP GLASS - Music in Twelve Parts,
94. PHILIP GLASS - Koyaanisqatsi,
95. JOHN ADAMS - Shaker Loops (1978, revised 1983),
97. ARVO PÄRT - Tabula Rasa,
98. HENRYK GÓRECKI - Symphony no. 3 (op. 36),
99. EINOJUHANI RAUTAVAARA - Symphony no. 7, Angel of Light; andAnnunciations (Concerto for Organ Brass Group and Symphonic Wind Orchestra),
100. BRIGHT SHENG - H'un: In Memoriam 1966-1976,
Another 100: More Albums You Should Own, or at Least Know About,
Illustration Credits,
About the Author,
Copyright Page,

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