A classical start

Quality suggestions for getting into classical music.

orchestra 88 (photo credit: )
orchestra 88
(photo credit: )
I'm not sure why so many people - whose tastes bounce happily and repeatedly all over the pop spectrum, from rock to rap to lounge to blues - are put off by classical music. Perhaps it's the intimidating intellectual factor? Or maybe it's because the music is associated with fancy concert halls and black-tie galas? But classical music truly offers something for everybody: from the glories of the baroque era through the passionate (and tuneful) operas of the 19th century on through the primal rhythmic pulsations of such contemporary composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. And while you can spend a lifetime learning about this music, loving and understanding it more all the time, there are also a lot of pieces that ought to have immediate appeal for anybody whose sensors are in working order - and they all sound great on an iPod. Here are 10 classics to jump-start your collection: GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL (1685-1759): "Messiah." This exhilarating score, dashed off by its composer in three weeks, has become a holiday tradition for listeners of all faiths, to the point where it is now probably the most popular classical piece on the planet. In Handel's own time, it was usually played and sung by a small group of singers and instrumentalists, but in the Victorian era, performances with a large orchestra, booming organ and a chorus of hundreds came into fashion (and there's nothing quite like hearing the "Hallelujah" chorus in full thrall). Colin Davis' late 1960s recording on the Philips label strikes a happy medium between these two approaches. JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750): Goldberg Variations. The story goes that Bach wrote this set of variations to suit a fellow musician who had been asked to play through the night for a rich insomniac. Still, the late pianist Glenn Gould's two recordings of the "Goldbergs" (re-released together as A State of Wonder on Sony-Legacy) will never put anybody to sleep. Think of this as a sort of jam session, with 30 inspired "solos" over a more or less unvarying set of chord changes, and you'll have the general idea. Now strutting and dynamic, now haunted and introverted, Bach's music spans all human emotion - and then some. WOLFGANG MOZART (1756-91): Symphonies Nos. 35-41. Mozart speaks to virtually everybody, of any age, on any level of musical expertise. If all you want from a Mozart composition is some easy momentary pleasure, he will certainly provide it. But if you want much more, he will provide that as well, and in his last six symphonies, elegance and emotion are uniquely blended. Karl Boehm's performances with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon are among the best: Moreover, at Amazon.com's price of $20.99 for a two-CD set, they count as a bargain. LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Symphony No. 9. Beethoven was completely deaf by the time he wrote his Symphony No. 9. Yet this has become perhaps his most celebrated work, with a unique place in the repertory (the finale - a choral glorification of the brotherhood of man - is now the anthem of the European Union). Herbert von Karajan's 1963 Deutsche Grammophon disc with the Berlin Philharmonic (one of at least four recordings of the work he made over the course of his career) is supremely musical and authoritative and features lush, stratospheric singing from soprano Gundula Janowitz. GIOACCHINO ROSSINI (1792-1868): Overtures. Rossini's music has everything: energy; excitement; long, lush melodies; enormous reserves of feeling and - believe it or not - a hilarious sense of fun. Operas such as The Barber of Seville, L'Italiana in Algeri and La Cenerentola are near-perfect confections of delicious fluff and the overtures to these works (try the recording by Charles Dutoit with the Montreal Symphony) make a terrific introduction to this full-fledged, out-of-the-ballpark genius. FREDERIC CHOPIN (1810-49): Preludes. Chopin, the fabled "poet of the piano," was also the most adept miniaturist in musical history. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his set of Preludes (to what? to anything!) - 24 short pieces, some of them barely 30 seconds long, that contain music of astonishing potency and variety compressed into the most economical of forms. The brainy Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini is at his best on his Deutsche Grammophon recording. RICHARD WAGNER (1813-83): Wagner Without Words. Wagner's operas are quite long, and his strenuous writing for the voice can be off-putting to a new listener. Still, compositions such as "Ride of the Valkyries," "Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey" and "Forest Murmurs" are thrilling and evocative - and you can catch up later with the operas from which they are taken. An album on Sony Classical called Wagner Without Words, featuring George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, makes for a brilliant introduction to this composer's music, especially at the budget price of $9.98. GEORGES BIZET (1838-75): Carmen. Trust me - you know most of the tunes already, as you'll quickly discover when listening to melody after familiar melody strut by. Maria Callas was perhaps the most celebrated opera singer of the mid-20th century and her recording of Carmen (EMI) is still the one to beat. Despite her inelegant French and some occasional vocal difficulties (this was recorded late in her career), nobody else brings Bizet's untamed gypsy girl to such thrilling, dangerous life. MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937): Bolero (and other works). Such is the popularity of Ravel's "Bolero," with its hypnotic and unrelenting rat-tat-a-tat-tat, that it practically guarantees a sold-out house for any orchestra that includes it on a program. But Ravel wrote a number of other great pieces: "La Valse," for example, is both a celebration and a parody of the whirling melodies and overstuffed pomp in the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss. Charles Munch leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a recommended BMG disc that also includes Ravel's "Rapsodie Espagnole." CARL ORFF (1895-1982): Carmina Burana. This chiming, reiterative, starkly powerful setting of pagan texts from the Middle Ages gets a bad rap from some classical music purists. To be sure, the louder choruses are far from subtle (and have been used in a few too many horror movies), but there are passages of folkish charm and radiant beauty in Carmina that are too often overlooked. The late-60s Deutsche Grammophon recording by Eugen Jochum has long been recognized as stirring and authoritative, and a recent remastering makes it sound as though it was recorded last week. [The Washington Post]