Gramophone essentials: the greatest classical works, the finest recordings

Gramophone Mon 10th July 2017

Browse our quick guides to must-have recordings of the most celebrated classical works

Gramophone Essentials

Every month in Gramophone we review the best new classical recordings. We've been doing it since 1923, and along the way we've discovered certain albums that we want to return to again and again.

We believe that the best way to discover classical music is through listening to the best recordings. No recording can ever be regarded as definitive, but many, once heard, are potentially life-changing.

With Gramophone Essentials, we offer an invaluable guide to the key recordings of the most beloved masterpieces. 

 

Gramophone Essentials

Bach Goldberg Variations

Legend has it that Bach received a commission to compose a set of variations aimed to ward off Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk’s insomnia. During sleepless nights, the count would summon his trusty teenage court harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play through several variations. This story ultimately proved untrue, but that hasn’t affected the Aria with 30 Variations’ iconic status. Here are are three of the finest accounts on record, with two performed by pianists and the third, our 'hidden gem', by a harpsichordist... Read more

 

Beethoven Symphony No 5

It begins with the most famous four notes in musical history. The Fifth Symphony is the perfect distillation of Beethoven's stupendous musical genius and there can be no final word on the work, no definitive recording. Nonetheless, here are three very fine, and sharply contrasted, performances... Read more

 

Bizet Carmen

On the evening of the 31st performance of Carmen, Bizet died of a heart attack brought on by a throat affliction (probably cancer). He was 36. Carmen rapidly grew in popularity. Had Bizet lived another few months he would have experienced its total triumph; another three years and he would have seen it produced in almost every major opera house in Europe. There are many good recordings of Carmen, one of the most popular operas of all, but here we recommend three of the best... Read more

 

Handel Water Music

First performed in 1717 for the pleasure of King George I as he travelled up and down the Thames in a barge, the three suites which comprise Handel's Water Music continue to inspire and delight audiences and musicians 300 years later, as perfectly demonstrated by our first recommended recording, captured live in 2016... Read more

 

Schubert Winterreise

Winterreise was dubbed by Schubert ‘a cycle of spine-chilling [schauerliche] Lieder’. What so shocked the composer’s friends when he sang through the first 12 songs, and still shocks today, is the starkness and almost minimalistic bareness of the writing, and the obsessive exploration of a mind veering between delusion, wry, mocking self-awareness and nihilistic despair. Here are three outstanding traversals of Schubert's emotionally draining winter's journey... Read more

 

Strauss Four Last Songs

The Four Last Songs marks a staging point on the long musical journey that has found composers luxuriating in the soprano voice. Strauss, more than many others, understood this most quintessentially feminine of voices and wrote with extraordinary sympathy, imagination and love for it (hardly surprising given that his wife Pauline was a soprano). The soprano voice, whose range occupies (roughly) two octaves upward from middle C, can float above a large symphony orchestra with ease, allowing for that long-breathed cantilena which forms such a central characteristic of the Four Last Songs... Read more

 

Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6, Pathétique

Mystery surrounds the exact programme of the Pathétique Symphony - 'Let them guess', Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew. But whatever may lie behind the notes, the Pathétique remains a supremely balanced musical utterance. Here are three outstanding, and widely contrasted, recordings... Read more

 

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