One item that has withstood the full fury of inflation is the long-playing classical phonograph record. Although some of the more prominent record labels have increased in price, they are available to those who shop wisely and take advantage of discounts at less than $6 per disc. Secondary labels offer highly satisfactory, competently recorded performances at even greater savings. The availability of numerous options at varying price levels has prompted me to wonder how an individual might parlay a $150 investment in classical records into a longterm musical gain. In other words, how do you spend $150 on approximately twenty-five basic LP records that will supply musical enjoyment over many years?
Now twenty-five records may not seem many, yet, chosen with care, they can in seventy-five different compositions represent a wide range of musical forms encompassing almost every period and style of music from Bach’s time onward. The basic list I have formulated includes at least one work of most major composers, schools, and musical eras of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Its gaps may be filled by splurging and supplementing the original $150 investment with another $150, thereby covering the music of late Renaissance to the music of today. How does my list compare with the choices you would make given the same investment challenge?
The basic list contains orchestral music, concertos for solo instruments and groups, chamber music, secular and sacred vocal music, and items in the lighter vein for theater and the dance. Warhorses, those compositions best known to concert audiences through frequent performance, have been bypassed by intention; the single exception is the Cesar Franck Symphony in D minor, because it best displays the art of the French Romantic master and the whole musical tradition of which he was the fountainhead. Otherwise, let us arbitrarily ban from the list the Beethoven Fifths, the Tchaikovsky Pathétiques, and the Brahms Firsts, opting instead for lesser-known works of equal durability by these same composers. Thus Beethoven is represented by his Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky by the dramatic overture-fantasy Romeo and Juliet, and Brahms by the Horn Trio and Fourth Symphony.
From the strictly classical era, there are cantatas by Bach, symphonies by Haydn, operatic arias and two diverting concertos by Mozart, the aforementioned Beethoven Violin Concerto, and Schubert’s marvelous Trio in B-flat for Piano, Violin, and Cello—compositions perhaps less well known than others from these masters but certainly no less eloquent or satisfying.
The Romantic period is well served by Schumann’s Quintet for Piano and Strings and Cello Concerto, the two works of Brahms, Chopin’s set of 24 Preludes, the Franck Symphony, and the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1. Some might, argue that Wagner belongs here too, but a case can be made for grouping him with the post-Romantics. By his development of a new form, the music drama, out of Romantic opera and his introduction of lush sonorities achieved through the fusion of novel instrumental combinations with fierce demands imposed on singers, he burst the bounds of the Romantic style and laid the path for the post-Romantics. Chief inspiration for composers such as Bruckner, Mahler, Liszt, and Strauss, Wagner really belongs more with them than with Brahms, the epitome of the Romantic movement and his musical archenemy.
For a tasteful example of Wagner’s art, the old RCA disc featuring Eileen Farrell with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in excerpts from Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde serves the purpose admirably. Farrell, who now teaches singing at Indiana University’s School of Music, had in her prime one of the truly great Wagnerian voices. She is still an artist of the first magnitude, and this record shows the soprano’s extraordinary talent and musical insight at their pinnacle. The Siegfried Idyll displays a more tender side of Wagner and is included for its charm. (As this issue went to press, we learned that RCA was about to discontinue the Farrell recording, despite its superior performance. Copies are certain to be extant for a while in leading record stores.)
After Wagner came the innovators Mahler and Schoenberg in the Germanic line and Debussy in the French. Mahler, represented by Des Knaben Wunderhorn and followed by Schoenberg and Strauss, built the musical bridge from post-Romanticism to the more complex patterns of twentiethcentury music. Somewhat later Schoenberg turned music upside down with perfection of the twelve-tone system. Before he moved into this new system, he took his leaves from Wagner and Mahler, composing so sensuous yet delicate and intimate a work as Verklärte Nacht. Originally written for string sextet, it has also been prepared by Schoenberg himself for string orchestra. You may choose either version. Drawing on Wagner’s instrumentation and Mahler’s harmonic and rhythmic contributions, Richard Strauss fashioned his operas and tone poems, some droll, some acerbic, all highly musical and original. For the basic collection, other Strauss choices might do as well, but Til Eulenspiegel, Don Juan, and the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier ably encompass the many facets of their composer.
A BASIC LIST
Cantata No. 57 Selig ist der Mann and Cantata No. 140 Wachet Auf Soloists with Saar Chamber Orchestra, Karl Ristenpart, cond. NONESUCH 71029
Concerto for Orchestra (1943) Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA ALG 12909
Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61 Zeno Francescatti, violin, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. ODYSSEY Y-30042
L’Arlésienne Suites (with Offenbach: Gaité Parisienne) Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. COLUMBIA M-31848
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 Orchestre dela Suisse Romande, Ernst Ansermet, cond. LONDON STS-15383
Trio in E-flat for Horn, Violin, Piano, Op. 40 (with Schumann: Quintet) Myron Bloom, horn; Michael Tree, violin; Rudolf Serkin, piano COLUMBIA MS-7266
Preludes, Op. 28 Carol Rosenberger, piano DELOS 15311
Billy the Kid Suite and Appalachian Spring Suite Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. RCA LSC 3184
La Mer (with Ravel: Daphnis & Chloe Suite 2 and Pavanefor a Dead Infanta) Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. ODYSSEY Y-31928
Enigma Variations, Op. 36 (with Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves & English Folk Song Suite) London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, cond. ANGEL S-36799
Symphony in D minor French National Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. SERAPHIM S-60012
An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue London Festival Orchestra, Stanley Black, cond. LONDON 21009
Symphony No. 88 in G & Symphony No. 104 in D “London” New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. ANGEL s-36346
Trauermusik for Viola & Strings (with Wagner: Siegfried Idyll & Schoenberg: Verklarte Nacht) Cecil Aronowitz, viola, & English Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, cond. ANGEL s-36484
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1888) Maureen Forrester, contralto; Heinz Rehfuss, bass-baritone; & Vienna Festival Orchestra, Feliz Prohaska, cond. VANGUARD S-285
Concerto in C for Flute & Harp, K. 299 (with Sinfonia Concertante, K. 297b) Claude Monteux, flute; Osian Ellis, harp; & St. Martin-inthe-Fields Academy, Neville Marriner, cond. PHILLIPS 6500380
Arias Elly Ameling, soprano, & English Chamber Orchestra PHILLIPS 6500544
Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn & Strings, K. 297b (with Concerto for Flute & Harp, K. 299) St. Martin-in-the-Fields Academy, Neville Marriner, cond. PHILLIPS 6500380
Gaité Parisienne (with Bizet: L’Arlésienne) Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. COLUMBIA M-31848
Symphony in D, Op. 25 “Classical,” Love of Three Oranges Suite, Op. 33, Lieutenant Kije Suite, Op. 60 Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. COLUMBIA M-31812
Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 Gary Graffman, piano, & New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, cond. COLUMBIA M-31813
Daphnis & Chloé Suite No. 2 (with Pavane for a Dead Infanta and Debussy: La Mer) Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, cond. ODYSSEY Y-31928
Concerto No. 1 in A minor for Cello & Orchestra, Op. 33 (with Schumann: Cello Concerto) Jacqueline DuPré, cello, & New Philharmonia Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, cond. ANGEL S-36642
Verklärte Nacht (with Hindemith: Trauermusik & Wagner: Siegfried Idyll) English Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, cond. ANGEL S-36484
Trio No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 99 Isaac Stern, violin; Leonard Rose, cello; Eugene Istomin, piano COLUMBIA MS-6716
Concerto in A minor for Cello & Orchestra, Op. 129 (with Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto, No. 1) Jacqueline DuPré, cello, & New Philharmonia Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, cond. ANGEL S-36642
Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 44 (with Brahms: Horn Trio) Rudolf Serkin & Budapest Quartet COLUMBIA MS-7266
Symphony No. 1 in F, Op. 10 & Age of Gold (ballet suite) Op. 22 London Symphony Orchestra, Jean Martinon, cond. LONDON STS-15180
Der Rosenkavalier (suite), Op. 59, Don Juan, Op. 20, Til Eulenspiegel, Op. 28 Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. RCA ARL 11408
Firebird Suite (with Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet) New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, cond. COLUMBIA MS-6014
Romeo and Juliet (1880) (with Stravinsky: Firebird Suite) New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, cond. COLUMBIA MS-6014
Fantasia on Greensleeves & English Folk Song Suite (with Elgar: Enigma Variations) London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, cond. ANGEL s-36799
Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene) and Tristan und Isolde (Prelude and Liebestod) Eileen Farrell, soprano, & Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA AGL 1-1274
Siegfried Idyll (with Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht and Hindemith: Trauermusik) English Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, cond. ANGEL S-36484
Later, in the second quarter of the present century, a rush of works came from the pen of Paul Hindemith, violist, composer, and experimenter. One of them, Trauermusik for Viola and Strings, clearly reflects the fresh kind of harmony he added to the musical scene.
The modern French line begins with Debussy and moves on to Ravel and later to George Gershwin, the American who worshipped at Ravel’s pedestal, as well as to a whole school of French, Swiss, and Russians. Debussy, who brought impressionism to music, made extensive use of pentatonic, or fivenote, scales and harmonies to render his statements. His music at times is shimmering, almost fragile, at other times vigorous and robust; and passion is not beyond its scope. La Mer, his tonal impression of the sea, belongs in any record collection.
For sensuality in music, few can match Maurice Ravel. Even his intimate chamber works, which are plentiful, project the subtlety of fine perfume. And his big orchestral pieces, the ballets in particular, are hair-raising in the excitement they generate in listeners. Ravel was a successful teacher as well as a composer and innovator, being the first classical musician to incorporate jazz into his compositions; he encouraged others to do likewise. Gershwin’s An American in Paris is the product of his studies with Ravel. So any of Daphnis and Chloé and An American in Paris—and Rhapsody in Blue, too—would be at home in a record library.
No collection worth its salt can ignore Stravinsky or Béla Bartók. The Suite from the ballet Firebird and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra are both of this century, roughly thirty-three years apart. Stravinsky had already left Russia for Paris, where he did his early ballet scores for Diaghilev, when he composed Firebird, the music blending the influences of czarist Russia and avantgarde France. Bartok wrote the Concerto for Orchestra in the United States on a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, having fled his native Hungary after the Nazis moved in. Some maintain it is the finest orchestral work produced in the twentieth century.
Two lighter works out of the last century offer bright orchestral colors and a touch or two of mirth, thereby bringing a change of pace to the basic list. One is music of Jacques Offenbach arranged by Manuel Rosenthal as the score for the ballet Gaité Parisienne, a cheerful gallimaufry of singable tunes. The other is Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suites 1 & 2, a regular visitor to promenade and pops programs.
From England, three enjoyable items turn up, the eminently respectable Enigma Variations by Elgar and the Fantasia on Greensleeves and English Folk-Song Suite by Ralph Vaughan Williams. From this country come two dance scores by the dean of American composers, Aaron Copland. Copland’s contributions to music are vast, as composer, conductor, critic, and teacher. No essential musical form has escaped his attention, but the theater and the ballet have given him numerous opportunities to exercise his talent. Billy the Kid was composed for the Ballet Theater and Appalachian Spring for Martha Graham’s dance company. Both have become fixtures of the orchestral repertoire.
Finally, there are works by three Russians, the fabulous White Russian piano virtuoso and composer Sergei Rachmaninov and the Soviet composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich. Two of Rachmaninov’s wellknown compositions for piano and orchestra are included: Concerto No. 2 in C Minor and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Prokofiev, who tackled many musical forms, shows off his versatility in the Classical Symphony, excerpts from his opera Love of Three Oranges, and a suite from the music for the film Lieutenant Kije. Shostakovich’s idiom is unmistakable in his Symphony No. 1 and the ballet Age of Gold.
There’s where I would invest my first $150. It buys a lot of fine music and provides wide coverage both latitudinally and longitudinally on twenty-five long-playing records. The additional $150 could add tastes of Boccherini, Benjamin Britten, Bruckner, Chausson, Dvorák, Stephen Foster, Handel, Charles Ives, Mendelssohn, Monteverdi, Moussorgsky, Puccini, Rossini, Sibelius, and Vivaldi, along with further works by composers on the original list. Proportionately, a supplementary list would contain fewer individual compositions because one might include various two-record sets such as the Brandenburg Concertos of Bach, the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, and Puccini’s La Bohème. From these two lists the next move is in other directions— the serial music descendant from Schoenberg, the electronic music of Berio and Stockhausen, or the paths taken by Wuorinen, Boulez, John Cage, and other present-day composers—but that’s a subject for some other time.
Performance choices are often multiple. Sometimes the best ones occur on lesser-known labels that concentrate on conscientious music-making rather than on headline names. In this respect, the Nonesuch catalog is worth consulting. Nonesuch not only turns out firstrate recording quality but also recruits for recording sessions interesting young performers whose names may not be as familiar as the stars’ but whose interpretive art need not take a back-row seat. Besides, the label contains many delightful, offbeat pieces of repertoire which may be substituted for some of the works featured here.
Other secondary or minor labels produced by the major or independent companies are also worth consideration. Not only do they help the budget, but artistically and technically they are of good quality. Among labels deserving investigation are Argo, Bach Guild, Concert Classics, Elektra, Epic, Everest, Haydn Society, Klavier, Monitor, Odyssey, Oiseau-Lyre, Seraphim, Turnabout, Vanguard, Vox, and Westminister.
My own preferences rest on musical, recording, and price considerations. Between the luminously recorded virtuoso performance and the faithfully recorded sensitive one truly wed to the composer’s intentions, I often lean toward the latter, especially when it represents a substantial savings in cost. Musical capability and integrity are, of course, paramount criteria; recording quality is another. Though the glamorous personages among the ranks of artists tend to assure opulent performances, you can find these criteria met as well in other versions by less-publicized names. Except for some of the couplings that lock you into specific renditions, there is generally an ample range of choices for most of the works recommended.