Early this morning, a correspondent sent in the following terse note through the contact form:
“New to classical...not an easy Q. but recommend 5 of the best”
Where to start? All we know about our correspondent is that he's male and writes e-mails early in the morning: from this, how on earth can we pick five works from the entire classical canon? But never being one to refuse a challenge, here’s a go. And just listing five CDs to buy isn’t really good enough.
First point: start by going to a real concert, not by buying a bunch of CDs. You’ll understand what all the fuss is about much more quickly and powerfully. Buy the CD after the concert if you like.
For a starter in the concert hall, try Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 - the “New World” Symphony. It’s really easy to listen to, rich in orchestral texture with big brass, lush strings thumping timpanis. More importantly, it’s choc-a-bloc with fabulous melodies (if you’re above a certain age, you’ll recognise the Hovis advert). There’s something about the orchestration and the drive of the last movement that makes you just want to punch the air (but don’t try that in the concert hall).
Next stop is to move up a gear in emotional intensity, and it doesn’t get any more intense than Mozart’s Requiem. If you’re already of a Christian religious bent, you’ll be predisposed to what the music is communicating, and if (like me) you’re not, don’t worry about it: this is still the most passionate, soul-enhancing, traumatic music that you can listen to, and it’s suitable for a novice - you will get the point without having a trained ear or a great musical vocabulary.
Once again, if you want to do this properly, don’t buy the CD - go and see the Requiem in a church. The Requiem is much performed: in Eastern Europe, this tends to be in a church, free, and as part of a bona fide memorial service. We saw it at the Matthias church in Budapest, which was a life-changing experience. Another way of getting to grips with the Requiem is to watch the movie of Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus”.
After all that high emotional drama, come back to earth with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. When Mussorgsky's artist friend Viktor Hartmann died at the age of 39, an exhibition was held in his memory: Pictures is a suite for solo piano which imagines the listener walking around a gallery and stopping to look at each painting. Each “picture” is a miniature masterpiece in itself and leaves you astonished at how much imagery you can get out of just one musical instrument. Read the concert programme or the sleeve notes as you go - to get the full effect, you need to know things like “Baba Yaga is a witch in Russian folklore”. The piece is often played in an orchestral arrangement by Ravel: personally, I go for the piano version every time.
If these pieces have seemed a little old-fashioned, try something written in the 20th century: Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. If you’re interested in dance, go and see this at the ballet, otherwise buy a CD of one of the three Suites that Prokofiev extracted from the full score (which is far too long to be played outside the context of an actual ballet). I’ve chosen this because it contains a healthy dose of the discords and musical clashes that add excitement and interest to 20th century music, while still being very accessible, dramatic and full of melodies that are easy to get to grips with. By the way, here's some trivia: at some point in the last few years, Sunderland Football Club played the Knights’ Dance from Romeo and Juliet over the P A system at the Stadium of Light. It went down so well with the fans that it’s now played whenever the team comes out.
Finally, here’s something completely different, purer and much, much older: take a trip back in time to Restoration England and listen to some of Henry Purcell’s vocal music, starting with Dido’s Lament “When I am Laid in Earth” from the opera Dido and Aeneas. I'm going to cheat by adding a second of my favourites: the song “Music for a while”. This is contemplative and escapist music, to be played when you need to be removed from the cares of your daily life. To use Dryden’s words, “Music for a while shall all your cares beguile”. Music for a while can be sung either by male or female voices: if you want a truly unearthly sound unlike any non-classical music you've heard, find a CD sung by a counter-tenor (the recording shown below is a vintage one by the wonderful Alfred Deller).
Before anyone complains, yes, I know this is completely subjective, I haven’t put in any Bach or Beethoven and there isn’t a single concerto. What I’ve tried to do is to give a novice listener a taste for the range of different experiences available, hoping to tempt them to more. But then, five pieces was never going to be enough...
Here are some links to the pieces mentioned:
5th February 2010