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Three Favorite Compositions?

December 14, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

WQXR, New York City's only all-classical radio station, is having their annual "Classical Countdown" on the two days preceding the new year. The selections are compiled from listeners' favorites. Even if you don't live in the broadcast radius, you can still vote here for your three favorite compositions, and then listen via their web site. The deadline for voting is 5 PM EST today (December 14, 2007).

Selecting three favorite pieces of music is harder than it seems. Obviously you don't want to go with the chestnuts, but you don't want to be too obscure either, or your selection won't make a difference in the final tally. Fortunately, my musical tastes are utterly conventional, so here goes:

1. Schubert's String Quintet in C Major (D. 956)

Composed a few months before his death, Schubert's only string quintet is one of the staples of the chamber music repertoire. Rather than add another viola to the standard string quartet, Schubert added another cello, giving the music a deep rich sound. The Wikipedia entry says that that the String Quintet is "deeply sublime, with moments of unique transcendental beauty," whatever that means.

I love the way the opening sounds like the music is waking up from a deep slumber. But my favorite movement is the second, so slow it seems to suspend time, until it bursts into a passage of painful yearning. (Whatever that means.)

I don't have a favorite recording of this work. It's usually performed by an established string quartet with a guest cello. I have a recording of the Cleveland Quartet with Yo-Yo Ma that I like, but recently I've been listening more to a live recording of the Emerson Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich.

2. Bach's Goldberg Variations

On paper, the Goldberg Variations sounds as dry as dust. An air, followed by 30 variations, every third one a canon, followed by the air, with everything in binary form. But the Goldberg Variations is a wonderful mix of delicate beauty and vibrant power.

I used to be a purist when it came to Bach. I wouldn't allow anybody to play the Goldberg Variations on anything except a two-manual harpsichord. Except for Glenn Gould. Glenn Gould got a free pass and could do anything he wanted.

I still like Glenn Gould's two recordings very much, but many other pianists have recently been doing interesting things with the Goldberg Variations. My favorite these days is the quirky performance by András Schiff on ECM, but I also feel an infinity to Angela Hewitt's recording. For an authentic harpsichord rendition, check out Richard Egarr. (I'm afraid I can't join the general acclaim for Simone Dinnerstein's recent recording. It's not so much the tempi that bother me but a murkiness I hear.)

And Now I'm Stuck

I'm stuck because I realize I have only one choice left! More Bach, perhaps? A Brandenburg Concert? But which one? A Cantata? But which one? Ahh — the St. Matthew Passion. But it's not like WQXR is going to play the whole St. Matthew Passion right after Christmas!

I like the Brahms Requiem very much, and a lot of Brahms chamber music. Perhaps the Clarinet Quintet?

I can't ignore Mahler! The Mahler 2nd Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde perhaps?

Surely Beethoven belongs in the favorite three! The Ninth Symphony is one of my favorites, but so are the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th. Nor can Beethoven chamber music be ignored. The A Minor String Quartet is to die for.

Favorite opera: Mozart's Don Giovanni, but it's not like WQXR is going to play the whole thing. Why not just go with Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen? Is that cheating? How about just one scene? How about the last 18 minutes of Die Walküre, the part known as "Wotan's Farewell"?

And what's with all the Germans and Austrians? Might I possibly slip a little Debussy in there? La Mer, perhaps? Or maybe Stravinsky's Rite of Spring? (That would have been in my top three back in my 20s.) Perhaps Purcell's Dido and Aeneas?

Let's go with Das Lied von der Erde as runner-up, but award the coveted third spot to a very different song cycle.

3. Schubert's Winterreise

For many years, this was the only vocal music of Schubert I listened to. I've recently been immersed in the Hyperion recordings of Schubert's complete lieder (some 600 songs on 37 CDs) but Winterrise still stands head and shoulders above all the rest. These 24 songs to poems of Wilhelm Müller chronicle the journey of a dejected and rejected man through the depths of despair. And because it's a winter journey, Winterreise actually qualifies as Christmas music!

There are tons of recordings of Winterreise and I only have about eight. A 1985 recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Alfred Brendel is a classic, as is a 1988 recording of Christa Ludwig accompanied by James Levine. Thomas Quastoff has an excellent voice for Winterreise and his 1998 recording is first rate. But surely it's hard to believe that anyone was more suited to sing Winterreise than Hans Hotter, whose 1954 recording accompanied by Gerald Moore is one of the greatest recordings of all time.

If that makes my top-three list a little Schubert heavy, so be it.

Those are my three cents. The phone lines are now open.


Comments:

Said the alien to Schubert, "take me to your lieder."

I, like you Charles, can list two favorites immediately, but have no idea what to choose for number three (I can't even guess, at the moment). The two are:

1. Vivaldi - concerto for violin and strings ("in due cori") in B flat major, RV 538.

2. Tallis - "Spem in Alium" (the famous motet in 40 parts)

— Christopher Rivera, Fri, 14 Dec 2007 12:19:36 -0500 (EST)

I pulled out one of my CDs of Tallis music when he unexpectedly showed up as a character in The Tudors. — Charles

An "affinity", not infinity... whatever that means. :)

— xxx, Fri, 14 Dec 2007 12:21:10 -0500 (EST)

I am partial to piano music, if you couldn't tell by my list:

(1) Beethoven's Piano Sonata #32: Beethoven's only sonata with just two movements. The last movement is quite haunting and ends in a way unlike any piano sonata.

(2) Mozart's Piano Concerto #21: ba ba ba ba baaaaaaaa ba da ba.

(3) Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto #3: NOT THE RACH!

Scott Mitchell, Sat, 15 Dec 2007 12:41:41 -0500 (EST)

That Mozart piano concerto became a pop hit about 40 years ago when it was used on the soundtrack of the sexy Swedish movie Elvira Madigan. — Charles

Regarding the Mozart concerto, yeah, it's a shame that the 21st is best known for that middle movement because the first and third movements are far better. I actually am not very fond of the second movement.

Well, if that's too mainstream a choice, how about Mozart's 23rd piano concerto? That one is a close second to the 21st, in my opinion.

Scott Mitchell, Sun, 16 Dec 2007 01:18:47 -0500 (EST)

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1. Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini

2. Shostakovich's 10th symphony

My third is a toss-up between Samuel Barber's "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance" and Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo". But I'm going with Barber...

3. Barber's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance

mike h, Tue, 18 Dec 2007 09:03:00 -0500 (EST)

The first three that come to my mind:

1. Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, the original piano version

2. Bach's 2nd Ouverture, the one ending with the Badinerie

3. Bartok's 4th String Quartet, especially for the allegro pizzicato 4th movement

— Stephan, Thu, 20 Dec 2007 19:52:57 -0500 (EST)

Charles,

Beethoven's piano sonatas are in the category of its own. Since you like all of his symphonies, you will surely recognize fragments in the sonatas. Particularly the playful version of "destiny knocking on the door" is worth the prize :)

And not to forget: the good man was deaf and in pain when he wrote that powerful music.

— Sam, Wed, 5 Mar 2008 16:31:33 -0500 (EST)

I agree with your no1 choice. greatest music ever written. Can see the point for goldbergs and for winterreise. I would probably have gone for an all schubert choice, adding the unfinished or the last two piano sonatas on your list.

And then there are so many other songs, and the trios, the 9th symphony and more piano music. What would music have become had he lived just another two-three years?

Omiros, Fri, 22 Aug 2008 18:19:32 -0400 (EDT)

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