Charles Petzold

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.