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Top 10 Classical Albums for People Who Don't Know Shit About Classical Music

In this romanticized meeting of two of the greatest classical composers, Beethoven fingers Mozart's organ.
In this romanticized meeting of two of the greatest classical composers, Beethoven fingers Mozart's organ.
From the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San José State University

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It's been around for centuries, musicians still play it and audiences love it, so classical music must be pretty awesome, right? Hell yes!

That doesn't mean that the average Joe can dive right into any classical composition. Symphonies and sonatas can be hard to understand because: 1) there are no lyrics; 2) there are ten tons of musical ideas packed into one piece (unlike the typical pop song with a hook and contrasting bridge); and 3) the length of the works are often long.

However, sooner or later most curious listeners want to give classical music a try, and over the years I've recommended the following pieces with successful results. Classical fans argue about which performance of a Beethoven symphony is best, but here's a secret: for newcomers, the performance is less important than the actual composition. (Note: There's no vocal music here. Many newbies have trouble with operatic singing, and different languages.) Enjoy!

10) J.S. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

(Philips 468549)

Concertos are easier to understand than symphonies. Everyone can relate to a soloist playing out in front of a group. There's an inherent drama in the relation between what the soloist plays and what the rest of the musicians do. 17th and 18th century concertos are shorter than their 19th and 20th century counterparts, and easier to appreciate.

Some composers aren't happy with just one soloist; they have to put three or four in front. The most glorious examples of this type of work (known as a concerto grosso) are the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is an inexpensive 2-fer CD that collects all six Brandenburgs. Try the 2nd; it's such a rousing piece that a performance was included on the Voyager probe to introduce aliens to Terran music. The 4th and 5th are easy to grasp as well.

Wonderful as the Brandenburgs are, the first work you should go to in this set is the Double Violin Concerto. People who've never listened to classical music respond immediately and magically to this work. When I taught, I used it to illustrate counterpoint (two or more melodies happening at the same time), and it never failed to captivate first-time listeners.

9) Julian Bream—The Ultimate Guitar Collection

(RCA 33705)

Classical guitar music can be an easy leap for rock fans, and most of the works in this collection are brief. Bream plays guitar and lute (an earlier relative of the guitar) here; the two works in the collection that you should hear are Antonio Vivaldi's Lute Concerto and Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. You may know the slow movement of the latter played by Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain, or more notoriously as the background music for Chrysler's Cordoba commercials.

8) Eight Seasons

Gidon Kremer, violin, with Kremerata Baltica

(Nonesuch 79568)

How do you listen to music without words? It's one of the biggest hurdles to pop/rock/rap fans when dealing with classical music. Some composers describe a story with their compositions, which can help a newbie follow along.

This is known as program music, and its great granddaddy is The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. These four violin concertos represent spring, summer, autumn and winter. In them you can hear birds singing, a dog barking, drunken peasants, gnats buzzing and, in the video above, a hailstorm smashing crops.

Usually these four Vivaldi concertos are played consecutively, but on this recording, each of Vivaldi's Mediterranean seasons is contrasted with a season in Buenos Aires, as imagined by Astor Piazzolla. Piazzolla updated the Argentinian tango from a sepia-toned, mustache-twirling exercise in nostalgia to gritty, bittersweet music redolent of dive bars and brothels. These arrangements for string orchestra remain true to the originals for Piazzolla's tango group.

7) Byron Janis Plays Moussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

Byron Janis, Antal Dorati

(Mercury Living Presence 434346)

One of the most beloved pieces of program music for the piano is Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Moussorgsky. The different movements are musical depictions of his friend's paintings. You can hear gnomes, catacombs, unhatched chickens dancing, a busy marketplace, an ox cart and even two Jewish men talking, one of whom is as solemn as a rabbi and the other is an inveterate kvetcher. The final movements (heard in the above video) are every bit as difficult to play as they sound.

The nice thing about this recording is that you also get an orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition. Maurice Ravel, in addition to being one of the great composers of his time, was also a genius at orchestration. Listen to how Ravel expanded the instrumental colors while respecting Moussorgsky's original melodies and harmonies.

6) Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, etc.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Garrick Ohlsson

(RCA 60862)

While George Gershwin's concert music has been esteemed by European musicians for decades, it's only recently that American orchestras have decided that works like Rhapsody in Blue or American in Paris are "good" enough to be programmed on a symphony orchestra subscription series concert. This disc contains Gershwin's biggest classical hits.

Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the greatest musical authorities on Gershwin. He uses the original Paul Whiteman Band instrumentation in his performance of Rhapsody in Blue (it's usually played in a later arrangement for full symphony orchestra), and gives all the pieces on this CD the snap, bristle and tenderness they deserve.

5) Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6

Lorin Maazel, Berlin Philharmonic

(Eloquence 4592342)

Three short repeated notes and a descent to a longer held note — it's the most famous theme in music history, and even if you've never listened to Beethoven's 5th Symphony, you've probably heard it.

Beethoven is the grand architect of classical music. Brick by musical brick, he lays a foundation and builds an indestructible edifice. The 5th Symphony is one of the great roller coaster rides in the repertory.

Paired with this is the 6th Symphony, nicknamed The Pastoral. It's Beethoven's most successful attempt at program music and, despite a thunderstorm in the 4th movement, one of his sunniest compositions.

4) Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 From the New World; Slavonic Dances

Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic

(Deutsche Grammophon 435590)

Dvorak took Beethoven's symphony model, expanded it a little, added more up-to-date harmonies and injected a healthy dose of nationalism — from the United States! He was the first great European composer to have a professorship in America. Dvorak had introduced Czech folk influences into his music (heard here in the Slavonic Dances) and pronounced that an American music must be based on American folk music. Imagine how scandalized American society was when Dvorak said that its true folk music was that of, um, er, "Negroes" and "Indians." His New World Symphony has the compelling musical rhetoric of Beethoven's symphonies, with African-American rhythms and melodies and a gorgeous slow movement that sounds like a spiritual.

3) Haydn: String Quartets Op. 76, Nos. 1-3

Kodaly Quartet

(Naxos 8550314)

The string quartet (two violins, one viola, and a cello) has been a favorite ensemble for composers ever since Joseph Haydn pioneered its use. It's a challenge to write for four similar instruments with a limited number of notes that can be played at the same time. Like a symphony, a string quartet has several movements (usually four) designed to be heard in succession. The three quartets heard here are terrific examples of Haydn's mature style — great melodies molded by musical persuasion, enlivened by Haydn's wit and always elegant.

2) Mozart: Clarinet Concerto; Clarinet Quintet

Martin Frost

(Bis 1263)

Every day clarinetists give thanks to the deity of their choice that one of Mozart's good friends just happened to play a recently invented instrument called the clarinet. These two works (the second is for clarinet + string quartet) are the finest pieces ever written for that instrument.

While Mozart wrote some classic symphonies and string quartets, he was most inspired by the concerto format. One of the greatest opera composers, Mozart's concertos are compelling and profound dramas involving a soloist and his/her relationship to the orchestra. They can be tragic, but in the Clarinet Concerto (and the Clarinet Quintet), Mozart was sublimely happy.

I love the Clarinet Concerto. Whenever I'm blue, I put it on and it never fails to make me smile and feel warm and tingly inside. The genius of Mozart is that his music is so direct, so transparent, and yet you can listen to it over and over and over and never get tired of it.

1) Terry Riley: In C

Terry Riley and the SUNY Buffalo Center for Creative/Performing Arts

(Sony 745368)

Here is the first recording of the piece that begat minimalism, In C, supervised by the composer. You've probably heard of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but Riley pretty much created the minimalist style in this work: a steady pulse; musical patterns that repeat and collide with each other, forming new patterns and textures; and static harmonies that evolve very slowly. It may sound intimidating, but In C is one big party, a fun, raucous jam.

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