My best albums ever

Some of my best CD and MP3 albums

Dvorak: Slavonic Dances, op 46 & 72.
Katia & Marielle Labeque.
Philips 426 264-2.

Over the years, I’ve learned more from this one recording about how to phrase with authority and finesse and mastery of temporal elements than from all my years of formal piano instruction combined. While these are sure to be the most extravagantly romantic interpretations ever recorded of the Dances, it is hard to imagine that Dvorak would have been displeased. I suspect he might even have exclaimed, “Yes! At last!” Ranging from rambunctious exuberance to almost unbearable wistfulness, this is the most living, breathing, and (at times) downright playful recording I’ve ever heard. Of anything. And after this recording, I’ve never heard another of the Dances that felt even remotely satisfying. If I had to name a flaw, it would be that if you listen frequently enough and very closely, you may begin to discern one of the sisters’ occasional squeals and other whale songs in the background. However, they are not intrusive or disturbing and most listeners won’t even notice.

This can be a difficult CD to find. It has apparently been impossible for long periods to buy this CD anywhere in North America. I ordered my second and third (don’t ask…) copies from a German distributor that no longer carries them. A more recently released alternative is the anthology “Piano Fantasy: Music for Two Pianos”, which includes this full release as well as a variety of the Labeques’ other releases. On Amazon, the anthology actually costs less than prices I’ve seen for this release alone.

Chopin: Complete Nocturnes.
Brigitte Engerer.
HMF 501430

I consider this the canonical recording. The interpretation is fluid and subtle, the engineering superb.

Chopin: The Nocturnes.
Maria Joao Pires.
DG 447 096-2

This was long my favorite recording of the Nocturnes before discovering the Engerer recording.

If this recording has a weakness — and it does — it is that Pires plays the Nocturnes as concert pieces, taking full advantage of the dynamic range of the concert grand on which she performs them. But the Nocturnes are salon music. We have Chopin’s own words on that. He always preferred the salon to the concert hall, most particularly with the Nocturnes and Mazurkas. Furthermore, his piano did not have the dynamic range of modern pianos. His fortississimo was considerably less than the fff on a modern 9-foot Steinway concert grand. The Nocturnes are the kind of music you should hear on a patio beside Lake Lucerne, filtering through open doors from the adjacent room.

Chopin: Nocturnes (Complete).
Ingrid Haebler.
Vox SVUX 2007. [That’s the catalog number, not a date.]
“Vox Box” LP available through various LP-to-CD services.

There’s always a special place in the heart for your first.

For several decades, this was my first and favorite recording of the Nocturnes. Until Pires and then Engerer, other recordings tended to feel less natural and less emotionally involved by comparison to this one. Given the popularity of more formal interpretations such as Rubinstein’s, mine may be a minority viewpoint.

Field: Nocturnes of John Field (1782-1837).
John O’Conor.
Telarc CD-80199.

This might be the most perfect CD for romantic co-bathing near dusk, with the room lit mostly by reflected dapples of bathwater on the ceiling. It’s easy to see how these pieces were (reportedly) an inspiration for Chopin’s Nocturnes. They mostly lack the passion and drama of Chopin’s nocturnes but that’s by intent. They’re beautiful and memorable little pieces.

Chopin: Etudes.
Anni Malikova.
RS 051-0027.

This incredibly clean and dynamic performance displaced my previous longtime favorite of Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Franck: Sonata in A Maj for Violin and Piano.
Jascha Heifetz, violin; Brooks Smith, piano.
Heifetz: The Final Recital (The Heifetz Collection vol 46).
RCA Victor

The historic performance by two unsurpassed masters. Full of passion and vigor. Ridiculously expensive at almost $90 these days, but I’ve never heard a better one.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto #5 (Emperor).
Alfred Brendel, piano. Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Piano Concerti Nos. 1-5, recorded 1975-1977.
Musical Heritage Society MHS 532660M

Simply magnificent. Lets the music speak for itself.

Beethoven: Archduke Trio.
Beaux Arts Trio.
Piano Trios, op 70#1 (“Geister”), op 97 (“Archduke”).
Philips 412 891-2.

Thank God for late-life surprises. I should have encountered this in my twenties but first heard it (the adagio, specifically) much later in the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Nothing is so wonderful as hearing such a masterpiece for the first time, and the pleasure only becomes greater as fewer and fewer unheard marvels remain.

The peerless Beaux Arts Trio performs it to perfection.

Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9.
Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1987-1990.
London/Decca 430 400-2.

My best-ever selection for the symphonies. They’re simply right. Self-confident, masterful, content to let the music speak for itself. That’s not to say they’re flawless. There’s tempo competition between the strings and the winds in places, as well as some carelessly dotted figures in the strings at times. And the first digital recording by von Karajan gives some stiff competition. But this is the set I keep coming back to.

Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9.
Herbert von Karajan, Berliner Philharmoniker, 1961-1963.
Vocalists Janovitz, Rossel-Majdan, Kmentt, Berry.
“Complete Beethoven Edition, Volume 1: Symphonies.”
(digitally remastered from Beethoven Bicentennial Collection).
Still von Karajan’s best Beethoven Symphonies recording.

Another excellent version, superior I think to von Karajan’s later versions. Priced over $100.

Johansson, Jan: Folkvisor (Folk Songs).
Megafon MFCD-0410

Two of the most popular Jazz LPs ever released in Sweden, together on one CD. Jazz pa svenska and Jazz pa ryska (Jazz in Swedish, Jazz in Russian) are jazz improvisations on folk songs from Sweden and Russia by Jan Johansson on piano with assorted other musicians.

Agnus Dei: Music of Inner Harmony.
The Choir of New College Oxford.

I’ll leave it to Amazon to list the contents. These are not only selected crown jewels of sacred music, they are also quite possibly the most beautiful performance of each that you’ll ever hear.

Mozart Requiem.
The Academy of Ancient Music with Christopher Hogwood.
L’Oiseau Lyre 411 712-2.

There’s honor to spare and to share in this recording, but legendary soprano Emma Kirkby gives the most perfect performance I’ve heard. Her performance here inspired an entire chapter in a fictional project of mine and lent a crucial dimension to its most important character.

More to come.