Apr 092020

I do own a half dozen classical music albums – the real-deal, old-timey stuff by composers prior to the 20th century, but I’ve never gotten any feel for classical music as a whole. I know that I can better focus on a string quartet than a full orchestra. I know that people tinkling complex stuff out on a piano often doesn’t interest me (although last year I heard a piece that appealed to me in the background of a TV show and realized it was a Chopin piece, so maybe there’s hope). Years ago, I bought Handel‘s Messiah, performed on old-timey instruments, from the time when that piece was written. I’m not sure if this was a cool move, in classical music lover terms or not, but it seemed as if it was.

I own a Mahler symphony on CD that I heard my mistake one morning, as my radio alarm when off earlier than expected, while a classical music program was broadcasting. I still love that one, but I forget which number it it. Maybe his third. I’ve been listening to a lot of his stuff this week. His 10th symphony, which may have been unfinished, appeals to me for some reason.

This gets to my question: Since all classical albums are “covers,” how might I go about checking out the best “cover artists?” I guess that lovers of classical music have go-to conductors, but how would I know one is to my potential liking?

Are there classical music labels that fans of the genre can rely on?

Is there anything to be gleaned from the album cover? Do the beige covers with a sketch of the composer promise one thing versus the covers showing the conductor in action? What about the covers that use a piece of artwork from the general time and geography of the composer? (They strike me as the cheesiest of album covers.)

You get where I’m coming from on this, right? I look forward to your assistance.


  25 Responses to “This May Be the Wrong Place to Ask, but…”

  1. cherguevara

    Baker’s Autobiographical Dictionary of Musicians is a book that seems like a dry reference, but some of the entries are surprisingly entertaining and witty, the mark of the editor, the brilliant Nicolas Slonimsky. Under an entry of “recording” (or sound recording? I can’t recall) he discusses the idea of a recording becoming a reference point for the listener, who then decries other recordings as being at the wrong tempo, poorly interpreted, too closely recorded, etc. It becomes a musical version of George Carlin’s bit about driving, where anyone faster than you is a “maniac” and anyone slower is an “idiot.” With the major labels, you can expect standards of musicianship and recording quality – legacy recordings possibly excepted. As a baseline for trying out music, simply having heard of a conductor, soloist or ensemble is enough to go on. Sometimes the first recording I hear (or the one I own) does become my point of reference, but I’ve also had the experience of hearing other recordings that I feel are superior, or more enjoyable, than the one I knew. I must have 10 different recordings of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and my least- and most- favorites change over time. That comes with familiarity, which shouldn’t stop you from just picking out something on instinct and giving it a go.

    Most classical album covers are cheap, some are more artful, but it’s not reliable to use them as a reference – I love the old Nonsuch ones, and those recordings are good too. I have some recordings on the Everest label, the cover art was cool but those recordings are awful. Bis is an interesting label. Mercury Living Presence recordings. Musical Heritage Society put out some interesting records too.

    A few years ago, I had a movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons earwormed in my head, which I resolved by playing it one weekend morning. I blurted an apology to my wife for playing such an obvious, old saw, musical selection. She told me I was an elitist!

  2. Classical is not for me, but Chopin’s Prelude in E minor is an exception. Click the link, and you’ll see why.


    E. Pluribus

  3. Helpful stuff, cher, thanks! Keep these classical music insights coming. I’ve moved onto Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, conducted by someone named Teodor Currentzis. The cover is some old-time sketch of leaves covering a face, which was probably free of licensing fees.

  4. 2000 Man

    I think you need one of those Penguin Guides. You can probably order one on Amazon. I’d suggest just listening to Rock instead. I tried jazz and classical and I just don’t have what it takes, so I just gave up. I’ve found it’s a shortcoming I can live with.


    I’m not sure a Penguin Guide will do it for me. Reading about classical is like reading descriptions of wine, with its “hints of orange peel and seaside gravel,” isn’t it? I’m counting on Townspeople to speak to me in a language that I’ll understand.

    Maybe a starting place is for someone to help me understand what I like about Mahler’s music. I was talking to the classically trained general slocum offline the other day, and he gave me a thumbs up for investigating more Mahler. He wrote something along the lines of, “Mahler rules!” You know how that made me feel? A thumbs up from the general on anything related to my efforts toward reaching Mt Cool is always appreciated. I’ve felt this way about slocum since we first met in college. We need people like that. There’s probably someone cooler than even him whose approval he seeks. Circle of life.

    One day I had the realization that I liked the taste of IPA beers. I didn’t know what it was that I liked, though. Not being a drinker, I had no language for beer. I asked a friend, “What is the quality I like in these IPA beers? They’re like drinking bread.” She told me I like the yeasty quality of them. That’s the kind of inner knowledge I seek regarding Mahler and other classical music I stumble across that sounds better than wallpaper.

  6. cherguevara

    Some pieces that randomly come to mind, jumping off of Mahler… You might try Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven symphonies 6, 7, 8, Samuel Barber’s cello concerto, Sibelius symphonies or violin concerto, Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Seems you lean toward the romantic orchestral music, there’s a lot of war horses in that field.

  7. I’m not sure if you remember my Professor Vauclain, who disdained certain composers that were not “hearing” their music in their head and then copying to a score. (It came up in a Sonic Youth discussion.) A particular favorite of his was Bartok, especially the String Quartets. They are good but I think his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is really easy to get into.

    I think Stravinsky can’t be beat, especially the Rite of Spring. I originally fell for this piece on a Boulez recording but later heard and much preferred a Stravinsky conducted version which, frankly, rocked harder. Like you, I don’t generally feel qualified to differentiate classical performances/performers.

    I’ve also stumbled across to obscure but interesting pieces either because they appeared on a record with something else or because I came across them in some class in college. A particular favorite of mine is “L’Homme et Son Desir” by Darius Milhaud, an early 20th Century French composer, but nothing else I’ve heard by him touches it.

  8. cher, I will follow up on the composers you suggest, thanks! A Dvorak string quartet was the first classical CD I ever bought.

    geo, I certainly remember your old professor!!! That Bartok piece is one of the first classical albums (on vinyl) I ever bought! general slocum turned me onto Bartok when I played in Junior Mints, his most slocum-like conglomeration before he started the Big Mess Orchestra. We used to play a Bartok piece. I think I played bass on it. (Coincidentally [“Plate of shrimp” – is that what the sign reads in Repo Man?], my wife just ducked in to hand me a Junior Mint.) Also coincidentally, I was just listening to Rite of Spring. That one is easy to like before of the energy. I’ll check out that Milhaud piece next.

  9. diskojoe

    I got into classical music about the same time as I got into rock music, when I was in high school. I remember going to Strawberries in downtown Boston for the first time & one of the records that I bought was a Bach harpsichord album on the Nonesuch label which I still have. I started out getting harpsichord albums because of their use in mid 60s pop/rock songs. Then I branched out to the major classical artists. I still enjoy harpsichord music as well a classical guitar & piano.You can get a lot of classical music in various formats cheaply in thrift shops.The one label you can look for sustained quality is the Deutsche Grammphon label, who’s been at it for over 100 yrs. I purchased a DG 111th anniversary 60 CD box set from Borders for $25.00. I actually felt guilty about purchasing it & I returned it to the store saying that there had to be a mistake. The cashier looked it up & said that it was indeed the price that it sold for. It’s probably one of the reasons why Borders went under.

  10. Let me know what you think of the Milhaud. I stumbled on it years ago on a Nonsuch record that I bought for a Varese piece. It also had Honegger’s Pacific 231, a pretty cool “futurist” piece themed on a steam locomotive which I remembered hearing in school.

    One of Slocum’s sound collage pieces on his Sound Cloud page has “Bartok” in the title; I think it uses an excerpt from a Cello piece of his. Those collages are great. I could listen to “How to Touch Type” all day long.

  11. Speaking of general slocum’s music, geo, you must have gotten a chance to enjoy this cover he did last year:


  12. general slocum

    Yes to almost all of these comments, too! Over time, certain labels that got a name for great sound, could really be counted on not to be wasting there time with lame performances. So, yes, Deutsche Grammophone was huge. The period performance thing has been incredible for hearing things more clearly. Another fantastic label is Hyperion. There is a group called the Gaudier Ensemble who seems to me to sound like they are just nailing it every time they record. So, when I first got these nifty reference monitors, I also got a recording of them doing Mozart piano concertos, with Susan Tomes on piano. Well, shit. They do the concerto with one person to a part, so a quartet, with the piano. Blows me away. Sound, performance, all of it. It is the first piece on a classical sampler I made for a friend who was facing the wall of classical music without being able to find the doorknob. Here is volume 1:

    Yes to the above, re: the Bis label, Bartok quartets (and Strings, Perc. & Celesta), Everest has bad sound, mostly, &c. Also Hamonia Mundi is a label you can hardly go wrong with. I got the Beetheoven symphonies byJohn Eliot Gardiner, and found them crazy good. Then (this is years ago when I was working at Penn) one day the music librarian cautioned me that the perfection of those recordings is, i forget if she used the word “dangerous,’ but she may have. She talked about managing expectations, and that while you can surely go and listen to those, you should listen to others now and then, too. Once when Mahler was conducting in Vienna he did an arrangement of a Beethoven symphony. The press exploded with “the nerve of this Jewish upstart besmirching German cornerstones” and so on. He said, look, you’ll hear it the usual way next week, and every other time you hear it for the rest of your lives, this is just a commentary, and a way to think about the thing.

    Re: cool. I will admit that upon reading your comment above, I flushed with the momentary feeling of being thought one of the cool kids. And before I could properly register the feeling, I had the realization that in fact, you had just sequestered yourself in the little room with the geeky kids and settled in with enthusiasm. welcome to the corner! I believe Nietzsche called it “Beyond cool and Uncool.”

  13. BigSteve

    Like the general, I endorse John Eliot Gardner. He is going to be a pretty good guarantee of quality for any composer, but I think the standard of performing and recording in classical music is very high, so I don’t worry too much about whose name is on the cover.

    I can’t stand Mahler and that kind of late Romantic stuff. I’ve listened enough to know that what most people think of as classical music is not for me. After Beethoven, or maybe Brahms, I take a break until the modernists in the 20th century. And I’ve always thought that Baroque music was the most understandable for people who haven’t grown up with classical music.

    I also have learned that I think smaller is better, and so I focus on chamber music. The famous string quartets series — Beethoven, Bartok, and Shostakovich — are all great. And The six quartets Mozart wrote and dedicated to Haydn are just amazing. I used to hate Mozart, but now I think he’s awesome. Maturity I guess.

  14. general slocum

    I think, you’re right to an extent about the standards of classical recordings, but at the same time, over years and years, I have learned that I don’t like much that is conducted by Bernstein, and Boulez drives me bonkers. And you can listen to Bruno Walter, or some of the older guys, but while they are spot on for late romantic things, they turn people like Mozart into mush, which is sad. I am also around the bend with Mozart. In my iTunes I have 3 and a half days of his music. He is in a separate category. And his “Haydn quartets are all that, too. Oh, and I did some exhaustive research some years back, and I arrived at liking Bernard Haitink’s Mahler best, especially with the Royal Concertgebouw.

  15. Man, such a great question. I grew up listening to classic rock, with tiny forays into jazz and classical here and there, but nothing serious. But in my late 20s, for a variety of reasons, I stopped listening for over a decade to almost anything I had loved growing up. For several years, I listened to nothing but jazz, and then for several years to nothing but classical. And then when I did start listening to rock/rock-related music, it was mainly to catch up on stuff I’d missed that was newer, or going back and exploring artists I’d long known of but hadn’t actually heard.

    One of the things I discovered listening to classical was that, much to my surprise, I didn’t like the really overly romantic conductors such as Leonard Bernstein. I think Lenny’s a towering figure in American music and his Young People’s Concerts are amazing. But his extremes when conducting–taking slow movements at a glacial pace and fast movements as though it’s a competition–didn’t serve the music well. Likewise, Pierre Boulez is another towering and fascinating figure but I found most of his conducting to be so damn cold that it didn’t engage.

    So it was really the conductors that most sophisticates find somewhat middle of the road that, to my ears, brought the music forth most powerfully. My favorite conductor is Herbert Blomstedt: his is the finest Beethoven, Sibelius and Nielsen symphonic cycles, hitting all the right tempos and tonal emphasis. Bernard Haitink is another along those lines—his Shostakovich and Debussy are just sublime. The recently departed Mariss Jansons is yet another. All these guys are like having Steve Cropper as your lead guitarist rather than Eddie van Halen or Robert Fripp—all three are brilliant and perfect for certain things…but for overall adaptability and suitability and (relatively speaking) egoless musicianship, they’re your guys.

  16. Adding that I listened to a fair amount of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven when I was in college, but when I really delved into classical years later, it was Shostakovich that really snapped my head around: even though I knew better, when I thought of classical, I thought of the literal classical era, with Mozart and Haydn, and it turns out that while I like the classical era, it’s by far my least favorite: I much prefer baroque, romantic, or modern. So check out Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, his piano trio and piano quintet and most of all his brilliant 24 Preludes and Fugues for the piano. (The first, in C Major, is okay, but from A minor on it gets brilliant.)

    Also Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen—something about their Nordic spirits just reach into my soul. Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth are considered his best, but I prefer the first three. Sibelius’s Third through Seventh are all magical, although the Fourth is the least immediately accessbile.

    Ravel and Debussy are, of course, sumptuous and easy to listen to, while being incredibly substantive. Check out their string quartets–they each wrote one and they’re usually paired together and are both masterpieces while also being just damn delights to listen to. (My wife despises the pizzicato movements each has, but I could listen to them on a loop for days.)

    Finally, Ralph Vaughan Williams, the British composer. His symphonic cycle is not the greatest of this century, but it may be my favorite. (Skip the first, unless unlike me you like classical vocals.) His Third and Fifth are the easiest to get into, but if you’re a fan of the rock and roll, and you are, you might gravitate towards his Fourth and Sixth, both of which are pretty jarring. Start with his viola concerto of sorts, The Lark Ascending. Also, check out his not very well known Flos Campi, which I find gorgeous and haunting.


  18. Damn, Scott (the other one) is back. I LOVE IT! Hope all has been well, Scott (the other one).

    I’m back to catching up on some of your suggestions, after making a big batch of ravioli and doing some paid work. I will say that I clicked on E Pluribus Gergely’s link to find a scene from stinking Five Easy Pieces, a movie who’s merits we’ve long disagreed about. Listen, the last thing I want to do is to derail this thread over Five Easy Pieces, but if I could have substituted Bruce Hornsby’s big hit song in for that Chopin piece, Gergs would have loved it. I am listening to the actual piece now, and it is good.

    Getting back to Five Easy Pieces for a second, I don’t dislike the movie; it just doesn’t resonate with me. I’m reminded of another movie I didn’t like the first time I saw it and both EPG and my wife roasted me for not liking it: You Can Count on Me, with Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney (my wife’s backup choice for a husband and her imaginary best friend, respectively). The first time I saw it, I knew it was good, but Ruffalo’s character was such a DICK that I couldn’t like the movie. A couple of years ago, I watched it again, by myself. The second time I realized how great it was, because his character was such a dick who couldn’t help himself. I told my wife about my discovery the next morning, and she said, “I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT!” I got shit all over again for not liking the movie the first time. Anyhow, I’ve seen Five Easy Pieces a couple of times, and my opinion of it doesn’t change. However, it’s nowhere near as uninteresting to me as another movie from that era that people I like tend to love: Harold and Maude. Ugh, I can’t stand that movie. I’d rather listen to a solo Art Garfunkel record than that.

  19. geo, what immediately stands out in the Milhaud piece you recommended, which I can see myself listening to again, is that it was driven by percussion! Is that a 20th century piece? If so, no wonder it went down easier. How did so little classical music from earlier centuries use percussion? It’s like baseball in the pre-Jackie Robinson era. Earlier today I was listening to X’s “The Once Over Twice” and thought to myself, idiotically, I’m sure, “No disrespect to Hank Williams, who even country-phobe I know is great, but this song is as good as any of his songs AND it’s got DJ Bonebrake hammering away.”

  20. Early 20th Century, which is my sweet spot.

    I do like the percussion on there, maybe even more so because it’s not bombastic, but mysterious elusive. The castanet rhythm is gripping. Quote me on that.

    I also like how it builds and calms repeatedly over the course of the piece, something that Appeals to me in a long piece of music, something I believed I mentioned in another recent thread.

    EPG should fire up a bowl and give this one a listen.

  21. “Damn, Scott (the other one) is back. I LOVE IT! Hope all has been well, Scott (the other one).”

    Hey, y’all are the ones who left ME, dammit! 🙂

    Seriously, I’ve been so happy to have you guys back–this was one of my favorite sites and I was sad (if understanding, because I am remarkably understanding) to see you go, and absolutely stoked that you’ve returned.

  22. ladymisskirroyale

    My grandfather was a musicologist and scholar of Bach and Schubert. He also wrote several books about musical instruments, although he could never understand the synthesizer and it’s use in contemporary (classical) music. My father has always sang in various classical music choruses (snooze, I really don’t like choral music). We always had classical music playing, but much to my parents’ chagrin, we kids didn’t listen to it to the level that they thought was important (ie stopping everything and doing nothing but listening to the piece for it’s duration). For a long time, classical music was around all the time but I never learned the names of any of the pieces, but I could identify the composers. I played the piano for a long time, so began to prefer music that included some sort of a keyboard. For awhile I dreamed of playing the harpsichord in a chamber ensemble. But then came boys, different music (ABBA!) and other pursuits.

    My issue is that while I can hum along to a lot of “classical music” (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Contemporary, whatever era you’re talking about) and can identify many composers, I can’t recall the names of many specific pieces. I can tell you that I’ll like almost anything from Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Grieg. I don’t really care for Handel, Bach, Mahler. Brahms is ok. But recommending one composer vs. another is difficult – it depends on what you like and what you’re in the mood for.

    My suggestion re. your question about labels is to listen to some stuff on YouTube (there’s ton there) and get an idea of what orchestra or conductor you prefer. Different labels highlight different styles of music and various favored orchestras/conductors. Like discojoe, DG is a consistently strong label. If you are in an exploratory mood (or have too much damn time on your hands), choose a piece and hear how different orchestras or musicians interpret it – there’s a surprising amount of latitude in phrasing, especially in early or romantic-era music. As for album covers – yuck – they mostly celebrate the cult of personality of various conductors, have crappy pictures of flowers, or other middlebrow art. No info to be garnered there.

    Reading good music critique is helpful: Alex Ross of the New Yorker has interesting things to say, especially about contemporary classical. You might like his book, “The Rest is Noise.”

    Classical music is a whole other rabbit hole to go down, and I have too difficult a time keeping up with my favorite “rock” bands!

  23. BigSteve

    I’ve never seen You Can Count On Me, but when I revisited Five Easy Pieces a few years ago after not seeing it since the 70s, I couldn’t get over what an asshole the Jack Nicholson character was. And there didn’t seem to be anything there to justify the assholery. So he sees through some of the hypocrisy he is surrounded by. Congratulations, genius. Just another rebel without a clue.

  24. At least in Carnal Knowledge, you were clearly supposed to come away knowing that Nicholson was an asshole.

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