Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers (8, 7 . . .)

(The complete list.)

8. Chopin

The quintessential lone pianist exploring his soul through the instrument. The most intimate and introverted of the greats.

Some of the most characteristically Chopinesque pieces are his 58 Mazurkas. (A mazurka is a traditional Polish folk dance that might have been fairly obscure if not for Chopin.) Here's one of them, played by Vladimir Horowitz:

Here are some of the 24 Preludes (#10-14 and 16), played by Andras Schiff:

7. Schubert

Impossible to neatly label or summarize. Is he Classical or Romantic or what? Who cares? His body of work is fascinatingly varied and staggeringly huge, yet he died at only 31 — a terrible loss to music.

He's perhaps best known for his over 600 songs (by which I of course mean the traditional sense — "short pieces that are sung" — not the iPod sense of "tracks from an album"). But I'm more interested in classical music without vocals, so here are a few of my favorites:

Schubert's 5th Symphony is like the best Mozart symphony Mozart never wrote. He was only 19 when he wrote this. Here's the first movement (conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy):

His String Quintet (for the unusual lineup of string quartet plus an extra cello, instead of an extra viola) is at the highest level of any chamber music by anyone. It was his last instrumental composition, written just two months before he died. This performance by the Afiara Quartet plus Joel Krosnick starts at 8:20, after Krosnick's introduction:

I had lent a few CDs to a friend who was getting into classical music, and he brought up the last movement of the "Trout" Quintet (which also has an unusual lineup: piano, violin, viola, cello, and double-bass). I've talked before about how it's the rare piece of music that gives me a strong feeling of: "Aha, this is it!" My friend essentially told me he felt that way about the "Trout" finale. So do I, and here it is (played by Julian Rachlin, Mischa Maisky, Mihaela Ursuleasa, Nobuko Imai and Stacey Watton):

The "Unfinished" Symphony has a profound sense of completeness:


Anonymous said...

Thank you for including the Schubert 5th, and your comment about Mozart reflects exactly how I feel about it. I listened to it two days ago. The first and second movements in particular are so amazing.

Ann Althouse said...

I love how carefully you've chosen the music selections to support your reasoning. Really beautiful. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am extremely surprised--and a bit offended--to find Chopin on this list. His works strike me as unformed and wandering. I would have much liked to see Bartok on this list, who I think is unarguably superior to Stravinsky, who ended up being a sell-out to twelve-tonal music in the end anyways. Bartok, to me, is the only truly great composer after Beethoven, maintaining the ancient invention, that is melody, but adding a new tonal language. His works are brilliant, because they are able to maintain to more less of a degree superior form, in some cases that of the sonata -- I am not making any case that sonata form is superior, but I will say that almost all the great music was composed in sonata form -- but still sound original.