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The First 10 Recordings of Your Classical Music Collection

So you want to start listening to classical music, but don't know where to begin? Here's our list of the ten essential recordings that every classical music fan should have -- if you're only going to buy ten classical CDs or MP3s in your life, they should be these ten.

Our list provides a sampling of the greatest works from a wide variety of styles and time periods. There are roaring symphonies and intimate chamber works, old-fashioned Baroque music, a scandalous twentieth century piece, and everything in between. You're bound to fall in love with at least a couple of works on this list, and when you do, you can follow the links at the bottom of each description to find pages of similar works by composer, era, or genre.

These works are all among the most popular pieces performed today, and there are dozens -- if not hundreds -- of recordings of each. In choosing our recommended recordings, we have kept one eye on the quality of the performance and the other on the price. Most of the CDs in this list are "mid-priced" ($10-$12 each, or $16-$20 for a two-disc set, and MP3 versions are usually even cheaper. The recordings that are "full price" ($15-$18) are here because we feel they are so special that even a beginner will appreciate their unique qualities.

See the Next 10 Essential Recordings

Read our Classical Music CD and MP3 Buying Guide

1 Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 -- Carlos Kleiber
The most famous piece of classical music ever written. Review...

2 Mozart: Piano Concertos 20, 21 -- Vladimir Ashkenazy
Symphonic brilliance and pianistic virtuosity. Review...

3 Beethoven: "Pathétique" and "Moonlight" Piano Sonatas -- Alfred Brendel
Beethoven's more intimate medium of expression. Review...

4 Bach: Brandenburg Concertos -- Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Baroque bravura. Review...

5 Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 -- Eroica Trio
A chamber masterpiece 25 years in the making. Review...

6 Stravinsky: Rite of Spring -- Igor Stravinsky
A scandalous ballet. Review...

7 Schubert: "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet -- Amadeus String Quartet
A dying man's outpouring of grief. Review...

8 Tchaikovsky: "Pathétique" Symphony -- Mariss Jansons
So tragic it must have been written by a Russian. Review...

9 Haydn: Lord Nelson Mass -- David Willcocks
A joyous celebration of life. Review...

10 Bizet: Carmen -- Teresa Berganza, Plácido Domingo, Claudio Abbado
The world's most popular opera. Review...


Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber, conductor

Beethoven's Fifth is perhaps the most famous piece of classical music ever written, and deservedly so. The famous opening four note motif serves as the thematic material for the whole first movement, and it reappears in the third and fourth movements to make the symphony into a unified whole rather than a collection of four individual movements. This unity is apparent in other respects as well: the stormy opening movement is in a dark minor key, and the mood gradually shifts through the middle two movements and culminates in a glorious brass fanfare that opens the finale. Carlos Kleiber's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic still stands as one of the all-time greats.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical, Top 10 Symphonies

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 20 in D minor, No. 21 in C major
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano and conductor; Philharmonia Orchestra

These two piano concertos combine orchestral brilliance with virtuosic solo work, making a splendid introduction to Mozart. The 20th, in a tragic minor key, moves from a dark and brooding beginning to an uplifting conclusion, and contains a memorable stormy outburst during an otherwise tranquil second movement. The beautiful middle movement of the 21st was used in the 1967 film Elvira Madigan and is one of Mozart's most famous pieces of music, while the finale brings the work to an exciting conclusion on a grand symphonic scale. Vladimir Ashkenazy is one of today's most versatile pianists and conductors, and he shows off both talents in this recording as he conducts from the keyboard. Ashkenazy makes the flurry of fast piano passages seem effortless while shaping the orchestra's sound perfectly. Best of all, these two concertos come with three more of Mozart's greatest concertos, all on two CDs for the price of one.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical, Top 10 Concertos
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 8, "Pathétique"; No. 14 "Moonlight"
Alfred Brendel, piano

Beethoven is such an important composer that we had to put two recordings of his in the top three. While the symphonies show outward storm and fire, the piano sonatas give us a more personal view of the composer. The first movement of the "Moonlight" and the middle one of the "Pathétique" are so tender as to move the listener to tears. But the storm is not altogether missing; the "Pathétique" opening movement and the "Moonlight" finale contain some of Beethoven's most exciting music. Alfred Brendel gives a gripping performance on this two-disc set containing five other wonderful sonatas.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical, Top 10 Piano
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

There is no better introduction to the Baroque style than these six orchestral masterpieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. The works are in the style of the concerto grosso, which is an orchestral genre that features a dialogue between small groups of soloists and the full orchestra. Taken as a whole, the six concertos explore the diverse tonal possibilities of both solo instruments and orchestra. The first two concertos are festive, featuring horns and oboes, while the third is written for strings only and is more meditative. The fourth and fifth concertos feature virtuoso playing of the violin and harpsichord respectively, while the concluding sixth -- probably the most famous of the set -- has a jaunty atmosphere and emphasizes ensemble playing over solo work. The conductorless Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment gives a delightful performance on authentic Baroque instruments, and at less than $12 for two CDs this set is clearly a first choice.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Baroque, Top 10 Concertos
Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8
Eroica Trio

This trio is a perfect example of Johannes Brahms's intense perfectionist streak -- he spent more than 35 years writing and revising it! When he finally finished, the result was one of the all-time masterpieces of chamber music. Brahms excels at taking a simple thread of melody and weaving it into an ever-larger tapestry of sound. A perfect example is the opening theme of the first movement, which starts simply enough in the piano, is joined by the cello and then the violin, and builds to an impassioned climax. The Eroica Trio, a young ensemble comprised of three extremely talented (and in our opinion extremely attractive) women, perfectly capture Brahms's passion, giving a performance that is the equal of classic recordings such as Isaac Stern's or Artur Rubinstein's.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic, Top 10 Chamber Music
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor

In 1913 Igor Stravinsky was an up-and-coming composer on the Paris ballet scene, with two successful works already under his belt. Rite of Spring, his third ballet, takes as its subject an ancient Russian sacrificial ritual. When the "primitive" music and unusual choreography first met with a Parisian audience, it caused a riot and sealed Stravinsky's reputation as a revolutionary composer. Stravinsky's inventive use of rhythm and colorful combinations of orchestral sounds express perfectly the primitive aspects of the sacrifice. The recording with the Columbia Symphony allows us to hear exactly what the composer intended -- for it is Stravinsky himself conducting.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century, Top 10 Orchestral
Franz Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, "Death and the Maiden"
Amadeus String Quartet

In the last few years before he died of syphilis at the age of 31, Franz Schubert experienced one of the most prolific periods of creative genius humankind has ever seen. This quartet is one of the fruits of that period. In the first movement, Schubert develops a simple descending-scale motif into an intense outpouring of grief. The quartet takes its name from the theme of the second movement, a song which Schubert wrote when he was twenty. In its quartet incarnation, Schubert takes the simple melody through a whole range of moods, building to an impassioned frenzy and then relaxing. The Amadeus Quartet offer a convincing performance at a reasonable price.

Similar works: Top 10 Schubert, Top 10 Romantic, Top 10 String Quartets
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique"
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, conductor

Tchaikovsky's sixth and final symphony is aptly named, for it is filled with pathos from beginning to end. The slow introduction lasts more than two minutes, and the tension slowly mounts until the orchestra bursts forth with a jarring brass fanfare. The turbulence rises and falls and eventually subsides; as the first movement draws to close one hears the sun coming out and a rainbow appearing. The second movement is a gentle waltz that is subtly disfigured by the fact that it is counted off in five rather than the traditional three beats. The finale, instead of being the usual rousing conclusion, is slow and quiet, trailing off so gradually into nothing that one almost can't tell when the music stops. Mariss Jansons's set of Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic is widely regarded as the best available on record, and this recording of the Pathétique shows the ensemble at its finest.

Similar works: Top 10 Tchaikovsky, Top 10 Romantic, Top 10 Symphonies
Franz Joseph Haydn: Mass No. 11 in D minor, "Lord Nelson Mass"
Sylvia Stahlman, soprano; Helen Watts, alto; Wilfred Brown, tenor; Tom Krause, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra, Cambridge King's College Choir, David Willcocks, conductor

Franz Joseph Haydn is often cited as the "father of the symphony" and the "father of the string quartet," but his great sacred choral works are at least the equal of anything he wrote in a purely instrumental genre. Haydn wrote this mass in 1798 and gave it the title "Missa in Angustiis," or "Mass in Fear," which probably reflected the feelings of Haydn's fellow Austrians as Napoleon's armies were beginning their conquest of Europe. The mass acquired its more popular name after if was played for Lord Nelson, the hero of the Battle of the Nile, in 1800. Despite Haydn's ominous title, the mass expresses joy throughout, as it gloriously reaffirms Haydn's relationship with God. David Willcocks leads a superb cast of soloists in this recording that revolutionized the performance of Haydn's choral works. For an even more "authentic" feel, Trevor Pinnock's recording -- featuring instruments of Haydn's time -- is not to be missed.

Similar works: Top 10 Haydn, Top 10 Classical, Top 10 Choral
Georges Bizet: Carmen
Teresa Berganza, soprano (Carmen); Plácido Domingo, tenor (Don José); Ileana Cotrubas, soprano (Mecaëla); Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Escamillo); Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Singers

Carmen has everything one could possibly want in an opera -- catchy tunes, lush orchestration, and a tragic love triangle -- so it is no wonder that it is the world's most popular opera. The opera’s soap opera plot confronts the three great topics of scandalous drama: passionate love, unforgivable betrayal, and violent revenge. At the center of the story is Carmen, a gorgeous but manipulative gypsy girl whose strong will and passion lead her to trouble and scandal.  This title role is the most coveted of mezzo-sopranos worldwide and demands intense strength and skill to perform.  With famous arias like the Toreador song “Votre toast” and Carmen’s “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” Carmen is the perfect introduction to opera, for even a novice will recognize many of the melodies. Until Sir Thomas Beecham's classic recording is rereleased, our top recommendation is Claudio Abbado's 1977 version, featuring Teresa Berganza as an attractive and haunting Carmen and Plácido Domingo in his prime as Don José.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic, Top 10 Opera