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Top 10 Mozart CDs and MP3s to Start Your Classical Music Collection

The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is considered the peak of the "Viennese Classical" style. His exposure to opera shows up in the abundant melodies in all of his works; it is not unusual for a single movement to incroporate a dozen distinct tunes. He was a master of improvisation, and even his most carefully crafted works retain an air of spontaneity. He mastered all of the forms of his time, including symphony, concerto, chamber music, and opera, and since his death his music has never fallen out of popularity. Of the more than six hundred works Mozart composed it is difficult to choose only ten. Our list below offers a sampling of great pieces for ten different types of ensembles, and we encourage you to explore further in the forms you enjoy the most.

Mozart was born into a musical family in Salzburg, Austria and was quickly recognized as a child prodigy. By the age of six he was playing piano and violin at nearly professional levels and had begun to compose music as well. Taken on tours of Europe by his father Leopold, he absorbed all of the different types of music to be heard on the continent and synthesized them into his own works. In 1781, he left Salzburg for the Austrian capital of Vienna where he made his living teaching, performing, and publishing music. He was briefly appointed to the court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, but he lost his post when the Emperor died in 1790. Mozart continued composing prolifically right up until his final illness, and we can only speculate on the masterpieces he would have composed had he lived past the age of 36.

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1 Piano Concertos 20, 21 -- Vladimir Ashkenazy
Symphonic brilliance and pianistic virtuosity. Review...
2 Symphonies 35-41 -- Karl Böhm
The Classical style achieves perfection. Review...

3 Requiem -- John Eliot Gardiner
Exploring the depths of grief. Review...

4 "Haydn" String Quartets -- Alban Berg Quartet
Viennese one-upmanship? Review...

5 Don Giovanni -- Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Carlo Maria Giulini
Mozart casting himself as a Don Juan? Review...

6 Clarinet Concerto -- Jack Brymer, Sir Thomas Beecham
Inspiration from a clarinettist friend. Review...

7 "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" -- Bruno Walter
The famous serenade hides a mystery. Review...

8 The Magic Flute -- Fritz Wunderlich, Karl Böhm
Fantasy and fairytale in ancient Egypt. Review...

9 Clarinet Quintet -- Antony Pay, ASMF Chamber Ensemble
Chamber music with a kick. Review...

10 Sinfonia Concertante -- Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Zubin Mehta
Violin and viola vying for virtuosity. Review...

11 Piano Sonatas -- Mitsuko Uchida
A chronicle of Mozart's development. Review...

12 Piano Concertos 23, 24 -- Richard Goode, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Darkness and light. Review...

13 Lieder -- Elly Ameling
Sparkling little gems from a jack of all trades. Review...



Piano Concertos No. 20 in D minor, K. 466; No. 21 in C major, K. 467
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 Concertos
Symphonies: No. 35, "Haffner"; No. 36, "Linz"; No. 38, "Prague"; Nos. 39-40, No. 41, "Jupiter"
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm, conductor

These six symphonies are the last that Mozart wrote before his death at the tender age of 36, and they represent the pinnacle of the Viennese Classical style. The works demonstrate all the expressive possibilities of Mozart's music: the 35th is brimming with exuberance, while the 40th is dark and brooding, and the stately nature of the 41st led to its nickname of "Jupiter." In the final movement of the 41st, one hears different instruments entering right after each other with the same theme -- a technique Mozart had only recently acquired by studying the works of Bach. Karl Böhm was one of the great Mozart interpreters, and his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra gives these works the gravity that they deserve.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies

Requiem in D minor, K. 626
Barbara Bonney, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, alto; Hans-Peter Blochwitz, tenor; Willard White, bass, English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

As anyone who has seen the film Amadeus knows, Mozart was unable to complete his Requiem Mass before his death. (It is untrue, however, that he was poisoned by the rival composer Salieri.) The task of filling out the parts that Mozart had sketched and composing the entirety of the final four movements fell to his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Sussmayr did an admirable job, and the mass feels entirely like Mozart's work. If you think that all Mozart's music is light and fluffy, you should listen to this work -- it is one of the most grief-filled pieces ever written. The English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir attempt to recreate the performance conditions of Mozart's lifetime, and the result is a spectacular performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
String Quartets Nos. 14-19, "Haydn Quartets"
Alban Berg Quartet

In 1782 Franz Joseph Haydn published his set of six string quartets, Op. 33, and they quickly became the rage of Vienna. At this time Haydn's mastery of the quartet genre was widely acknowledged, and Mozart set out to write a set of quartets emulating the style of the master. After a "long and laborious endeavor," Mozart completed this set of six string quartets in 1785 and dedicated them to Haydn. Together with Haydn's quartets of the period, they form the pinnacle of the Viennese quartet style. The Alban Berg Quartet's unsurpassed recording includes these six as well as Mozart's four last quartets.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets, Top 10 Haydn
Don Giovanni, K. 527
Eberhard Wächter, baritone (Don Giovanni); Giuseppe Taddei, baritone (Leporello); Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano (Elvira); Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano (Anna); Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

Few operas are as closely tied with the life of the composer as Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  Written in the year of Mozart’s father’s death, Don Giovanni tells the story of a playboy hero-villain who must come to terms with himself and the ghost of a father figure, the Commendatore.  Many scholars have speculated that Mozart represented his relationship with his father through Don Giovanni and the Commendatore.  In the opera, Don Giovanni is a likable villain who woos innocent women only to break their hearts.  His lowly servant Leporello is the unrewarded accomplice on all his conquests.  The three main women, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina, represent honor and goodness, and in the end they urge Don Giovanni to repent his sins.  While the Commendatore’s ghost is a threat to Don Giovanni, we soon discover that the biggest threat to the title character is himself.  The opera’s highlights include the duet "La ci darem la mano," and Leporello’s aria cataloguing Don Giovanni’s conquests. Carlo Maria Giulini's classic performance featuring superstars Elisabeth Schwartzkopf and Dame Joan Sutherland is the standard by which all subsequent recordings have been judged.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622
Jack Brymer, clarinet; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor

Mozart wrote this concerto near the end of his life for his friend Anton Stadler, whom he had met in 1781. Stadler was an excellent clarinettist, and Mozart took advantage of both his performer's skill and new technical developments in the clarinet to create a rich, powerful work that to this day remains foremost among all clarinet concertos in the hearts of both musicians and audiences. Jack Brymer's lush tone suits the piece perfectly, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provide just the right level of excitement.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Serenade No. 13 in G major, K. 525, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik"
Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, conductor

While most of Mozart's serenades were written on commission for occasions such as weddings, the occasion for his final serenade, entitled "A Little Night Music," remains a mystery. Nevertheless it has become one of the most famous pieces of music ever written, due in large part to its irresistible opening melody. Bruno Walter leads a memorable performance of the serenade as well as overtures to four of Mozart's greatest operas.

Similar works: Top 10 Orchestral
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), K. 620
Fritz Wunderlich, tenor (Tamino); Evelyn Lear, soprano (Pamina); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (Papageno); Roberta Peters, soprano (Queen of the Night); Franz Crass, bass (Sarasto); RIAS Chamber Choir, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm, conductor

The last opera Mozart completed before his death, The Magic Flute is a comical ensemble piece that presents allegory and irony beyond its fairytale plot.  Enjoyable on both a level of entertainment and a level of social commentary, the opera explores timeless topics of religion, love, racism, revenge, and good versus evil.  The Egyptian prince Tamino, and his half-bird, half-man friend Papageno are sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue the princess Pamina from the seemingly evil ruler Sarastro.  However, things are not always what they seem, and the plot twists as the protagonists face challenge after challenge.  Mozart's wit and humor shine throughout the story line, as musical instruments become tools of magic, wooing foes to sleep and taming wild animals. Highlights of the opera include the Queen's two stunning arias, Pamina's famous tragic aria, "Ach, ich fuhl's," and gorgeous duet interplay between the lovers. One could not ask for a better Tamino-Papageno pair than Fritz Wunderlich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Karl Böhm's recording. For a cast in which the women outshine the men, Otto Klemperer's version is the first choice: Gandula Janowitz is a radiant Pamina, and Lucia Popp effortlessly reaches the stratospheric heights of the Queen of the Night's arias.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581
Antony Pay, clarinet; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble

In addition to the Clarinet Concerto, Mozart wrote a much more intimate Clarinet Quintet for his friend Anton Stadler. Whereas in the concerto the clarinet is the focus of attention, in the quintet the woodwind takes on a role equivalent to that of the strings, and the piece plays out as a discourse among five equals. Antony Pay and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble give a convincing peformance, and this mid-priced CD includes the quintet as well as two other charming chamber works for wind and strings.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra in E-flat major, K. 364
Itzhak Perlman, violin; Pinchas Zuckerman, viola; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, conductor

The sinfonia concertante was a popular form in the late eighteenth century, as it allowed two or more soloists to share center stage and attempt to outdo each other in terms of virtuosity. Mozart's most famous essay in the genre was written in 1779 and contains two unusual features. First, the viola section is divided in two, giving the orchestra a richer sonority. Second, the solo viola player is instructed to tune his instrument up a half step, making the sound brighter and more similar to the violin. Pinchas Zuckerman, whose primary instrument is the violin, takes up the challenge of the viola and creates a perfect blend with Itzhak Perlman--at their first entrance the listener can hardly tell that both instruments are playing.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-18
Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Mozart's piano sonatas chronicle his development as a composer and pianist from a precocious teenager in Salzburg to a celebrated master in Vienna. While none of these sonatas have the fiery storm of Beethoven's works in the genre, each is charming and delightful in its own way. Particularly notable are the Sonata No. 11, with its famous "Rondo alla turca" finale, and the Sonata No. 18, whose opening motif resembles a hunter's horn-call. Mitsuko Uchida gives the definitive interpretation of all the sonatas, exhibiting an elegant and very Mozartean touch. If you don't want to shell out $50-plus for all five CDs, Maria João Pires gives fine performances that are available individually; we recommend starting with CD that includes the last four sonatas and the D minor Fantasia.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Piano Concertos: No. 23 in A major, K. 488; No. 24 in C minor, K. 491
Richard Goode, piano; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

The twenty-third piano concerto shows Mozart at his sunniest, and its lush melodies look forward to the Clarinet Concerto, written in the same key five years later. The twenty-fourth, on the other hand, is a darker affair, featuring dramatic passages and a melancholy set of variations in the final movement. These two concertos are included in the Vladimir Ashkenazy collection discussed above, but for an even more stellar performance we recommend Richard Goode's recording.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Elly Ameling, soprano; Dalton Baldwin, piano

The Lied is usually not a genre associated with Mozart, but these little gems demostrate that Mozart was indeed master of every musical form known to his time. Soprano Elly Ameling sparkles in her renditions of thirty-five Mozart songs, and this two-disc set also includes six notturni for voices and woodwind.

Similar works: Top 10 Song