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Top 10 Romantic Era CDs and MP3s for Your Classical Music Collection

The period in music history that we call the Romantic era lasted from roughly 1810 until sometime around 1900. There was no drastic break with the Classical era which preceded it; rather, the difference is one of degree. Romantic composers stretched the accepted rules of harmony and form, creating novel musical structures and exploring new and richer harmonies, both in instantaneous sonorities and over the course of a whole piece or movement.

The term "Romantic" comes from the predisposition of many nineteenth-century composers towards the fantastic, idealistic, and marvelous -- qualities associated with medieval romance. Composers in this time expressed much more intense and personal emotions in their music than had composers of previous eras. It was also around this time that the idea of the musician as an artist -- rather than a craftsman -- began to take hold.

Romantic music remains the most popular style in today's concert halls, and it is difficult to choose just ten (or even fifteen) works to represent this rich and varied era. If you enjoy the music on this list, you should try out some music of the worthy composers we have had to omit, such as Gabriel Fauré, César Franck, Edvard Grieg, Franz Liszt, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Camille Saint-Saëns.

Back to Eras Index

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

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

3 Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 -- Van Cliburn, Kiril Kondrashin
Electrifying, over-the-top Romanticism. Review...

4 Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique -- John Eliot Gardiner
A musical depiction of love's passions. Review...

5 Chopin: Piano Works -- Vladimir Ashkenazy
Sparkling piano miniatures with a Polish touch. Review...

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

7 Dvorák: Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" -- Fritz Reiner
The Czech master takes on a new continent. Review...
8 Verdi: La Traviata -- Angela Gheorghiu, Sir Georg Solti
The most heart-wrenching tragic ending in opera history. Review...

9 Schumann: Symphonies -- George Szell
Orchestral masterpieces by the most romantic of Romantics. Review...

10 Wagner: Tristan and Isolde -- Kirsten Flagstad, Wilhelm Furtwängler
Legendary music drama. Review...

11 Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, "Pathétique" -- Mariss Jansons
So tragic it must have been written by a Russian. Review...
12 Mendelssohn: Octet -- Hausmusik
The greatest work ever written by a teenager. Review...

13 Brahms: Violin Concerto -- Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Reiner
The greatest of Romantic violin concertos. Review...

14 Schubert: Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished" -- Carlos Kleiber
The torso of a symphonic giant. Review...

15 Dvorák: Piano Quintet -- Andreas Haefliger, Takács String Quartet
Czech nationalism embedded in a Viennese masterpiece. Review...


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 Chamber Music
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 String Quartets
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Van Cliburn, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, conductor

Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto is the incarnation of Romantic excess: a blockbuster orchestral work dripping with lyricism and requiring extreme virtuosity of both the orchestra and the soloist. The concerto features a majestic first movement, an intensely passionate second movement, and a fiery finale. This famous recording features the lanky Texan Van Cliburn, who in 1958 traveled to hostile Moscow at the height of the Cold War and came back an international hero as the Grand Prize winner of the First International Tchaikovsky Competition. Cliburn made this recording at Carnegie Hall in New York just a few months later, and it captures all of the drama and power that blew the socks off the Soviet judges.

Similar works: Top 10 Tchaikovsky, Top 10 Concertos
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Berlioz had a specific set of images in mind as he composed this symphony, and at the first performance the audience received a program with the details written out. Subtitled, "Episodes in the life of an Artist," the symphony's subject is the passions aroused in a woman whose love the artist hopes to win. The woman is represented by a melody called an idée fixe, or "fixed idea"; this melody recurs often in the piece but the accompaniment each time creates a different mood, from desparate longing to a pastoral tranquility to a fiery witches' sabbath. John Eliot Gardiner's acclaimed performance sets a new standard for both expressiveness and authenticity.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Frederic Chopin: Piano Works
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano

Though Frederic Chopin spent most of his career in Paris, he never stopped loving his native Poland, and his music reflects this love. In addition to writing polonaises, or Polish dances, he infused much of his best music with Polish rhythm and harmony. Chopin specialized in the short piano piece, writing numerous études, scherzos, ballades, preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, and mazurkas as well as polonaises. This two-for-one CD features a sampling of Chopin's best works, including the "Raindrop" prelude, the "Military" polonaise, and the Fantasie-Impromptu.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
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 Opera
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, "From the New World"
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Friz Reiner, conductor

Antonín Dvorák (pronounced "DVOR-zhak") began his last symphony while he was directing the National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892, and finished it while on vacation in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa in 1893. Its first performance, in Carnegie Hall in 1893, was met with great critical acclaim, and it has been a staple of the repertoire ever since. Though the symphony does not quote directly any Native American or African-American themes, Dvorák was profoundly influenced by these two types of music, and this influence distinguishes "From the New World" from Dvorák's previous works. The symphony is most notable for its slow movement, whose simple but enchanting melody conveys a mood of great peacefulness. Nearly 50 years after its first release, Fritz Reiner's recording with the Chicago Symphony orchestra is still the best interpretation available.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
Angela Gheorghiu, soprano (Violetta); Frank Lopardo, tenor (Alfredo); Leo Nucci, baritone (Germont); Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Featuring the most heart-wrenching tragic ending in operatic history, La Traviata is a love story between the courtesan Violetta Valery and her young admirer Alfredo Germont.  Following the script of many age-old tales of true love, Violetta and Alfredo try desperately to protect their love in the face of circumstances that threaten to tear them apart. Full of misunderstandings, emotional turmoil, and outlandish drama, Verdi’s masterpiece has been performed thousands of times by the best artists of each era, including Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, and Maria Callas.  As one of the most famous operas in the world, La Traviata is sure to give many newcomers to opera a shock: many musical motifs popularized in modern-day entertainment originated in this opera. Angela Gheorghiu has made the part of Violetta entirely her own, and Sir Georg Solti never lets the intensity falter. This performance is also available on DVD.

Similar works: Top 10 Verdi, Top 10 Opera
Robert Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4
Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, conductor

Robert Schumann was the arch-Romantic: poet, composer, and music critic; frustrated and then successful in love; and ultimately driven to insanity. His music stands a middle ground between the lyrical passion of Schubert and the hyper-intellectualism of Brahms. Though he wrote only for the piano until the age of thirty, his four symphonies are among his finest works.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Kirsten Flagstad, soprano (Isolde); Ludwig Sathaus, tenor (Tristan); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (Kurwenal); Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor

Richard Wagner’s "music dramas" combine poetry, scenic design, action, and music to form what Wagner called a "total artwork."  To enchance the dramatic effect, Wagner wrote his own stories and took his characters from Germanic mythology. Tristan, Wagner’s greatest opera, is set in medieval Britain. The knight Tristan has been sent to fetch the Irish princess Isolde, who will marry Tristan’s uncle, the King of Cornwall.  Tristan had killed Isolde’s lover, and when they meet again Isolde attempts to kill both Tristan and herself.  However, her servant Brangäne has replaced the death potion with a love potion, and the two fall helplessly in love.  As the drama develops, Tristan and Isolde come to realize the futility of their love, leading to the opera’s tragic ending.  Though filled with memorable singing, the opera is most famous for its orchestration. T he orchestral Prelude and Isolde’s Liebestod (Death Song) are routinely played in concert halls, and Wagner’s innovative scoring throughout the work foreshadows musical developments fifty years before they became widespread. Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 performance featuring the commanding Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde is the most electrifying four hours of opera ever committed to record. If you want to see the action as well as hear it, Karl Böhm's historic 1973 performance with Jon Vickers and Birgit Nilsson in the title roles has now been released on DVD.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
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 Symphonies
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20

Though Mozart is the most famous child prodigy composer, Mendelssohn's Octet is the greatest work ever composed by a teenager -- the precocious youth wrote it when he was just sixteen years old. . Mendelssohn was one of the major proponents of the "Bach revival" of the early nineteenth century, and his admiration for Bach's counterpoint manifests itself in the octet's finale, an eight-part fugue that spins along at breakneck speed. But the most celebrated movement is the third, a quiet fantasy of which the scholar Donald Tovey said, "eight string players might easily practise it for a lifetime without coming to an end of their delight in producing its marvels of tone-colour." The British ensemble Hausmusik produce marvels of their own on this super-bargain set that also includes Mendelssohn's two charming string quintets and a string quartet.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Jascha Heifetz, violin; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor

Though they were Romantic contemporaries, Brahms is the antithesis of Tchaikovsky: the Russian master used a never-ending supply of melody to manipulate the emotions of his audience, while the German great stuck to Classical formal principles and achieved his effects through harmonic innovation. Brahms composed his Violin Concerto in 1878 for his friend Joseph Joachim, who was the greatest violinist of his day. Having just completed his second symphony, Brahms conceived the concerto in grand symphonic proportions; the opening movement alone takes about twenty minutes to play. The finale evokes "Hungarian" or "Gypsy" themes, paying homage to Joachim's Concerto in the Hungarian Manner, which the violinist had composed in 1861 and dedicated to Brahms. This 1955 recording featuring Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Reiner has lost none of its appeal with age.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Concertos
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, "Unfinished"
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber, conductor

Franz Schubert completed only the first two movements of his eighth symphony, but what a pair of movements they are! The first packs in more tragedy and pathos than most composers could work into a full symphony, while the second, in a sunny major key, provides a welcome catharsis. Carlos Keliber coaxes the utmost lyricism from the Vienna Philharmonic in this emotionally charged recording. For those performing a more leisurely approach, Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic is just as recommendable.

Similar works: Top 10 Schubert, Top 10 Symphonies
Antonín Dvorák: Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81
Takács String Quartet, Andreas Haefliger, piano

Though his native Bohemia was under the Austrian crown for his entire life, Antonín Dvorák managed to express nationalistic sentiment through his music. The slow movement of this Piano Quintet is a dumka, a melancholy Czech ballad, while the third movement is a furiant, a fast native dance. The outer movements are firmly in the Viennese tradition and show Dvorák at his best. The Takács Quartet's CD includes a fresh performance of the Dvorák quintet as well as another work written in a similar vein, the Quartet No. 10 in E-flat.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music