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Top 10 Orchestral Works to Start Your Classical Music CD and MP3 Collection

While symphony and concerto are the most popular types of orchestral music, many composers have written great works for orchestra that don't fall into either of these two categories. The works on this page demonstrate the development of the orchestra over time. The Baroque orchestra was a small collection of strings augmented by a couple of woodwinds and supported by a keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord. In the mid-eighteenth century the keyboard was eliminated and composers began to score their orchestral works for brass as well as strings and woodwinds. In the nineteenth century the size of the orchestra increased greatly, as did the variety of instruments: tubas, trombones, bass clarinet, more percussion, and sometimes even piano were added to the core strings and winds. Twentieth-century composers used the modern orchestra to create novel effects of color and sonority.

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

2 Handel: Water Music -- Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
How to get in the good graces of a king. Review...

3 Ravel: Bolero; Debussy: La Mer -- Herbert von Karajan
Orchestral landscapes and seascapes. Review...

4 Tchaikovsky: "Nutcracker" Suite -- Mstislav Rostropovich
The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies, and much more. Review...

5 Mozart: "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" -- Bruno Walter
The famous serenade hides a mystery. Review...

6 Holst: The Planets -- Charles Dutoit
Music that's out of this world. Review...

7 Copland: Applachian Spring -- Leonard Bernstein
The American master's Simple Gift to posterity. Review...

8 Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade -- Valery Gergiev
Musical storytelling from the Arabian Nights. Review...

9 Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra -- Fritz Reiner
Swan song for a man of many talents. Review...

10 Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, American in Paris -- Leonard Bernstein
The fusion of Jazz and Classical. Review...


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
George Frideric Handel: Water Music, Suites Nos. 1-3
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

At the precocious age of 25 Handel was appointed music director at the electoral court in Hanover, but he immediately took a long leave of absence in London. When his master was crowned King George I of England in 1712, Handel felt he had to save face with his boss. Legend has it that Handel regained King George's favor by writing this set of three instrumental suites to be played as a surprise for the king during a boating party on the Thames. The pieces were a success, and Handel enjoyed royal patronage for the rest of his long and prosperous career in London. The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra give a sparkling performance of the Water Music as well as another work written for a king, the Royal Fireworks Music.

Similar works: Top 10 Baroque
Maurice Ravel: Bolero; Claude Debussy: La Mer
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

A description of Ravel's Bolero would make it sound like the most boring piece of music ever written: a simple melody is repeated more than twenty times. But the interest is not in the melody but in the instruments that play it: with each repetition Ravel introduces new instruments in the orchestra, so that no two repetitions sound alike. The result is a masterpiece of sound painting that is Ravel's most popular work. Claude Debussy's most popular work, La Mer, was inspired by a Japanese painting entitled "The Wave" and uses novel orchestration to illustrate three scenes from the sea. Herbert von Karajan gives compelling performances of these two French classics on this mid-priced CD.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Ballet Suites: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor

Tchaikovsky's ballets contain some of his most popular music; his Nutcracker in partucular is a staple around the Christmas season. This CD features highlights from the composer's three greatest ballets. Particularly notable are the haunting oboe melody from the introduction of Swan Lake, which recurs throughout the work, and the "characteristic dances" (including the famous "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies" and Trépak) from the Nutcracker. Mstislav Rostropovich shows in this recording that he is just as skilled with the conductor's baton as with the cellist's bow.

Similar works: Top 10 Tchaikovsky; Top 10 Romantic
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Serenade No. 13, "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 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op. 32
Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Charles Dutoit, conductor

Gustav Holst's suite The Planets is a collection of seven orchestral movements that give each planet a distinct individual character. (Holst did not incldue Earth and Pluto had not yet been discovered.) The music for Mars, "bringer of war," is a fierce march; Mercury, the "winged messenger" is bursting with energy; and Jupiter, "bringer of jollity" is a lighthearted romp. The suite has been a popular favorite ever since its premiere in 1918, and Charles Dutoit gives a memorable performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Aaron Copland's early works were reserved and harmonically complex, but in the 1930s he turned to a simpler style, the apex of which is reached in his 1945 ballet Appalachian Spring. The work incorporates variations on the Shaker hymn "Tis a Gift to be Simple," which is transfigured and absorbed in the music. The ballet's arrangement in an orchestral suite is probably the most popular piece of American music today. Leonard Bernstein's recording is the definitive interpretation of the Appalachian Spring suite -- better even than the recordings made by Copland himself. The CD also includes the popular Fanfare for the Common Man and music from Copland's two other famous ballets, Billy the Kid and Rodeo.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35
Cecylia Arzewski, violin; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conductor

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the "mighty handful" of Russian musicians who sought to bring a uniquely Russian flavor to music at the end of the nineteenth century. Though Scheherazade is based on Arabian stories, the mood and sonority of the piece are distinctly Russian. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that the work is not intended to be an exact depiction of the tales, but rather to "direct but slightly the hearer's fancy on the path my own fancy traveled." Each movement depicts a different scene from the Arabian Nights, and weaving through them all are a violin melody representing Scheherazade and a solemn tune representing her husband the sultan. Robert Spano's debut recording with the Atlanta Symphony has immediately taken a place among the best.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor

Béla Bartók was important not only as a composer but also as a musical ethnologist, performer, and educator. He traveled Eastern Europe collecting folk tunes; he published the tunes in collections and fused them with Western European traditions to create a highly individual style. He created a set of graded piano lessons called Mikrokosmos that are still in use today. Bartók wrote the Concerto for Orchestra near the end of his life, and it has come to be regarded as his masterpiece. This CD features the great Fritz Reiner performing the Concerto as well as Bartók's other popular orchestral work, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris
Leonard Bernstein, piano and conductor; Columbia Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra

George Gershwin's music blurs the boundary between the "classical" and "popular" styles. Heavily influenced by jazz, Gershwin wrote primarily for the theater. His Porgy and Bess has been produced both as a musical an an opera. "Rhapsody in Blue" plays a similar role with concert music, combining the styles of American jazz and nineteenth-century German Romanticism. "An American in Paris" is a dizzying whirl of sound that depicts a foreigner's experiences in the artistic capital of the Roaring Twenties. Leonard Bernstein's late-1950s recordings (featuring himself at the piano) have yet to be surpassed.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century