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CD Buying Guide

The First 20 CDs and MP3s of Your Classical Music Collection

If you enjoyed the CDs on our Top 10 Essential Classical CDs list, here are ten more that will help satisfy your craving for great music. As before, the list includes a wide variety of styles, periods, and composers, and the recordings are chosen with price in mind as well as performance quality.

Once you own our Top 20 recommended CDs, you will have compiled a collection of the Greatest Hits of classical music, and you will be ready to explore the music in more depth. Most people find certain composers, eras or genres that they particularly enjoy. To find out more about your favorites, just click on any of the "Similar Works" links below the pieces you enjoyed the most, and you will find still more treasures of the classical music tradition.

Read our Classical Music CD Buying Guide

11 Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, "Choral" -- Herbert von Karajan
An inspiring journey, culminating in the "Ode to Joy." Review...

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

13 Beethoven: "Razumovsky" String Quartets -- Takács String Quartet
Revolutionary chamber works. Review...

14 Bach: Goldberg Variations -- Glenn Gould
From a simple song to complex counterpoint. Review...

15 Handel: Messiah -- Trevor Pinnock
Far more than a Christmas carol. Review...

16 Mozart: Symphonies 35-41 -- Karl Böhm
The Classical style achieves perfection. Review...

17 Vivaldi: The Four Seasons -- Anne-Sophie Mutter, Trondheim Soloists
The musical score to the film of Time. Review...

18 Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 -- Gidon Kremer, Misha Maisky, Martha Argerich
Memorializing a dear friend. Review...

19 Dvorák: Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" -- Fritz Reiner
The Czech master takes on a new continent. Review...

20 Debussy, Ravel: String Quartets -- Belcea String Quartet
Ethereal harmony. Review...


Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, "Choral"
Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Hilde Rössl-Majdan, mezzo soprano; Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Walter Berry, bass; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Singverein, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Beethoven's Ninth is justly famous for its setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in its final movement, but what many people don't realize is that there are forty minutes of glorious music before the final movement even begins. The first movement begins in the musical equivalent of a mist, which gradually lifts to reveal the full splendor of the orchestra. The astute listener can even hear a preview of the "Ode to Joy" melody in the second theme. The second movement features a catchy melody that is passed back and forth between the different instruments, while the third movement contains some of Beethoven's most exquisite slow music. As the fourth movement begins, the orchestra plays brief reprises of the first three movements, only to reject them in favor of the famous "Ode to Joy" theme. Beethoven was a master of conveying emotion in his music; by the end of the Ode, you will truly believe that "All creatures drink of joy."

For a first taste of Beethoven's Ninth, we recommend either Herbert von Karajan's 1962 recording (with Janowitz, Rössl-Majdan, Kmentt, Berry, pictured above), in which the orchestra conveys a rare intensity and depth of feeling, or his 1977 version (with Tomina-Sintow, Baltsa, Schreier, van Dam), in which the singing is noticeably better but the orchestra doesn't quite reach the same level. Another fine choice is Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 recording at the Bayreuth Festival (with Schwarzkopf, Höngen, Hopf, Edelmann), which is arguably the finest performance on record, but is limited somewhat by the recording technology of fifty years ago. Finally, for those who wish to hear the Ninth as (we think) the composer intended, John Eliot Gardiner conducts a compelling performance (with Orgonasova, von Otter, Rolfe Johnson, Cachemaille) using instruments and performance techniques of Beethoven's time.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical, Top 10 Symphonies, Top 10 Choral
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 Romantic, Top 10 Symphonies
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 59, Nos. 1-3, "Razumovsky"
Takács String Quartet

If Beethoven's symphonies revolutionized the realm of orchestral music, his string quartets did no less to change the nature of chamber music. The string quartets of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven's immediate predecessors, grew out of tradition of the divertimento, music intended for diversion or amusement and often played in the background. On the other hand, these three quartets, from Beethoven's so-called "middle period," are very serious affairs that command the listener's full attention. They have often been said to be symphonies in miniature, for Beethoven is able to coax as much emotion and sonority from four players as he is from a full orchestra. This recording demonstrates why Takács Quartet have emerged as today's leading interpreters of the Beethoven quartets. The playing is profound and technically impeccable, and the Takács make these quartets still sound fresh even after dozens of listenings.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical, Top 10 String Quartets
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Glenn Gould, piano

Legend has it that Bach wrote this set of variations for his student Goldberg to play for an insomniac Count. Scholarly research has shown that the legend is probably not true, and listening to the piece will affirm that conculsion -- it would be nearly impossible to fall asleep to it. Bach takes a simple aria and constructs a set of thirty variations on this theme, employing all of the keyboard styles of his time and ranging widely in mood before coming back to a restatement of the theme at the end. Glenn Gould, perhaps the most famous of all Bach interpreters, recorded the Goldbergs twice. The first recording, from 1955, is a virtuosic performance that revolutionized Bach keyboard playing, while the second, from 1981, is a far more introspective interpretation by an artist nearing the end of his life. This three-disc collection offers both recordings of the Goldbergs as well as a revealing inteview in which Gould discusses his performances, all for the cost of one full-priced CD.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Baroque, Top 10 Piano
George Frideric Handel: Messiah
Arleen Auger, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo soprano; Howard Crook, tenor; Michael Chance, countertenor; John Tomlinson, bass baritone; English Concert Choir, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, conductor

Messiah is by far the most popular choral work ever written in English, and the "Hallelujah" chorus has become part of our cultural lexicon. The work is an oratorio, which is a dramatic work that is meant to be sung in concert rather than acted on stage. The texts are taken from both the Old and New Testaments, and are divided into three parts. The first part, especially popular around Christmastime, depicts the birth of Christ. The mood becomes more somber for the second part, which depicts the crucifixion, but as Christ rises from the cross the chorus comes together to sing "Hallelujah." The third part, depicting the resurrection, recalls the joy of the beginning, and the oratiorio concludes with a great choral "Amen." The English Concert's authentic Baroque instruments help give the ensemble a feeling of lightness during the outer parts and a piercing intensity in the middle.

Similar works: Top 10 Baroque, Top 10 Choral
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 35, 36, 38-41
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 Mozart, Top 10 Classical, Top 10 Symphonies

Antonio Vivaldi: Violin Concertos Op. 8, Nos. 1-4, "The Four Seasons"
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Trondheim Soloists

This set of four concertos for violin and orchestra is a fine example of program music -- music designed to conjure specific images or tell a particular story. Each concerto is accompanied by a sonnet describing events of the given season, and Vivaldi's music presents musical depictions of the same events. The "Four Seasons" have been recorded and performed so often that they are in danger of being clichéd, but Anne-Sophie Mutter lays that danger to rest with her exciting performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Baroque, Top 10 Concertos
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67
Martha Argerich, piano; Gidon Kremer, violin; Mischa Maisky, cello

Shostakovich wrote his second piano trio in 1944 as a memorial to his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died the previous winter. The trio begins with the cello playing eerily high notes, then the piano and violin join in below. Working together, the three create a picture of abject mourning. The second movement is a lively scherzo, while the third returns to the mournful attitude with a set of variations over a repeated bass line. The final movement brings the work to a close with several restatements of its own themes in different forms, as well as recollections of the earlier movements. This recording brings together three of today's superstar musicians in an exciting live performance, and also includes an excellent rendition of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century, Top 10 Chamber Music
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 Romantic, Top 10 Symphonies
Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G major; Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F major
Belcea String Quartet

While Arnold Schoenberg and his followers in Germany were getting all the attention for breaking the conventional rules of composition, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in France were quietly experimenting with their own revolutionary style, which has since come to be called Impressionism. The hallmark of Impressionism is new combinations of sounds that exist purely for their own sake, and don't need to lead to or follow from any other sounds. These two quartets exemplify the style; Debussy's quartet makes the listener feel she is floating on air, and Ravel's, while remaining firmly on the ground, takes some surprising turns. The Belcea Quartet give exquisite -- and very French -- performances of these two masterpieces, and at super-bargain price this is a recording not to be missed.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern, Top 10 String Quartets