I was recently referred, by several people, to the long-winded discussion of the NYT's music critic Anthony Tomassini about the 10 greatest composers ever. Rather than try to argue endlessly, as I could (and reserve the right to), about why list would be superior, I'll sidestep the issue and instead make a list of favorite and perhaps under-appreciated recordings that everyone should cherish as much as I do, 'cause they're awesome.
There's a general progression that I've gone through in life as a listener. After I discovered Bach and Glenn Gould, around the age of 7, I listened to almost nothing else (by choice) for quite some time. When I finally branched out, I made it my goal to acquire and listen to as much music—by the composers I liked and approved of—as I could get my hands on. Whenever I got a new CD, I would either get bored with it immediately or listen to it compulsively until I knew it by heart.
It took me a long time to realize, though, that my reaction didn't depend solely on the music being played, but on who was playing it—something that was obvious the whole time, but I had never fully grasped. In the next phase, I finally came to realize how important the performance and the performers were. Of course, the best way to truly appreciate a piece's greatness is by playing it or studying it yourself. But at the same time, music still has to be heard, has to fill the air, to be real. Great music is relatively useless unless someone can bring it to life. I used to think it was ridiculous that my family had approximately 5 recordings of the "Jupiter" symphony, by Mozart. Then one day I found myself feeling compelled to acquire at least 5 more (unfortunately, I only ever found one of the 10 truly compelling, and I lost it when my computer crashed).
It always sucks when you're looking for a CD on Amazon, and every single performance of a piece has a 5-star user rating. I suspect that there are two reasons for this annoying phenomenon. The most obvious is a selection bias—the people who are willing to go review a CD are the ones who really loved it anyway. But there's also the primacy effect. People tend to become attached to their first recording of a piece, because it's what they're used to. I know, 'cause it used to happen to me! It's hard to know what exactly shapes anyone's preferences precisely, but I can say that though some recordings used to be the piece for me, that's not true anymore. When one knows a piece exquisitely well and can really conceive of and consider it, apart from any performance, then, usually, primacy isn't much of an issue anymore.
So with that in mind, here are 14 of my absolute favorites (yup couldn't narrow it to 10) recordings, in the order that they just occurred to me. If you've got better ones, let me know!
The Salzburg Recital, Glenn Gould—Has the GBV, along with a completely weird, but enchanting, performance of Mozart's K 330 sonata. I don't think I'd be exaggerating to say it made me completely reconsider how I think about, and play, Mozart's music.
Bach concertos, Glenn Gould-My second favorite GG recording. The E major is the best of the bunch, but most people seem drawn to the D major. When I was 8, I once spent four hours in the Reyjkjavik airport with two cassette tapes of these concertos and a Walkman for company. I listened to them the entire time.
Glenn Gould, Beethoven concertos, live CBC recording (can't find it anywhere!)-My desert island Beethoven concertos recording, of GG when he's just 20 years old. For everyone who thinks Beethoven 2nd and 3rd aren't as great as 4 and 5, this performance is for you! I thought the very same until I discovered this CD in my house when I was 17. Or actually, I discovered it well before that, but never listened to it because of the lame disclaimer on the cover that says something along the lines of (I've since lost it, but as I recall) "the sound quality on this CD is garbage but we thought it was worth the historical significance." Um, way to sell your product.
Schumann quintet and concerto, Serkin, Ormandy, and Budapest quartet—I've heard too many performances and recordings of the Schumann quintet to count, but I never truly loved the piece until I heard this one. They take two completely different tempi for the two first movement "themes," which you don't really hear these days. All I can say is, it works. (The concerto that comes along with it is great too, but not on the same level.)
Mozart clarinet quintet, Neidich and L'Archibudelli--Sadly, the only other Mozart to make my list. I have high standards.
Brahms quintet, Rubinstein and Guarneri-My favorite piece of chamber music, probably because of this performance. On the CD I had growing up, the Brahms came along with the Schumann quintet, which just wasn't as well done. The Dvorak is better on this CD, but still not Brahms territory, in piece or performance quality.
Chopin Ballades and Barcarolle, Ivan Moravec-I think I've written about Moravec before. His interpretations are idiosyncratic, but his voicing and control are, I think, the best of any pianist, ever. The 3rd and 4th ballades on this recording are the best!
Brahms 4th symphony, Kleiber and Vienna-An astounding blend of passion and control.
Schumann, Dichterliebe, Aksel Schiotz and Gerald Moore- I like Schiotz's voice so much better than the other classic tenors/baritones like Wunderlich or Fischer-Diskeau, but he didn't get to record much, after suffering paralysis early in his career. This one is a real gem.
Wagner, Walküre Act 1, Lauritz Melchior, Lotte Lehmann, and Bruno Walter-The two best Wagnerian voices (Hundig kinda sucks by comparison), and as far as I know, the only decent recording (sound quality wise) of their collaboration.
Mendelssohn trios, Stern, Rose, Istomin-I used to be really annoyed that they make the piano artificially soft in this recording. But I've come to realize that it's actually a great idea. On modern instruments, the piano tends to overpower the strings if it plays out, or just sound totally not awesome if it doesn't. And the piano part in these trios is nothing if not awesome. Of course, that's not the only reason this recording is phenomenal, but an important point to consider.
Mahler and Brahms songs, Kathleen Ferrier-Such an entrancing voice!
Mahler 1 and 10, Bernstein-Not my favorite Mahler symphonies, but my favorite Mahler performance. The first and last movements (of 1) tend to sound so square in modern performances. Never with Bernstein. People don't stretch the tempo anymore the way. Case in point: have you ever heard anyone else speed up the coda of the last movement?
Brahms 2nd piano concerto, Emil Gilels and Fritz Reiner-My favorite piano concerto. I've never understood why anyone would ever consider the d minor (Brahms' first) a rival to it. Growing up, I was taken with Serkin's playing (somewhat lacking in power in hindsight), and also familiar Fleisher's (similar problem), Pollini's (lacking imagination), Kovacevich's (just terrible). I came across Gilels' playing on LP in college (for some terrible reason the CD is out of print), and it totally blew my mind. Richter's recording, made a few years later with the same orchestra, is much more famous, but really isn't as good—partly because Reiner, who was supposed to conduct with Richter as well, was ill, and Leinsdorf is no replacement.