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Classicalite's Five Best: Unsurpassed Recordings

By James Inverne on Nov 25, 2013 12:32 AM EST
Classicalite's Five Best: Unsurpassed Recordings Yes, of course, but is it better than Klemperer's Beethoven...or Ozawa with Slava? (Photo : Deutsche Grammophon)

There are some, very rare, instances where a recording of a work is so special as to generally be considered--well, definitive is probably the wrong word, as any masterpiece is open to so many interpretations, but at least they are unlikely to be unsurpassed.

Some have already turned up in Classicalite's Five Best: EMI Recordings,so we'll pass over those this time.

So, here are five (more) recordings any decent collection should include, and which will never, surely, be bettered.

Beethoven's Fidelio, cond. Otto Klemperer (EMI / now Warner)

Klemperer pulled off a masterstroke for his Fidelio, one that is often underestimated. Everyone talks about the naked intensity of Jon Vickers as the imprisoned Florestan, and the benign vocal splendor of Gottlob Frick's Rocco the jailer. And even of Klemperer's own vigorously symphonic conducting (and the Philharmonia's edge-of-the-seat playing). But in the midst of all of these riches, the whole thing is bound together and coheres around Christa Ludwig's Leonora. There's a fine live performance dong the rounds with Sena Jurinac in the role for the same conductor, and the difference is telling. Jurinac was great, but by casting a mezzo, and one moreover who was a leading song interpreter, Klemperer had himself a leading lady who could get under the skin of this work. Here is a Leonora of many and varied shades, in an opera that, for all its popularity, is tricky to pin down. This is no star turn. It's a flesh and blood creation, it's years of yearning and decades of oppression. And there's Fidelio for you.

Mahler's Symphony No. 9, cond. Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)

It has become fashionable to say that Karajan, in his later years, became a self-indulgent conductor, whose more interesting thoughts could get smothered under layers of orchestral richness. That could be true, but it would be wrong to forget the sheer brilliance of, well, most of his recordings. This Mahler Nine with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra finds him--and them--at a white heat of inspiration. Mahler's musings on death have never sounded more urgent, or like more is at stake. The many colors this orchestra could summon in its heyday are there for profound expressive range, rather than their own sake. If you listen to this, if you really listen, it's as transformative and uncomfortable and irresistible as the greatest Mahler should be. Incidentally, in the latest edition you get Christa Ludwig (again) in top form (again!) in some of the Mahler songs.

Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7, cond. Carlos Kleiber (DG)

Kleiber didn't record all that much--the old joke was that he would descend and reluctantly return to work whenever his fridge was empty--but that meant that whatever he did deign to set before the microphones was treated as an event. These Beethoven symphonies are not only the pinnacle of his achievements, they are considered the benchmark among the scores of versions. You can't really compare the period-instrument brigade to this unashamedly big-boned and romantic view, but still, there is a sleekness to the Vienna Philharmonic's playing that avoids any sense of bloating. How to describe the highly-revved, high-octane velocity interpretations. Well, if one were in a whimsical mood, one would quote Homer Simpson on the experience of changing his name to Max Power: "You don't snuggle with Max Power, Marge, you strap yourself in and feel the Gs!"

Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten, cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca)

Solti's greatness as a Strauss conductor found its ultimate expression in the composer's little-recorded, and in some ways least understood, late opera. He waited for almost his whole life to capture it, until he had the cast of his dreams. And Plácido Domingo, Julia Varady, Hildegard Behrens, José van Dam and Sumi Jo all excel. But it is the glittering playing of the Vienna Philiharmonic under a maestro with an almost uncanny understanding of Strauss's pacing and architecture that lifts this to a very special place.

Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 2, Mstislav Rostropovich / cond. Seiji Ozawa (DG)

Shostakovich dedicated his second cello concerto to his countryman and friend Rostropovich, and Slava responded with a recording that captures all of the music's savage brilliance. Even if one doesn't think of Ozawa as the quintessential Shostakovich man, here he and his Boston Symphony Orchestra are right there with their cellist. The performance can be found on an old "DG Double" two-CD set, which will also give you Slava in the often-forgotten "Meditations" from Bernstein's Mass, with the composer conducting. That, also, is a must-hear.

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TagsClassicalite's Five Best, Solti, Karajan, Bernstein, Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Strauss, Beethoven, Fidelio, Mahler, Ozawa, Christa Ludwig, Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic