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Classicalite's Five Best: Composers You’ve Never Heard Of

By Classicalite Newsdesk on Nov 21, 2013 01:31 AM EST

We all know our Beethovens and our Mozarts and our Bachs. Some of us even know our Tippet and our Borodin and our Massenet. But there are dozens of composers who, though accidents of history or lack of political or media support or for some other reason are largely forgotten today, except among a few enlightened souls. But it's exciting to discover the new, even when it's very old. So why not take a journey of discovery, starting with these five. And if you already know their music, why not suggest some other obscure geniuses below?

Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915)

It takes a special kind of musician to have the ear of Tchaikovsky. And in fact Taneyev, who is chiefly remembered as the teacher of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, was a Tchaikovsky favorite. The senior composer selected him as piano soloist several times and consulted him on some of his own works. And Taneyev's own music is magnificent, the only ones which are even slightly widely-known are some of the chamber works (it's well worth hearing the starry and quite recent Gramophone Award-winning recording on DG) but he always rated his masterpiece to be the epic opera The Oresteia, recently given a rare complete performance at the Bard Music Festival in New York and available as a download.

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)

Probably one reason that this French composer's dazzling piano music is so rarely heard is because it's so incredibly difficult to play. He probably also didn't help himself by withdrawing more or less completely from public performance for a couple of decades after the death of his dear friend Chopin, which also coincided with Alkan being passed over for a much-prized Paris Conservatoire job. Yet Chopin and Liszt deeply admired Alkan and in his lifetime he was ranked alongside them. He also remained a proud Jew, incorporated Jewish themes into his work and even translated the Bible into French! No question as to the finest Alkan disc of recent years -- Marc-André Hamelin's Hyperion recording of the Concerto for Solo Piano should be on every music lover's shelf. And this is the year to get it, in case you didn't notice from the dates above -- it's the Alkan bicentenary!

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Irish composer Charles Stanford was rather sandwiched between the eras of two much more famous Brits. He managed to infuriate Arthur Sullivan, who believed that Stanford was trying to position himself as the newer, brighter star (which the younger composer denied in a letter to The Times) and was himself more or less totally eclipsed by young Edward Elgar. But as well as being a founder of the Royal College of Music, Stanford has left us some fabulous music. There are even two superb recordings of his life-enhancing Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet, and while the older one with baritone Benjamin Luxon remains a classic, the Chandos label's recording with Gerald Finley under Richard Hickox is just as fine and in better sound. But someone, somewhere please do his apparently marvellous Shakespearean opera Much Ado About Nothing! Pretty please?

Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792)

Kraus and Mozart led uncannily similar and even interlinked lives. Both were protégés of Haydn, who ranked them as the two young geniuses of the age (Haydn even conducted some of Kraus's symphonies) and, although Kraus was German, he went to Sweden where he was nicknamed "the Swedish Mozart". More tragically, like Mozart Kraus died young, aged 36. Unlike Mozart, much of his work is lost, so few know it -- though it is beautiful, complex and consistently surprising. His recently rediscovered viola concertos can be heard on an Ondine recording with David Aaron Carpenter, while four Kraus symphonies have been recorded by Peter Sundkvist and the Swedish Chamber orchestra for Naxos.

Christian Sinding (1856-1941)

Joining the Norweigian Nazi party shortly before his death rather did for Sinding's posthumous reputation (and some might say deservedly so, though it has been argued that he was no longer in his right mind by that point and was manipulated). But during his lifetime he was thought of as the heir to Grieg. And his music is exceptionally attractive and atmospheric. The three violin concertos have been recorded by Andrej Bielow under Frank Beermann with the North German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, released by CPO.

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TagsClassicalite's Five Best, Taneyev, Joseph Martin Kraus, Stanford, Sinding, Alkan, Hamelin, David Aaron Carpenter, American Symphony Orchestra, DG, Hyperion, Chandos, Finley, Hickox, CPO, Mozart, Haydn

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