Starter Kit

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

This column began as a Gift Guide kind of thing. You know: “here’s what to buy your classically oriented audiophile friend.” That got me thinking about my Aunt Frances. Beginning when I was in grade school—maybe even before that—she sent me classical LPs for my birthday every year. I must’ve been about three when I got the old Ormandy-Levant Rhapsody in Blue in its first Columbia 33⅓ incarnation. Much later she sent some choice Living Stereo releases: Munch and the BSO doing early Schubert; Van Cliburn and Fritz Reiner in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. I have no idea why she did this; my family didn’t even own a record player. But along with a couple of albums bought with lawn-mowing money, they made up my entire classical collection until I was 17 or so.

So, as to early collecting habits? I didn’t have any. Nor did my friends and relatives. (My cousins, living in Paris at the time, sent me EPs of Sacha Distel and The Crickets—not Buddy Holly’s band, but an English group.) I’m the last one to ask for advice about acquiring a taste for “classical.” Perhaps the Appropriate Present will actually launch your child on a happy lifelong quest. The rest of us might be better off following our impulses, especially if they’re driven by curiosity rather than fear. After all, the universe still seems to take Chaos Theory quite literally. You may just bump into something you didn’t realize you loved.

Thus the modest goal of this column. I’m only recommending a few new albums that may provide a pain-free introduction to Classical Music for Innocents (you know who you are) especially if they have a good record player (first things first!). At the end I’ve tacked on a couple of suggestions for people who face a harder gift mission: to find something that a classical buff hasn’t heard yet but may treasure forever.

(Not) For Beginners Only

Tops on my Beginners list would be this brand-new issue of a perennial favorite, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Comes to us from the BBC SO and violinist Tasmin Little, beloved Brit who’s already recorded everything else in the known universe (A Violin for All Seasons, Chandos CHSA 5175). Recording-wise, it’s state-of-the-art: a hybrid multichannel SACD also available for download in the (original) 24/96 PCM format. The string sound absolutely glistens, balances are perfect, and Little delivers a passionate, engaging performance. Besides the Vivaldi, you get Four World Seasons by Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968), scored for the same forces plus Tibetan Singing Bowl. Fun, plus it may pique the curiosity of those who already own a Four Seasons recording (i.e., everyone else in the known universe). Click on the catalog number for excerpts. Perfect for that watch-cap-wearing Millennial who’s always heading off to Kathmandu or Williamsburg, All Seasons also works for grizzled vets, who can place it alongside their trusty Neville Marriner version.

Speaking of trusty old coots, how about that John Eliot Gardiner? In a long, celebrated career, he has continually surprised us with his willingness to take on new challenges. For the last couple years he’s been recording Mendelssohn symphonies with the London SO. His latest seems tailor-made for tyros: Symphonies No. 1 and 4 (LSO Live LSO0769). The physical release includes multichannel SACD and Blu-ray Pure Audio discs, plus stereo files in DSD, 24/96, 16/44.1, and 320-kbps mp3. They’ve got you covered. (If you buy from a UK retailer, it’s a steal; don’t leave the price tag on.)

And who can resist the charm and high spirits of the Mendelssohn Fourth? Inspired by a trip to Italy, he captured the color of the countryside and warmth of its people in four exquisite movements that end far too soon. What first sold me on this album, however, was the First. Written when he was not quite 15, it shows Mendelssohn was already outgrowing his childhood debt to Mozart and venturing into heady Romantic territory. For these LSO performances, Gardiner resurrected a Scherzo composed especially for London in May 1829, playing it alongside the original 1824 Menuet (click on the catalog number for more details). Here’s a bit of the Scherzo:

Some of you will have recognized this music—it’s from the Octet for Strings, written in 1825, just months after the symphony was first completed.

Finally, how about a vocal recital? My pick, whether for younger listeners or the young at heart, would be A Journey, South African soprano Pretty Yende’s debut album (Sony Classical  88985321692, various formats). What pipes! Check these tunes out:


Familiar (i.e., likable) repertoire, a gorgeous voice, sumptuous accompaniment. If this doesn’t inspire your giftee to join the Metropolitan Opera Guild immediately, I don’t know what would.

Advanced Studies

As with the Beginners list, no reason to avoid these if you don’t fit the demographic. Stick with Chaos Theory. You’ll learn a lot more than you were supposed to.

First up, Grażyna Bacewicz: Complete String Quartets from the Silesian Quartet (Chandos CHAN 10904[2]). Who was Bacewicz (1909–1969)? Only the most talented female contemporary of Witold Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik, that’s who. Like them, she grew up in 20th-century Poland and bore witness to a dizzying succession of political movements, military crises, and cultural cataclysms. Her seven string quartets mirror the, um, interesting times she lived through. She wrote neo-classical No. 1 after studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger; No. 2 in Warsaw during World War II; Nos. 3, 4, and 5 in Poland’s post-war years, when Socialist Realism dominated cultural policy; and Nos. 6 and 7 as part of the later avant-garde explosion, which brought international fame to Lutosławski and Panufnik.

You can trace the history of modern Polish music in these quartets. That wouldn’t matter much if this weren’t terrific music, period. Bacewicz was also a professional violinist, so she handles writing for virtuoso string quartet with ease. No, it’s more than ease. You can hear her absolutely relishing the possibilities. I really enjoyed my time with this well-played, well-documented 2-disc set; you will too. Be the first on your block. (Click on the catalog number to find excerpts from all the quartets. Start with No. 3.)

Let’s finish with more vocal music: Néère (Hahn, Duparc, Chausson), a French art-song recital with mezzo-soprano Véronique Gens and pianist Susan Manoff (Alpha ALPHA215). Hey, what is with Alpha? All of a sudden they are constantly on my radar, with exciting releases from Il Giardino Armonico, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Peter Eötvos, and other European “insider” stars. Here’s yet another beautifully curated, lovingly produced recording. Some of the songs are fairly well known, at least to connoisseurs of mélodie; others are rarities. All receive subtle, knowing treatment from one of the great mezzos of our time, a woman who made her reputation with Mozart and Gluck but should also be acknowledged as a master of French song. Listen to an entire track here.

Or check out the Official Trailer from the label:


Happy listening! (Oh, come on! Like you’re going to buy this for someone else and not get your own copy.)

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