The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: BBC Music Magazine names the Top 50 greatest classical music recordings ever made. How many have you heard? Or do you own? | January 8, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

What are the 50 greatest – I assume that is not the same as the most important — classical recordings ever made?

And how many of them have you heard?

Or do you own?

That list has been compiled by the BBC Music Magazine (below) for its January 2012 issue.

Here is a link to the names and titles, given in descending order a la David Letterman and various other countdowns:

A lot of the choices make great sense.

For example, the first complete recording of Wagner’s titanic “Ring” cycle by George Solti is a drama behind the drama. 

Who could argue, for example, with Pablo Casals’ pioneering recording of Bach’s six solo suites for cello (below)? After all, it was Casals who discovered them and then restored them to the repertoire as music when many people thought of them as mere exercises.


And who could argue with including Artur Schnabel’s first-ever cycle of the complete 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven (below) — though what about his championing the neglected piano sonatas of Schubert?

But why is there nothing by pianist Artur Rubinstein (below), who was quite the pioneering pianist when it came to recording complete Chopin works and other composers from early in the 20th century though the 1970s? Do they really think Claudio Arrau’s version of Chopin’s Nocturnes is greater than Rubinstein’s? Could it had ego do with a European label versus an American label? Are the BBC critics subject to geographical, national or cultural bias?

Anyway, you can make your own judgments.

What recordings of the BBC Top 50 do you most agree with?

And what recordings do you think belonged on the list but were overlooked or left off it?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Arrau’s Nocturnes are without doubt greater than Rubinstein’s. So arresting, dramatic, searching and reflective.


    Comment by Mark Hunter — February 9, 2013 @ 8:55 am

  2. Pleased to see Glenn Gould’s “Goldbergs” are right there near the top. I encountered these as a child and these variations have followed me for the last 40 … on records, on tapes, on CD’s and now fed directly into my brain via my IPod.


    Comment by nikkitytom — January 10, 2012 @ 11:41 pm

    • Hi Nikki,
      Thank you for reading and responding in detail.
      I agree with you completely and have done the same with both versions of Gould’s “Goldberg” Variations — updating them as the recording medium changed.
      The two versions are so different form each other, and yet each so compelling in its own way.
      Nobody but nobody does them like Gould — and I have listened to a lot of Goldbergs!


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 11, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  3. I own and/or have listened to almost all the recordings on the list, except for the Stockhausen and the Steve Reich.

    Such lists are more entertaining for the irritation they provoke than for the wisdom they impart. In addition to the omissions already cited, where are Toscanini, Bernstein, Serkin, Horowitz, Heifetz, Lipatti, Rostropovich, Richter,the Julliard Quartet, etc. etc.etc.

    Of course, to limit 100 plus years of recording to such a pathetically narrow list is a doomed enterprise. But it does serve to remind one of the vastness of the classical discography, and to set one thinking about one’s own favorites.
    How about Rubinstein and the Guarneri’s Brahms Quintet?
    How about Toscanini’s “Verdi,” “Otello” and “Falstaff”?
    How about Bernstein’s Ives?
    How Heifetz in Prokofiev 2nd Concero with Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony.
    Where is Beecham’s Haydn or Schubert or Delius, not to mention his “La Boheme” with De los Angeles and Bjorling.
    Where is Bernstein in Copland and Ives and, and, and…
    Oh yes, Glenn Gould’s William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons
    And David Munrow’s The Art of Courtly Love (music of Machaut, Dufay, Binchois etc.)

    Woops, I think I just started my OWN silly list!
    Thanks for the post, Jake


    Comment by Bill Lutes — January 8, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    • Hi Bill,
      Thank you so much for racing and repsonding in such detail.
      This is exactly the kind of reaction comment that I was hoping someone would send in.
      And you are the perfect candidate to provide it.
      You know much more about historical recordings than I do since I usually get impatient with less than ideal sound.
      But you are knowledgeable and make terrific points about such a list as well as offer convincing titles that are omitted and should not be.
      Thanks again for adding so much to the conversation.


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 8, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

  4. No Fischer-Dieskau or Janet Baker?


    Comment by Paul Rowe — January 8, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    • Hi Paul.
      Nope. Good catches on your part.
      And no Chopin by Rubinstein, the greatest Chopin player of modern times along with Cortot.
      I wonder if it is because they recorded for non-British labels, though Janet Baker certainly qualified.
      Anyway, thanks for your attentive reading and perceptive comment.
      I hope we hear about more lacks.
      And that the BBC critics pay some attention to suggestions.
      They should issue an addendum–with apologies.


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 8, 2012 @ 11:40 am

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