The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why do we love Chopin? Ask pianist Jeremy Denk

August 12, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like playing or hearing the music of Chopin (below).

Can you?

But just why the 19th-century Romantic composer has such universal appeal is hard to explain.

One of the best explanations The Ear has read came recently from pianist Jeremy Denk, whose essay on “Chopin as a cat” appeared in The New York Times.

Denk, who has performed two outstanding solo recitals in Madison, is clearly an important musical thinker as well as a great performer. You can also see that at once if you read his excellent blog “Think Denk.”

The Ear suspects the current essay grew out of some remarks that Denk gave during a lecture on Chopin’s pedaling at the UW-Madison, and will be incorporated into the book he is working on that includes his previous acclaimed essays in The New Yorker magazine.

Denk (below), who has lately been performing an intriguing survey concert that covers 600 years of music, thinks that Chopin’s uniqueness resides in how he consolidated and fused both conservative values and radical, even modern, innovations.

To the Ear, it is the best modern analysis of Chopin that he has read since the major treatment that the acclaimed pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen wrote about the Polish “poet of the piano” in his terrific book “The Romantic Generation.”

Moreover, the online web version of Denk’s essay is much more substantial and satisfying than the newspaper print edition. It has not only audio-visual performances of important Chopin works by major artists such as Arthur Rubinstein and  Krystian Zimerman, it also suggests, analyzes and praises some “old-fashioned” historical recordings of Chopin by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot and Josef Hoffmann.

Now if only Jeremy Denk would record an album of Chopin himself!

Here is a link to the Chopin essay:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/arts/music/jeremy-denk-chopin.html

Enjoy!

Please listen to the wonderful clips that Denk suggests.

Then tell us what pieces are your favorite Chopin works, big or small, and what performers are your favorite Chopin interpreters.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Pianist Adam Neiman defines what makes for great Chopin playing. He performs an all-Chopin recital this Sunday afternoon at Farley’s House of Pianos.

February 21, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

What makes for great Chopin playing?

It is an especially germane question since the critically acclaimed pianist Adam Neiman (below) will perform an all-Chopin recital this coming Sunday at 4 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are $45. For more information, go to:

http://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

Neiman –pronounced KNEE-man — has appeared here as a soloist with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and recorded piano concertos by Mozart with the WCO. He is a critically acclaimed prize-winning pianist with a major concertizing and recording career. He also teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is a member of the Trio Solisti, a piano trio that has been hailed as the successor to the famous Beaux Arts Trio.

Here is a link to Neiman’s website with information about him and his recordings, including upcoming releases of Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff:

http://www.adamneiman.com

Adam Neiman also recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

adam-neiman-2017

There are some exceptional players of Beethoven and other German composers who sound completely out of their element in Chopin. What qualities do you think make for great Chopin playing and what makes Chopin difficult to interpret?

Chopin’s music incorporates a narrative language and an emphasis on very “first person” points-of-view; in other words, it is highly personalized, expressing emotion from the perspective of the individual, including nationalistic sentiments. Often, Germanic music aims for “objective” viewpoints, with extremely stringent instructions by the composer.

For players who struggle with the open-ended idiomatic flavor in Chopin’s music, the lack of objective instruction by the composer can make it difficult for them to know what to do. (You can hear Adam Neiman discussing much more about Chopin’s personality and artistic achievement in the YouTube video at the bottom)

To play Chopin (below) at a very high level requires imagination and freedom, as well as a poetic and introspective musical tendency. The fluidity of rubato, the contrapuntal interaction between the hands and the frequent use of widely spread textures requires a nimble master of the instrument, one with the ability to emphasize the piano’s specific virtuosic abilities.

In addition, Chopin’s music is centered around a bel canto operatic style of melody, whereas Germanic melody tends to be more motivic in nature, and therefore developmental.

A composer like Beethoven will emphasize motivic metamorphosis as a means of augmenting a form to create large structures, whereas Chopin will glide from one melodic area to another, using harmonic exploration as the central means of formal expansion.

This compositional difference outlines different strengths in the pianists, as the skill set to play reams of melody lines in succession can often be very different from those skills required to highlight motivic development in a work.

Chopinphoto

Can you place the 24 Preludes that you will be playing within the context of Chopin’s entire body of works. What would you like the public to know about the preludes and how you see them individually and as a group?

The 24 Preludes were composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca, Spain, which proved to be Chopin’s first palpable bout with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him. (Below is an 1849 photo of Chopin on his deathbed.)

Many of these works were written in a fever-state, in haste, and during a stressful time period in which Chopin was not only facing his own mortality, but also dealing with the myriad challenges of integrating with the children of his lover, the French writer Aurora Dudevant who is better known as George Sand.

These Preludes are like snapshots into the mind of the composer at a moment in time, often without regard for cohesion or development. They exist in a timeless place, where the music expresses the extremely personal sentiments roiling through Chopin’s consciousness.

In many ways, these works capture his spirit in the most distilled possible way, giving the player and listener an opportunity to view the mind and heart of Chopin without filter or refinement, hallmarks of his larger works.

Despite the widely varied emotional content of these Preludes, as a set they hold together as a marvelous and surprisingly cogent musical journey. They exemplify the 19th-century “Romantic” ideals of fantasy, freedom, individuality and raw emotion.

Chopin on deathbed photo

You will also perform all four Ballades. How they do they rank within Chopin’s output? What would you like listeners to know about each of the four ballades, about what they share in common and what distinguishes each one? Do you have favorites and why?

If the Preludes represent the pinnacle of Chopin’s ability to express poetic ideals within miniature forms, the Ballades represent the apex of his more grandiose musical philosophy.

The Ballade, as a form, emanates from epic poetry, often portraying a heroic protagonist overcoming seemingly inescapable challenges. Ballades can also be tied to nationalistic notions, and for Chopin, all four Ballades are truly Polish in their expression.

As Chopin’s native Poland was invaded and he was cut off permanently from re-entry, Chopin became an orphan of the world, whose adopted home of France revered and celebrated him without equal.

His musical mission — exemplified by the Ballades, Mazurkas and Polonaises in particular — was to heighten awareness of Poland’s cultural contributions to a European audience totally unaware of the goings-on in the east.

As a result of the immense conflicts suffered by Chopin’s homeland, and in keeping with the deep pride and identification Chopin felt as a Pole, these Ballades express the emotional rollercoaster of a lone Polish hero — perhaps Chopin himself, autobiographically — battling the world.

All four of these works make an enormous impression on the listener. From the despair and anger of the first Ballade, the bi-polar conflicts of the second (below is the opening of the second Ballade in Chopin’s manuscript), the pastoral hopefulness of the third, and the desolate introspection of the fourth, these Ballades speak to the soul and require the most intensely personal voice of the performer.

Adam Neiman 2 2016

They require the possession of immense physical power and emotional maturity, which renders these works as being among Chopin’s most challenging.

I love all four of them equally. They are true masterworks of the highest order.

chopin-ballade-2-autograph

In there anything else you would like to say?

I am deeply honored and extremely delighted to return to Madison to perform this recital. I look forward to seeing many familiar faces, as well as new friends. Thank you!


Classical music: Trevor Stephenson is offering a 4-part Chopin course and an all-Chopin concert on Feb. 25 (NOT Feb. 24 as first announced an mistakenly printed here). TODAY is the deadline for enrolling in the course

January 27, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Trevor Stephenson (below), who founded and co-directs the Madison Bach Musicians, may be best known in the Madison area for his work with early music and Baroque music.

But Stephenson, who is known for his outstanding pre-concert lectures as well as for his performances, is also deeply involved in period instruments and historically informed performance practices concerning Romantic music.

trevor-stephenson-with-1855-bosendorfer-grand

He writes to The Ear: “In February, I’m offering a four-part course on  piano music by Frederic Chopin (below). This will meet on Thursday evenings 6-7:30 p.m. at my home studio. Information is below. Email me to enroll.

“Also, I’ll play an all-Chopin house concert on SATURDAY, FEB. 25 AT 7 P.M. — NOT Sunday, Feb. 26, at 3 p.m. as first and mistakenly printed here — which will be here at the home studio as well. Refreshments will be served. Reservations are required (trevor@trevorstephenson.com). Admission is $40.”

Chopinphoto

CHOPIN COURSE

DATES: February 2, 9, 16, 23

TIME: Thursdays 67:30 p.m.

PLACE: 5729 Forstyhia Place, Madison WI 53705

COST: Enrollment is $120

Reading knowledge of music is suggested.

Class size is limited to 15, and enrollment closes TODAY, Friday, Jan. 27.

Contact trevor@trevorstephenson.com

TOPICS:

Feb. 2: Waltzes, Preludes

Feb. 9: Nocturnes, Mazurkas

Feb. 16: Etudes, Polonaises

Feb. 23: Ballades, Scherzos

Instruments to be used are: an 18th-century Fortepiano (Sheppard after Stein)
 c. 1840; a Cottage Upright Piano (attr. C. Smart ) c. 1850; and English Parlor Piano (Collard & Collard) 
c. 1855; and a Viennese Concert Grand Piano (Bösendorfer) 

Subject matter will include: Origins of Chopin’s compositional style; tonal qualities of his pianos, early 19th-century temperaments; fingering; pedaling; articulation; touch; tempo; and tempo rubato.


Classical music: The new year starts out on a sour note — Chopin’s favorite piano maker, the venerable Paris-based Pleyel, has gone out of business even while Steinway seems to have a bright future. Plus, violinist Kangwon Kim performs music by Brahms and Rochberg this Friday at noon for FREE.

January 8, 2014
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, to be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive, features violinist Kangwon Kim (bel0w) with pianist and FUS music director Dan Broner in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78, by Johannes Brahmas and music for solo violin by the American composer George Rochberg.

Kangwon Kim

By Jacob Stockinger

The past few days I have spent catching up with some leftovers from 2013. This is another one, though it could also be classified as opening the new year of 2014 with sad news.

The news is that Pleyel, the venerable Paris-based piano maker (below) that made the favorite pianos of composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) — and was the oldest piano maker in the world — has gone out of business. (You can hear Chopin’s famous Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23, performed an 1836 Pleyel in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Pleyel logo

Was too much attention paid to marketing and promotion? Not enough to building pianos? Did too much effort and money go to surface and not enough to substance? Check out this YouTube video from several years ago about Pleyel trying to go upscale:

Perhaps the story with piano makers is not unlike the problem that some orchestras are facing because too much money has gone into new facilities, refurbishing concert halls and raising conductors’ salaries rather than to the musicians.

Whatever the answer is, the fate is certainly different that what has been promised to the famous Steinway and Sons company by its new owner, billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson.

Here a link to the Steinway story I posted earlier:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/classical-music-steinway-will-remain-steinway-says-the-new-billionaire-hedge-fund-owner-of-the-famed-piano-company/

Steinway Grand Piano

And here is a link to the story about Pleyel, which Chopin (below) favored for its light touch and soft sound, as reported by Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley, one of my favorite NPR reporters.

It also features audio-visual clips with the superb Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska (below, who has recovered from a debilitating injury) playing an 1848 Chopin-vintage piano.

Janina Fialkowska

Perhaps it is similar to the Erard piano that American pianist Emanuel Ax used some years ago to record with the late Charles Mackerras Chopin’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 in E Minor and 2 in F minor (really his first concerto) on a period instrument:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/12/28/257581367/chopins-favorite-piano-factory-plays-its-final-chord


Classical music: The Request Line is Open! Here is beautiful love music by Schumann and Schubert for my Valentine. What music would you dedicate to your Someone Special for Valentine’s Day?

February 14, 2013
13 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Valentine’s Day.

Music and love are inextricably linked for me. In fact, I am quite sure that much of the very best music in all genres is some kind of love song – expressing love of another person, an idea, a landscape or a flower, an art object, an idea or even a God.

Cupid

For me, nothing expresses love and deep feelings as much as music. Nothing even comes close, not painting or drawing or sculpture, not the best prose or even the best poetry, which also move me, but just not as much or as deeply.

So today I offer two pieces for my Valentine.

Heart

The first is by Robert Schumann (1810-1856), the slow third movement from his Piano Quartet in E-flat. It is a piece that we both discovered and first heard together, decades ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison, Wisconsin, when the great American pianist Emanuel Ax (below) and the Cleveland String Quartet performed it.

Emanuel Ax

Was there ever a composer who captured romantic love and longing better than Robert Schumann? Some come close –- J.S. Bach in many different works, among which I single out the slow movement of the F minor violin sonata; Mozart’s “Forgiveness Quartet” in “The Marriage of Figaro”; Beethoven in many movements of his piano and string sonatas, string quartets, symphonies and concertos; Wagner in the “Love Death” from the opera ‘Tristan and Isolde”; Puccini in the first act of “La Boheme”; Chopin in certain works like the Ballade No. 4 and the Largo from the Sonata No. 3; Brahms in his F minor Piano Sonata, his “German” Requiem, his songs and some of his late piano pieces; Debussy in his “Clair de lune,” the slow movement to his String Quartet and some of his piano preludes; Prokofiev in his ballet score to “Romeo and Juliet.” And there many more.

But no one composed as much love music as movingly and in as many different forms as Robert Schumann, who spent his whole adult life affirming his love for his long sought after and finally obtained beloved virtuoso pianist wife Clara Wieck Schumann. (Both are seen below in a photo.)

Schumann_Robert_and_Wieck_Clara

So here is the music. See what you think:

The other piece is the song-like last movement of Franz Schubert’s penultimate Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959. Like Schumann, Schubert (1797-1828) returned again and again to love, especially in his art songs, his chamber music and his piano music. Empathy and compassion, humanity and love, are what make me  turn more to Schubert (below) than to Beethoven these days.

Schubert etching

And once again, this is a work I first heard sitting next to my Valentine, when the young Christoph Eschenbach (below in a more recent photo) performed it many years ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater, before he turned to conducting. It was one of those times your hand instinctively reaches for the other person’s hand and you are joined in love and beauty.

Christophe Eschenbach

Much like love itself, the end of the songful music often seems like it could and will stop, only to go on triumphantly and movingly.

See if you feel the same way about the music in this performance by Alfred Brendel, not Christophe Eschenbach:

I also identify other works with my Valentine, especially Bach, Brahms and Faure. But these two are among the essentials.

Thank you, Valentine, for loving me; for bringing me a better life and making me a better person. I have always loved you, I still love you and I will always love you.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Now, readers, it is your turn: THE REQUEST LINE IS OPEN!

What piece of music best expresses Valentine Day for you and for your Valentine?

Which piece would you dedicate to your Valentine? If this blog were yours, what music would you post for your Valentine?

Let us know in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube video performance, if possible.

And Happy Valentine’s to you all.

I hope you are all as lucky in love as I have been.


Classical music: What is the greatest piece of classical music for you right now?

April 22, 2012
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday I posted a story about Rob Kapilow (below, in a Stephanie Berger), a composer and conductor who now travels around the country explaining to sold-out audience what makes a piece of classical music great.

Here is  link to that posting: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/what-makes-of-piece-of-classical-music-great-rob-kapilow-wants-you-to-know-through-his-concerts-and-book/

But today I want to ask the logical follow-up question:

For you right now, what is the great piece of classical music and why?

It isn’t an easy question to answer. It could be small or big, old or new, a song or a symphony.

For me, and for a very long time, a never-fail piece is the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor by Chopin (below). It is an incredible work. I find it his answer to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, which, by the way is written in the same key and uses some of the same structure.

I know, I know.

Chopin (below) is famous – or infamous – for not liking or playing Beethoven except for maybe the Piano Sonata Op. 26 “Funeral March,” which Chopin used as a model for his own famous Piano Sonata No.2 “Funeral March.”

But such a cosmopolitan, sophisticated and fastidious pianist composer like Chopin, who knew and admired and imitated Bach and Mozart, must have more known Beethoven than he let on. (I also think you can make a case that his Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp minor is a response to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata.) And I think the same goes for Schubert. After all, Chopin was also a great pianist, performer and teacher as well as composer who assigned his students Scarlatti sonatas at a time when very few pianists or musicians paid attention to Scarlatti.

Anyway, the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52 for me is an unfailingly great piece of music that features beautiful melodies, including a “valse triste” or sad waltz, that lingers long after you hear it; great poignant and haunting harmonies; and astonishing natural counterpoint – all tied up in a formally flawless Romantic package. (A performance by Krystian Zimerman is below. I also like Artur Rubinstein, Emanuel Ax, Maurizio Pollini  and Murray Perahia playing the same piece.)

So what work of classical music would you call The Greatest right now? Which one work of classical music speaks to you the deepest and the most often? And why do you think it does?

The Ear wants to hear, so include a link to a performance eon YouTube if you can.

Let’s see if we can form our own “canon” of great pieces and composers.


Classical music: Are dying composers and last works more profound and better? Consider Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Chopin and Brahms among others.

January 29, 2012
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

In their later years two of the 20th century’s most famous piano virtuosos – Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz – turned increasingly to the works of Mozart.

Both of these men – whose personalities and performance styles were so very different – agreed on one thing: Age brought them a desire for the beautiful elegance and profound simplicity of Mozart.

Composers facing death — some old and many young — often seem to share certain traits: I think of two piano sonatas: Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111 in C minor, and Schubert’s last piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (below, played by Alfred Brendel). I think one could also add the late short piano pieces by Brahms and the last piano works of Chopin (below, supposedly photographed posthumously on his deathbed ), including the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, the last mazurkas and the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major.

A few years ago, the famous pianist Paul Badura-Skoda (below) – once an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — came through Madison and played an acclaimed recital of famous last piano sonatas by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. It is a great idea to add unity or a theme to a recital.

And several string quartets, I believe, have played programs consisting of last quartets by famous composers including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Why not consider symphonies, operas, requiems, songs and chamber music in general?

The composer, biographer and critic Jan Swafford (below) recently took a close and thoughtful look at what several of classical music’s most famous composers share in their last or close-to-last works, and what we should listen for in them and know about them.

The story in Slate led to a fine interview piece on National Public Radio (NPR), where there were some great sound samples.

So first I offer the NPR piece and urge you not only to read the transcript but also to stream and listen to the complete radio broadcast:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPWXZnYbunw&feature=related

And here is the full text of his article on Slate. It covers a lot more and is well worth reading:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2011/11/famous_classical_composers_the_last_piece_they_wrote_before_they_died_.single.html

Of course, not all composers fit the mold. Robert Schumann‘s last works seems decidedly inferior to his earlier ones. But then Schumann was severely mentally disturbed and institutionalized toward the end of his life.

Are there composers whose last works — like, say, Schubert’s fabulously beautiful Cello Quintet — seem especially profound to you?

Do you have favorite last works and what are they?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The music is ALWAYS more important than the performer or performance. That’s good to remember especially during holiday gift shopping.

December 24, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Well, here we are — down to Christmas Eve, down to the last shopping day before Christmas.

Then, of course, after the holiday and gift-giving comes the chance to redeem all those gift cards and spend all that cash.

In past weeks, I have offered a series, compiled by distinguished critics from The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine to NPR and the list of Grammy nominations , of suggested recordings from 2011 that would make fine holiday gifts for classical music lovers.

Here are links to those posts:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/classical-music-news-here-is-a-complete-list-of-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-54h-annual-grammy-awards-happy-listen-and-shopping/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/classical-music-shopping-continues-so-for-the-weekend-here-are-more-holiday-gift-guides-from-alex-ross-anne-midgette-npr-wfmt-and-others-for-classical-recordings-featuring-the-best-of-2011/

But I recently ran across this review by Alan Elsner of a single upcoming release. It reminded that in many cases you can and should ignore the experts, and instead simply obey your own impulses.

It is good to remember that the music is ALWAYS more important than the performer or performance.

The great pianist Artur Schnabel said something similar when he remarked that great music was frustrating to work on because it was always better than it could ever be played.

In this case, the review is talking about a new recording of French music by Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel for Sony by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. (Unfortunately, it won’t be released until Jan. 10, so don’t look for it in time for the holidays. That seems bad consumer timing from Sony, no? Maybe Grammy Award eligibility has something to do with that.)

There is a local tie-in, by the way. Both Bell and Denk (below, teaching a student master class in Madison) have appeared together and separately in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater. And the violin sonata was recently heard in a transcription for cello on “Sunday Live From the Chazen.”

But what struck me about this review was the depth of commitment the review felt toward the music – in this case, the famous Sonata for Violin and Piano by Cesar Franck (below), a certified masterpiece. And that is, I think, a very important lesson to remember.

If certain piece of music has special meaning for you, then even an old recording of it makes it a gift from the heart and to the heart, as Beethoven once described a major composition he had written. To give music you really love is to give a piece of yourself.

For me, that would be, among many others, Bach’s Partita No. 2 for keyboard, Cantata No. 147,  and the “Goldberg” Variations; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27; Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Op. 109 and 110 plus his Piano Concerto No. 4 and Symphony No. 7; Schubert’s last two piano sonatas, two Piano Trios and Cello Quintet; Chopin’s Ballade in F MinorScherzo No. 3 and Sonata No. 3; and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, Piano Quintet in F minor and Symphony  No. 4.

I would be lying if I didn’t say I have favorite performers and performances, among them Arthur Rubinstein (below) in Chopin and Brahms.

But I would also be lying if I didn’t stay that I knew and loved the music before I knew and loved the performer, and that I have heard many performances in those works and liked them. The music elevates the musician.

In any case, I like the personal quality and commitment you find in this review. I hope you find it as appealing and convincing as I did. It brings us back to the basics of music – which is not to nit-pick over which performance is the best or is somehow definitive, though performances can indeed make a different in our appreciation, but instead to guide us to the greatness of the music.

Here is a link to the review:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-elsner/music-and-spirituality_b_1112982.html

Still, if you need more help, here is one person’s general list of the Best 100 Best Classical Works – without specific artist or performance performances, or without being confined to the past year.

http://www.digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best-classic-wks.html

And here is a list of the all-time top classical recordings that is not limited to releases this past year:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/6137471/100-Best-Classical-Recordings.html

Happy hunting.

And happy listening.


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