Desert Island Classics
By John J. Puccio
Here are a few of my absolute favorite classical recordings (listed alphabetically), which the reader may find of interest. They are major, basic-repertoire, warhorse items to be sure. There is a reason why great music is great music, after all, and to have chosen a handful of obscure, esoteric works as personal favorites would have seemed to me pretentious and dishonest. The hard part, of course, was narrowing down the list from thousands of favorites to a precious few, but I did my best.
Incidentally, because I value these recordings so much, I own most of them in somewhat hard-to-get and relatively expensive Japanese and German remasterings, but for the purpose of this list I have indicated their availability in domestic releases. For those buyers adventurous enough (and with deep-enough pockets), I suggest trying Amazon Japan, Amazon France, Amazon Germany, Amazon England, and the HMV Shop, Japan. They stock almost everything, but shipping, especially from Amazon Japan, can be a jolt.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" (Bohm, Vienna Philharmonic O.) DG
The problem I had here was deciding which of several different recordings of the "Pastoral Symphony" I liked best. The other contenders--Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and Eugene Jochum--made the choice tough, but I went finally with Bohm's gentle, genial approach.
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (Beecham, French National Radio O.) EMI
No one conveys the spirit, the color, and the humor of this work better than Sir Thomas Beecham.
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Pollini; Kletzki, Philharmonia O.) EMI
I alphabetized this list, but if I were pinned down to name my single most-favored disc in the world, it would probably be this one. Yeah, I'm a hopeless Romantic.
Chopin: Nocturnes (Rubinstein) RCA
Arthur Rubinstein was a master of Chopin. And while I also love individual Chopin pieces by Pollini, Cliburn, and others, it is Rubinstein who excelled in all areas Chopin. His two-disc set of the complete Nocturnes may seem overly cool, calculated, or precise to some ears and impossibly Romantic to others; to me, however, it sounds just right, and in RCA's latest remastering, it sounds sonically impressive as well.
Debussy: La Mer (Stokowski) HDTT
Leopold Stokowski's 1970 Decca recording of La Mer with the LSO has been a favorite of mine for decades, but it wasn't until HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered it that I finally heard it as the old maestro meant it to be heard. It's still not the most-natural sound in the world, but it's close enough, and it enhances what is already a commanding performance.
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" (Kertesz, London Symphony O.) Decca
Istvan Kertesz recorded the Dvorak Ninth a few years earlier in his career for Decca and did it very well, but this later one is even more mature and more spellbinding.
Giuliani: Guitar Concerto No. 1 (Romero; Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) Philips
For a terrific pick-me-up, this delightful little concerto is just the thing, and no one has done it up better than Pepe Romero, with Marriner and the Academy.
Handel: Water Music (Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra) Harmonia Mundi
Everyone has to have a copy of Handel's most-famous orchestral music in their collection, and for me there is none finer than McGegan's recording with the Philharmonia Baroque played on period instruments.
Haydn: Symphony No. 100 "Military" (Jochum, London Philharmonic O.) DG
I believe you may only find this recording on CD in the complete set of Jochum's Haydn "London Symphonies," but the whole set is worth the money in any case.
Holst: The Planets (Previn, London Symphony O.) Hi-Q or EMI
This has long been an audiophile demo piece for me, and it remains so.
Ketelbey: In a Monastery Garden (Lanchbery, Philharmonia O.) EMI
In the silent days of Hollywood, filmmakers loved to recommend Ketelbey's music to accompany their movies. It's pure schmaltz and wonderful listening.
Lehar: The Merry Widow (Schwarzkopf; Matacic, Philharmonia O.) EMI
One of the most-charming operettas ever written, filled with light, frothy tunes, perfectly captured by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and company in this classic set.
Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (Barbirolli, Berlin Philharmonic O.) HDTT or EMI
The Mahler Ninth was probably Sir John Barbirolli's best recording ever with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it's ravishing all the way around.
Massenet: Le Cid, ballet music (Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony O.) EMI or Klavier
Really fun stuff in outstanding sound. However, the disc may be a bit hard to get anymore.
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Klemperer, Philharmonia O.) EMI or EMI Japan
Some classical-music listeners tend to think of Otto Klemperer as a rather dour, straightlaced conductor, but one listen to this delicate, light-as-a-feather performance will prove otherwise.
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro (Taddei, Moffo; Guilini, Philharmonia O.) EMI
I don't know that anyone has matched Carlo Maria Giulini in Mozart opera interpretations. It's maybe the only opera I can listen to straight through in a single sitting.
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter" (Jochum, Boston Symphony O.) DG
When DG issued Eugene Jochum's Mozart "Jupiter" Symphony on LP in 1973, it went straight to the top of every critic's list of recommendations and stayed there for years. What's more, it's coupled with probably the best Schubert "Unfinished" Symphony ever recorded, making it a must-buy. Yet as of this writing DG have never released it on CD in America. Astonishing. If you're interested, the disc is available from Germany (in a lovely little Digipak that duplicates in miniature the original album cover).
Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Rabin; Goossens, Philharmonia O.) EMI set, EMI France set, or EMI Japan
Here's another major studio oversight. Michael Rabin's performance of Paganini's Violin Concerto is the liveliest, peppiest, zippiest, most-frolicsome you'll find anywhere, yet EMI (now Warner Classics) offer it only in a big box set of Rabin's work, not as a single disc. If you want it otherwise, you'll find it on a two-disc French EMI import and on a single disc from EMI Japan.
Puccini: La Boheme (Freni, Pavarotti; Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic O.) Decca
Practically everybody's favorite opera, with everybody's favorite singers. What more could a person want?
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 (Previn, London Symphony O.) EMI or EMI Japan
I told you I was a hopeless Romantic, and what symphonic music could be more Romantic than Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, which Previn nails perfectly in what is still state-of-the-art sound.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (Reiner, Chicago Symphony O.) RCA or JVC
Spectacular, whiz-bang sonics from, amazingly, over half a century ago! Great performance, too.
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (Yepes; Argenta, Spanish National Orchestra) HDTT
I loved this recording when I was younger, and I love it today. Thank goodness for HDTT for bringing it back to life sounding better than ever before.
Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 "Organ" (Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony O.) EMI or Klavier
Just let those big bass organ notes wash over you like gigantic ocean waves. This one will definitely give your subwoofer a workout, with Fremaux offering up the most-exciting interpretation the piece has ever received on disc. The EMI disc is readily available; the Klavier, with slightly more natural sound and stronger bass, is out of print and may be hard to find.
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major "Trout" (Beaux Arts Trio et al) Philips or PentaTone
You can find this "Trout" in regular stereo on Philips or in multichannel on PentaTone. In either case, you will not find anyone doing up this enchanting music better than the augmented Beaux Arts Trio.
Smetana: Ma Vlast (Dorati/Concertgebouw O.) Philips or Newton Classics
As with all of these favorites, you'll come across other interpretations equally good, but this one with Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orchestra strikes me as among the more rewarding.
Strauss, Richard: An Alpine Symphony (Kempe, Dresden Staatskapelle) EMI Japan
Not generally considered one of Richard Strauss's better works (too picture-postcard cute for some listeners), I find it the most pictorial of all his tone poems and endlessly entertaining, especially in the hands of Rudolf Kempe, either with the Royal Philharmonic or his later version here with the Dresden Staatskapelle. (The earlier recording sounds better recorded; the later one better performed.)
Stravinsky: The Firebird (Dorati, London Symphony O.) Mercury
Mercury's sound holds up remarkably well after all these years, and the performance is unmatched in the complete ballet.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (Bernstein, New York Philharmonic) Sony
The folks at Sony finally remastered Bernstein's classic 1958 Columbia recording, and it sounds splendid. You'll find no better a recording of this familiar score.
Sullivan (with Gilbert): H.M.S. Pinafore (Godfrey, New Symphony O. of London and D'Oyly Carte) Decca
Probably the most fun music of the list, and again done up in well-aged state-of-the-art sound.
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Cliburn; Kondrashin, RCA Symphony O.) JVC or RCA
This was the first recording of any complete classical work I ever bought (eighth grade, 1958). I must have been the first (maybe the only) eighth grader in the country to own it (I don't know what possessed me to buy it on the first day RCA released it; I must have read about it somewhere), and I have since bought it in half a dozen other formats, culminating in a JVC XRCD24 audiophile remastering. The regular RCA disc is still plenty good enough, though.
Meet the Staff
Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.
Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.
For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.
I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.
I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.
I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.
Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.