Is Bach’s Mass in B Minor the greatest work in the history of music? That perennial question was raised again by its performance in the recent Bach Festival held under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. And that debate, in turn, raises an additional question: Is it actually possible to single out a specific musical work, or a group of works, as the best of all time?
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Broad agreement can apparently be reached among listeners and experts on a number of works that are extraordinary achievements. However, that consensus does not attest to the existence of an objective criterion for beauty or greatness – it means that many people find the work moving. That said, it’s clear that a small number of works possess a special status in the classical world. From these I have chosen five with which I have a special relationship. They touch me in a distinctive way, and as such, each of them opened a chapter, or stage, in my private history as a listener.
The list is personal, and the order does not represent a preference. There is no “right” and “not right” in music, only a personal encounter with the sounds.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Piano Concerto No. 4
In his later years, Beethoven composed increasingly daring, original and sophisticated works, such as the late string quartets or the last piano sonatas. However, it’s his Piano Concerto No. 4 that drew me into the world of passionately obsessive listening. I bought the record as an adolescent and listened to it over and over, I have no idea how many times. I was enthralled by the dialogue between the piano and the orchestra: tempestuous in the first movement, dark and threatening in the second, ecstatic in the third. The soloist was Wilhelm Kempff, the conductor Ferdinand Leitner. Today I would recommend the recordings by Murray Perahia, conductor Bernard Haitink; by Leif Ove Andsnes (who also conducts); and the older version by Emil Gilels, with Leopold Ludwig the conductor.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin)
A ravishingly beautiful work from 1610, which opened the gates to the abundance of early music that preceded Bach. Like the Great Mass, the “Vespers” is a collection of religious vocal pieces that have been welded into one work. Even though there is no absolute, uniform version – different versions are somewhat unlike in terms of the arrangement or order of the passages – here, too, the conjoined totality produces a feeling of balance and wholeness. What stands out are the riveting relations between the different voices, and between the music and the text. An atmosphere of mystery is generated by intellectual sophistication that is intertwined with beautiful melodies and spectacular harmonies. Of the numerous recordings there are three, very different from one another, that I find marvelous: conducted by Andrew Parrott, by Jordi Savall and by John Eliot Gardiner in a recording made in San Marco in Venice, Monteverdi’s church.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Mass in B minor
With my discovery of the “Great Mass,” as it’s known, came the revelation that music has the power to transport me from reality to a different, parallel existence that is rife with a constant feeling of excitement and transcendence. Also revealed was the singular power inherent in a fusion between the intimacy of a solo voice and the emotional jolt produced by the sophisticated, riveting interplay between choir and instruments. The intensity of the effect remains equally potent today, after decades of listening to the Mass in B minor. Though it consists of a mosaic of passages from previous works and from different periods, it possesses unity and an intense atmosphere in which the tension never flags. Among the outstanding performances from the many that are available are those conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock, Philippe Herreweghe (his third recording of the work) and Jos van Veldhoven.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), “The Rite of Spring”
The work that changed music in the 20th century and also upended my private listening world. “The Rite of Spring” intertwines thrilling rhythms, surprising harmonies and colors and intriguing transitions between groups of instruments. The result is emotionally intensive and highly dramatic, even when disconnected from the ballet performance for which the work was originally written. Though complex, “The Rite of Spring” pulsates with rhythmic raw power and resonates in every cell of the body.
A vast number of recordings exist, two of which I find special: by the conductor Teodor Currentzis with the MusicAeterna ensemble, and by Claudio Abbado with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), “Don Giovanni”
The effect of opera is elusive for me. For the magic to work, it’s essential that the music stand on its own and that the drama be fomented from listening alone, without stage and visual support. From this point of view, I find “Don Giovanni” to be the absolute opera, offering wonderful music and a compelling psychological drama as well. The characters are as complex and ambivalent as in a Shakespearean play. The subconscious of both the protagonists and the seemingly preposterous story is forged by the music. The melodic beauty, along with the inner drama of the characters, will speak even to a listener with no prior background. Of the works on the list, “Don Giovanni” is the only one that has not yet been given a totally persuasive performance. Most critics are enthusiastic about the old version conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. In addition, the performance conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, with period instruments, has many advantages, and there is also considerable magic in another version with period instruments, conducted by Arnold Ostman.
Pursuing personal curiosity
The following five works are not part of the consensus; in other words, not in that small circle of pieces most of the classical world thinks of as “major.” Some of them are not well known to the general public. But I have a special affection for them; each in its time pointed me toward new musical territory. By mentioning them here, I also want to draw attention to a process I believe helps one become acquainted with classical music: listening to diverse works and pursuing one’s personal curiosity.
Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377), “Songs.”
The medieval French composer – mainly of religious works (of which the best known is “Mass of Our Lady”), though also of many secular pieces – influenced generations of composers with his refined style and polyphonic writing. He is also known for his astonishingly beautiful melodies, which are heard primarily in his sensual, dizzying secular songs and song cycles. Marvelous, hard-to-find recordings exist by the Early Music Studio, conducted by Thomas Binkley, by the soprano Esther Lamandier and a wonderful album, “The Mirror of Narcissus,” by the Gothic Voices ensemble.
John Dowland (1563-1626), “Songs.”
Dowland, a composer, singer and lutenist, worked as a musician in the courts of King Christian IV of Denmark and King James I of England, composing diverse works, many of them for groups of bowed string instruments. However, his best-known works are art songs, whose simplicity sometimes recalls popular tunes. Listening to Dowland performed well is always a captivating experience and raises the question of the boundaries between art songs and high-quality popular songs. There’s a splendid recording of all the songs by the Consort of Musicke, as well as a terrific 2006 album by Sting, “Songs from the Labyrinth,” which departs from the tradition of classical performance.
Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), “Musikalische Exequien” (requiem).
Listening to this work – with its profusion of beautiful melodies, sophisticated polyphonic harmonies and atmosphere of mystery – was a breathtaking experience for me. Subsequently, I delved into the early German Baroque with its depth and sophistication. It’s intriguing to watch Schutz progress, accumulate influences from the world at large and give rise to the late German Baroque – at its peak, to Johann Sebastian Bach. Among the many recordings of the work, I especially like the delicate rendition by the Vox Luminis ensemble.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918), “Pelleas et Melisande.”
Debussy’s only complete opera is a work that proceeds at a slow pace, both in terms of the plot and in its musical flow. The work transpires internally, in the characters’ world of feeling, and through delicate harmonic developments of voice and orchestra. Powerful tension and excitement are forged amid the slow pace, and the work is studded with moments of rare beauty. I’m still hooked on the old recording under the baton of Herbert von Karajan.
Luc Ferrari (1929-2005), “Almost Nothing No. 1” (Daybreak at the Seaside).
The French composer Luc Ferrari composed music for conventional instruments but also “experimental” music made up of environmental sounds like the sea, boats, traffic, talking and a shout, vehicles and insects. The sounds were processed in the studio into patterns of repetitions, regularity and order, thus turning into musical structures. “Almost Nothing No. 1” is one of the most famous, strongest and most distilled of the works of this type, and it was also the first Ferrari composition I came to know. To my ears it’s exciting – not as an intellectual experiment, but as a sensuous, emotional experience. The departure from the use of traditional instruments is a fascinating expansion of the boundaries of music.