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5 Most Influential Classical Music Recordings

During my college years, I would get together with some friends to listen and compare our favorite recordings. I always found this to be a lot of fun because we always had different CDs to share and it was great to see what other masterpieces were out there. Now, several years later, I would like to pay it forward and share with you the recordings that shaped my musical development in my early years.

1. Beethoven, The 9 Symphonies; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, Label: Deutsche Grammophon.

Listening to this recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies was such a transformative experience. Before encountering these CDs, I knew very little of the symphonies besides the first movement of the Fifth, the slow movement of the Seventh, and the last movement of the Ninth. I developed such a fondness of this recording as I got to know all of the symphonies really well by playing it on loop constantly.

In Karajan's recording, I love the youthful, energetic drive of the First Symphony, the rhythmic precision and control in the Fifth Symphony, the beautiful winds and horns solos in the Seventh Symphony, and the tempo choices in general. My piano teachers have always explained the importance in studying the Beethoven symphonies to develop a better understanding of his piano sonatas. I look to these CDs as a source of inspiration.

2. Beethoven, The Complete Cello Sonatas; Pablo Casals, cello, Rudolf Serkin, piano. Label: Sony Classical

This was one of the discs that made me fall in love with chamber music. Before discovering it, I knew little about the Beethoven cello sonatas, and after hearing the Sonata in A Major, Op. 69, I was hooked. Both musicians in this disc play sensitively and converse with each other through their respective instrumental parts. In this performance, one experiences the exquisite lyricism and dramatic turmoil throughout the work. Listen to a short clip below.

3. Glenn Gould Plays Bach, Goldberg Variations, BWV 958: The Historic 1955 Debut Recording and the 1981 Digital Recording. Label: Sony Classical

Glenn Gould, a highly controversial pianist because of his choice of extreme tempos in many of his performances, is my favorite Bach musician. In this disc, we get two historical performances of J.S. Bach's most celebrated work, the Goldberg Variations. The first, recorded in 1955, was the recording that launched Gould to prominence. Unsatisfied with his own performance, he re-recorded it in 1981, shortly before his death, which seemed to show a more mature and contemplative side than the former. Nonetheless, both recordings exhibit Gould's phenomenal finger technique and clarity. To learn more about the differences between the performances, please visit Frances Wilson's article here.

4. Olivier Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus; Pierre Laurent-Aimard. Label: Teldec

During my early teenage years, I was resistant towards modern music, especially works that were written after 1950. In my first year of college, my teacher introduced me to Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, a sublime work that was written when the composer was held as a POW during World War II.

I loved the work so much that I scoured through the library to see what else Messiaen wrote, and I discovered Pierre Laurent-Aimard's recording of Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the infant Jesus). Aimard's masterful production of tone color was what drew me to this piece. Vingt Regards was influential to my musical development because it provided me a greater appreciation of more avante garde works.

One particular movement that I kept repeating on loop was "Regard de l'Esprit de joie" ("Contemplation of the joyful Spirit"). Check out Aimard's phenomenal performance of it below––what a fiendishly difficult work.

Last year, I performed another movement from this suite, you can hear it here. Eventually, I would love to complete the rest of the work. No small feat, indeed!

5. Rachmaninov plays Rachmaninov: The 4 Piano Concertos; Sergei Rachmaninov, piano; Eugene Ormandy, conductor; Leopold Stokowski, conductor. Label: RCA Victor

Rachmaninov's performances of his own concertos remain one of my favorite recordings of all time, especially his second piano concerto ("Rach 2"). Beautiful tempi choices and a natural sense of ebb and flow create such fluidity in the music. Also, his effortless technical display is mind boggling as well!

Honorable Mentions:

Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas; Richard Goode

Brahms: A German Requiem; Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka; Rite of Spring; Pierre Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3; Martha Argerich, Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic

I hope you enjoyed reading my list of influential recordings. What are yours? I would love to hear which recordings made the cut!

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