Audiophile Classical Music Recommendations - Basic Library (Links included)

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Hi Everyone, I'm back after a long absence on AudioCircle, and as a way to make a contribution right off the bat, here is a list I put together of some of the great sets of classical music out there with an eye toward sound quality, modern performances, and great interpretations.

Baroque (Pre-Classical)
This is music that uses a lot of counterpoint:

Bach Solo Cello Suites - Kirshbaum playing
Yes, I could have put Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Fournier, or Casals here, but the first two are less compelling interpretations than the relatively unknown Kirshbaum, and the latter 2 are let down by less than stellar recordings.

Bach - Brandenbug Concerto's and Violin Concerto's conducted by Rees
Tons of great recordings of these works, others I like are Il Giardino Armonico and the Benjamin Britten classic set.  But the Italians are too wild, and Britten's recordings are too old to be primary rec's.

Bach - Solo Violin - Rachel Podger playing
Again, lots of great recordings of these works, but Podger has a gracefulness and ease that is missing in many recordings, plus she has much better sound quality than Milstein, Grumuiaux, Szerying, to name a few other recordings I listen to regularly.

Bach - Goldberg Variations - performed by Hewitt
Ah, what can I say, I love Hewitt's recordings of Bach.  Great sound quality, but even more important, she has the ability to sound like 3 separate musicians playing together.  Most other pianists just sound like they are one person playing 3 parts (including the revered Glenn Gould).  Snap up ALL of her Bach recordings.

Bach - Well Tempered Clavier - performed by Hewitt

Vivaldi - The Four Seasons - Conducted by Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano
One of the works MOST in need of an incredible, vivacious performance and spectacular recording quality, because of all the time it's been used a droning muzak in elevators and on telephone hold-music.  These are red-blooded Italians performing the music of their countryman as though their lives depended on it!

Vivaldi - La Stravaganza - Conducted and performed by Rachel Podger

This is music that is almost always easy on the ear, with great melody assuming a dominant role, as opposed to the dominance of counterpoint in the pre-classical era. 

Haydn - Paris Symphonies - Conducted by Harnoncourt
Harnoncourt is the reference in this music, and benefits from excellent modern sound.  If you think of Haydn as staid and a bit boring, you need to hear this set first.

Haydn - London Symphonies - Conducted by Harnoncourt
After you are fully acquainted with the Paris symphonies above, only then should you proceed to the Londons.  This music is less adventurous than the Paris ones, but Harnoncourt makes the most of them.

Haydn - Piano Sonatas - Played by Hamelin
Who would have thought that a modernist like Hamlin would make such an amazing set of Haydn recordings? 

Haydn - Piano Sonatas part 2 - Played by Hamelin
More Haydn goodness - this set displaces easily the McCabe and Schiff recordings that are also readily available.

Mozart Piano Concerto 12 and 17 - performed by Brendel and conducted by Mackerras
Mackerras and Brendel are one of those rare matches of soloist and conductor where each inspires the other to greater heights.  These are recordings for the ages, snap them up (all of them) post haste!

Mozart Piano Concerto 22 and 27 - performed by Brendel and conducted by Mackerras

Mozart Piano Concerto 20 and 24 - performed by Brendel and conducted by Mackerras

Mozart Symphonies - conducted by Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Mackerras and Mozart - this most recent recording sounds GREAT and the performances are class leading.  Exciting, refined, passionate - everything that Mozart should be.

Mozart Wind Concerto's - performed by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The Orpheus do not have a conductor, and their resulting sound may lack some "personality" that a big name conductor might bring, but these recordings are better than almost any others I can think of. 

Beethoven is his own category because he truly straddles the classical and romantic eras in almost equal measure.  Some say he was the first Romantic, others say he was the last of the Classicists. 

Beethoven Piano Concertos 3 and 4 - performed by Bronfmann conducted by Zinman
I have a TON of recordings of Beethoven's piano concertos.  Many of them are great (such as Pollini/Abbado, Fleisher/Szell, Kempff/Leitner) but I love this one for it's propulsion, intensity, take-no-prisoners approach.  And of course great sound quality.

Beethoven Piano Concerto 5 - performed by Bronfmann conducted by Zinman

Beethoven Symphonies- conducted by Mackerras with Scottish Chamber Orchestra
I'm not sure what happened when Mackerras turned 80, but he went from a good-but-not-great conductor to one that just spins out gold with every recording.  I'm shocked that this has displaced Szell, Gardiner, Liebowitz, Toscanini, and Karajan to be my reference set.

Beethoven Complete Quartets - performed by the Emerson Quartet
A bit of a controversial choice.  Sure, the sound quality is great.  But the Emersons have a speedy, furious approach to these works that not everyone likes.  Personally I love it, and thus recommend it.

Beethoven - Violin Sonatas - performed by Ashkenazy and Perlman
Good sound from the 70's.  Not as good (in sound quality) as Mutter or Dumay's recent traversals, but in this case the interpretations trump absolute sound quality.  Ashkenazy and Perlman are just on fire in this set.

Beethoven - Piano Sonatas Complete - Performed by Goode
If you want an excellent, centrist approach to Beethoven in excellent sound, then this is the best choice.  Sure, Kempff is more beautiful, Kovacevich more granitic, Gilels more aristocratic, Arrau more noble, Barenboim more capricious, Richter more god-like, Gulda more fiery, but taken all in all Goode is the best overall introduction to this music.
« Last Edit: 18 Jan 2010, 08:45 am by Tyson »


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The romantic era still holds melody as supreme, but is much more personal, more emotive, and really expands and/or breaks the classical “rules”.

Brahms - Symphonies - Performed by Dorati 
Not a modern recording, but no one else comes close to these performances.

Brahms Complete Trio's - performed by Capucons & Angelich Trio
Finally, someone that doesn't play Brahm's chamber music like he was a decrepit old man.  This is music of youth, passionate and volatile!

Brahms Piano Conceros - Performed by Freire and conducted by Chailly
Not as searingly intense as Pollini, and not as athletic as Fleisher, this one makes it to the top for it's generally very good performance combined with far greater quality of recorded sound.

Brahms - Violin Concerto - Performed by Hilary Hahn
Hahn is a wunderkind.  How she can have such incredible intelligence and wisdom along side youth is a mystery.  But there it is.  Buy and enjoy.

Brahms - Piano Quartets - performed by Beaux Arts Trio & Trampler
Hey, it's not the newest recording, but it's not bad at all, and will stay at the top until I get my grubby hands on the latest recording from the Capucons.

Bruckner Complete Symphonies - Conducted by Jochum
Good set for those that prefer stop-start Bruckner.  Older recording, and really only rec'd because the Gunter Wand cycle is out of print.

Chopin solo piano - Performed by Pollini
Not a complete set, and some of the recorded sound is a bit glassy, but Pollini does more to firm up and de-mush Chopins music than anyone. 

Dvorak - Complete Symphonies - Conducted by Kubelik
The other option for this music is Kertesz, who is also very good, but I like Kubelik's more Brahmsian take on these works.  Good recorded sound, but not quite up the the most modern standards.

Dvorak - Cello Concerto - performed by Queyras
Fournier is "the man" in this work for me, but it's a pretty old recording, so this is my second choice from a performance standpoint.  But the Harmonia Mundi sound quality is great and modern, so still a winner.

Liszt - Hungarian Rhapsodies and other piano works - performed by Cziffra
Not the most modern sounding recording, but my god what a display of virtuosity!

Liszt - Years of Pilgrimage - Performed by Lazar Berman
Same as above - good quality sound, but performances that make those concerns negligible.

Mahler - 9 Symphonies - conducted by Bertini
My favorite overall set with modern sound, beating out Chailly and Tilson Thomas (both too slow), Rattle (too erratic), Abbado (good but not great), and Boulez (too cold).

Rachmaninov - Symphonies and Orchestral music - conducted by Ashkenazy
A toss up between Ashkenazy and Previn.  I went with Ashkenazy for the more interesting performances of Symphony 3 and the Symphonic Dances, and an absolutely amazing performance of Isle of the Dead.

Rachmaninov - Piano Concertos and solo Piano works - performed by Ashkenazy
Not the most "showy" performances, Ashkenazy is a thoughtful, poetic, passionate performance.  Hough with Litton is a good alternative, more fleet and in digital sound, but I think less depth as well.

Saint Saens - Piano Concertos - Performed by Hough
Charming music, charmingly performed.  Best sound quality too.

Schubert - Symphonies - performed by Wand
Ah, Schubert's music is so hard to perform well.  Wand gets as close as anyone and gets good sound quality to match.  Harnoncourt is an interesting alternative.  Colin Davis is also OK, but a bit boring.

Schubert - Piano and String Trios - performed by Beaux Arts Trio
I'm still searching for that "perfect" performance of these pieces.  Till then, this will have to do.  Certainly beats the boring Florestan Trio performances.  And I find Rubinstein's recordings a bit too patrician.

Schubert - Impromptus - performed by Brendel
Brendel or Perahia, it's a toss up.  Both have very good sound (Perahia a bit better), but there's just something magic in how Brendel performs these pieces.

Schubert - last 4 String Quartets - performed by the Quartetto Italiano 
Not the newest recording, but performance trumps sound quality concerns.

Schubert - Piano Sonatas - performed by Andsnes
Andsnes has excellent sound quality, and to his credit plays these sonatas more or less straight. 

Schumann Symphonies - conducted by Barenboim
I almost never have Barenboim as a first choice in anything.  And he beats out the incredibly good Gardiner set.  That's saying something!

Scriabin - Piano Sonatas - performed by Hamelin
Astonishing, jaw-dropping virtuosity in the service of some strange, odd, and beautiful music.

Sibelius Complete Symphonies conducted by Blomstedt
Treads a middle path between the more "icy" performances of Colin Davis on Philips and the red blooded passion of Maazel.

Sibelius  Violin Concerto - played by Kyung Wha Chung
Not the greatest recording quality but the performance makes that a non-concern.  Mutter is a close second here, especially with the very recent recording date.

Tchaikovsky 4 through 6 Symphonies - Mravinsky conducting 
Most people make Tchaikovsky sound like a sad sap manic depressive.  Mravinsky makes him sound like God's fiery vengeance.  Again, performance trumps recording concerns.

Tchaikovsky - Piano Concerto 1 - performed by Argerich, conducted by Dutoit
Argerich is a lioness, with lightening bolts shooting from her fingers.  No recording captures that as much as this one does.

Wagner - "The Ring" - conducted by Solti
This might be displaced by Barenboims much more recent set, if/when I get a chance to hear it.
« Last Edit: 18 Jan 2010, 09:31 am by Tyson »


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From a construction standpoint, this music is late-Romantic, but the use of harmony is unique, so they get their own category as well.  For this list the impressionists are restricted to Debussy and Ravel:

Debussy & Ravel Orchestral Music - conducted by Martinon
Boulez and Abbado have better sound quality, but Martinon sounds more "French", and these are very good interpretations. 

Debussy Solo Piano Music - performed by Bavouzet
Paul Jacobs used to be the top performer in this music.  The recent Bavouzet tells just as compelling of a "story" in each piece, and has very good modern sound.

Post Romantic
This music is harmonically and formally more aggressive and more free than the Romantic period.  Things start to get quite a bit more dissonant in this period.

Bartok - 3 Piano Concertos - Performed by Schiff
This is a more gentle interpretation of Bartok's rocky concertos.  If you want something more diamond-hard, Pollini is a good alternative.

Bartok - Concerto for Orchestra - Reiner Conducting (SACD Hybrid)
This is Bartok's most famous piece, and Reiner gets the Hungarian feel of it just right.  Fischer in more modern sound is a very close second.

Bartok Violin Concerto 2 and Stravinsky Violin Concerto - Mullova playing, Salonen conducting
Mullova is volatile and passionate and makes this music come alive.

Bartok String Quartets - played by the Emerson Quartet
Other performers may get more gypsy or hungarian strands, but the Emersons convey modern angst and anxiety like no one else.

Prokofiev Piano Concertos - Performed by Beroff
For some reason the French do very well in Prokofiev's music.  I think it's because they pick up on the sardonic humor more than most.

Prokofiev Violin Concertos - performed by Lin
Lin has the best combination of good clear sound and a very good, non-idiosyncratic performance.

Shostakovich String Quartets - performed by Emerson Quartet
The Emersons again.  They convey more fire and fury than others in this music.

Shostakovich Symphonies - conducted by Barshai
Not as insanely over the top as Kondrashin, but more involved and committed sounding than Haitink or Jansons.  Perfect for this dark and sometimes twisted music.

Shostakovich - Cello Concertos - performed by Rodin
Brings out the militancy and mad-house distortions as well as anyone.

Shostakovich - Violin Concertos - performed by Vengerov, conducted by Rostropovich
There are other great performances of these concertos, but the recording quality here trumps.

Stravinsky - Rite of Spring & other Orchestral - conducted by Tilson Thomas
Great recording, great performances, what more could you want?

Vaughan Williams - Symphonies - conducted by Haitink
He's not just a gentle Brit, there's some real passion and intensity to these pieces.  Haitink brings this out without getting in the way.

Walton - Symphonies and Concertos - conducted by Previn
Another Brit, and a bit more gnarly than the last.  Previn is a master of this music.

This music is characterized by almost complete freedom from form, often very dissonant, sometimes minimalist, sometimes uses 12 tone scales, melody is often absent with rhythm and harmonic explorations taking center stage.

John Adams – Earbox
Not all of Adams' work is great, but a lot of it is.  Great Nonesuch recording quality, as always.

John Cage – Music for Prepared Piano

Oh sorry, was listening to some John Cage.....

Kronos Quartet – 10 CD set of modern quartets
The variety of music that the Kronos Quartet performs is astonishing.  I can't guarantee you will like everything here but I'd be very surprise if you didn't find a few things to love.

Ligeti Edition I – String Quartets and Duets
Crazy, dissonant, horror movie music.  Kubrick loves this guy, and so do I.

Ligeti Edition III – Piano Music

Schnittke - String Quartets - performed by the Kronos Quartet
Schnittke is the middle ground between the slightly more conservative Shostakovich and the completely insane sounding Ligeti.  So, if you find Ligeti too crazh, and Shostakovich too tame, the Schnittke is your man.
« Last Edit: 18 Jan 2010, 08:24 pm by Tyson »


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No one likes classical?


I do and very much appreciate all the effort this must have taken.  :thumb:



I'm not a huge classical fan, but will take the time to digest your lists.
I've got quite a bit of classical on vinyl - need to work it into the listening rotation.

BTW, great to see you posting here again Tyson! :thumb: 8) :D


Thanks for the list. I think it really boils down to a couple things. People who are into classical probably saw your post and thought "oh a newbie list, not for me", whereas actual newbies (like myself) saw a huge list with several categories and weren't sure where to really begin.


Russell Dawkins

We just got the Mahler Symphony set by Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra for $45  in Canada and are loving the sound and performances, both.
I see at Amazon it's considerably more money:

It's a 12 disc set covering 10 Symphonies.

My son is 14 and plays the french horn and bass (stand up and electric) and is really blown away by the writing.


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No one likes classical?

Not true.  I prefer classical recordings too.  You didn't expect us to criticize your extensive listing, did you? :thumb:  There are so, so, so many fine recordings out there, so yours is just fine, especially when you said they're (mostly?) budget type? :drool:

We can go on and on talking about a list, and I bet it can grow, and grow, and grow.

However, I have been at A/C here for not too long, it does appear to me that most of the A/C'ers are into jazz and the popular genres more.


Some nice stuff on there Tyson! I think you touched all the basics - and then some. I look forward to trying some of your recs.
Schnittke Quartets! Wild stuff, I love it.

Aaron Copeland is another easy-to-digest and deeply inspirational composer of historic significance, maybe not of the same stature as most of the composers on your list, maybe so... Modern but very easy to enjoy.

I find that very high resolution speakers and powerful PP tube amplification help me to enjoy classical recordings more than I can with warmer, more "musical" speakers and/or SS amps, which have their advantage playing contemporary popular music. Of course this is a broad statement with exceptions according to taste and budget.

Welcome back to AC!  :D



Personally I found your classifications to be most helpful!  Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were pretty much understood but beyond that, this helps categorize styles and helps me figure out correlations between what I like and categories.   :thumb:


My classical collection has been lacking for awhile, I can use this to jump start it again. 


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Thanks for the warm welcome back.  I figured I'd make a big post in music, since that's what it's all about :D

As noted, the list is hardly comprehensive and more composers and/or different recordings for the ones listed are more than welcome! 

I have that Chailly set, it's a bit slower in interpretation, but the recorded sound quality is possibly even better than Bertini, who also has great sound.  Mahler, nothing really gets the blood going quite like Mahler!

True, Copland is a giant, but if I'd put him on there I'd have felt compelled to include others like Biber, Bizet, Ives, Janacek, Grieg, and a whole host of others that really deserve to be there.  But the list is too long for a single post already! 

I've tried to focus on performances that are more in the young, vital, and intense mold, rather than the "grandiose" and/or slow and profound tradition.  And of course good sound quality is a must.  8)

Brad, JoshK, PeteG, Mike, it's great to see some old friends still around here, I missed this place.


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Nice work Tyson...good to see you posting again....and hope your feeling better. :thumb:
Your old thread really needed an update...most of the links were lost when Tower Records went out.

Happy listening.... :beer:



A nice introductory list.  :thumb:

A few additional Basic Library Recommendations and alternate preferences of mine (trying to stay with inexpensive items). In place of individual links, for which I don't have the time, I would suggest the following good sources for classical music:


Bach - Orchestral Suites           - Koopman, Amsterdam Baroque - DHM (period instruments)
Bach - Brandenburg Concertos - Koopman, Amsterdam Baroque - Erato
Bach - Violin Concertos - Kremer, ASMF - Philips
Bach - Cello Suites - Ma - Sony

Vivaldi - Il Cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (includes the Four Seasons) - Biondi, L'Europa Galante (period instruments)  - Virgin
Vivaldi - Four Seasons (modern instruments) - Shaham, Orpheus CO - DG  
Vivaldi - La Cetra, L'Estro Harmonico, and La Stravaganza (separate sets - modern instruments) - Marriner, ASMF - Decca
Vivaldi - Cello Concerti - Wallfisch, London Sinfonia - Naxos

Handel - Music For The Royal Fireworks and Water Music - Marriner, ASMF - Decca
Handel - Concerti Grossi Op. 6 - Orpheus CO - DG


Boccherini - Guitar Quintets - Romero, ASMF CE - Philips

Haydn - String Quartets (esp. Op. 33, 50, and 76) - Kodaly Qt. - Naxos (budget recommendation - the best versions are by the Lindsay and Festetics Qts.)

Mozart - String Quartets (14-23, esp. 14-19; 1-13 are very light) - Qt. Italiano - Philips or Berg Qt. - EMI
Mozart - Piano Concertos - Ashkenazy, Philharmonia - London (more consistent than the Brendel/Marriner)
Mozart - Symphonies (21-41) - Krips, Concertgebouw - Decca (the later ones sound best to me with a full orchestra)
Mozart - Violin Concertos - Frank, Zurich Tonhalle - Arte Nova


I agree that he is in his own category, however, as I love his work so much, I must take exception  :wink:  to most of the initial recommendations, esp. for a beginner.

Piano Concertos - Kempff - Leitner - DG or Fleischer, Szell - Sony (there is not a uniformally great set but I find Pollini's recordings to be very cold - the Brendel/Rattle/VPO might be a contender: haven't heard it yet).

Symphonies - Wand, NDR - RCA (as with the Piano Concertos, no one gets all of them right but this is the most consistent set I've heard - only No. 3 fails and he re-did that in a great live recording the next year). Except for Nos. 1 and 2, I think all of the Symphonies work much better with a full orchestra and most of the Period Instruments groups sound thin, harsh and driven to me. I do like Norrington's Nos. 2, 3, and 8 however.

Complete St. Qts. - Tokyo Qt. - RCA or Qt. Italiano - Philips (budget) are my favorites and make these works more accessible than the more intense Emerson (on recordings anyway - I once heard the Emerson do a beautifully phrased live rendition of the ethereal Op. 132)

Violin Sonatas - Haskil/Grummiaux - Philips (well recorded budget set played as a true partnership  - Ashkenazy/Perlman sound like the two superstar soloists they are). The single (mid-price) disc of Rubinstein/Szernyg is needed as a supplement as they do much more vibrant renditions of the Spring and Kreutzer Sonatas.

Cello Sonatas - Wispelway/Lazic - Channel Classics (superbly recorded and played)

Piano Sonatas - The Kempff is a great choice, as is the R. Goode on Nonesuch.

I'll try to follow up with some more tomorrow.


« Last Edit: 3 Jul 2008, 03:38 pm by rpf »


Tyson, your Rachmaninoff symphonies link takes me to the Sibelius violin concerto.  Rob, how can you stand Marriner conducting Handel or anything else for that matter? He is deadly dull.  About the only piece I like him in is Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings.  For the Fireworks, try the King's Consort or Pinnock;  for Water Music, Pinnock again or Gardiner.


Tyson, your Rachmaninoff symphonies link takes me to the Sibelius violin concerto.  Rob, how can you stand Marriner conducting Handel or anything else for that matter? He is deadly dull.  About the only piece I like him in is Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings.  For the Fireworks, try the King's Consort or Pinnock;  for Water Music, Pinnock again or Gardiner.

Marriner can be dull but he can also, particularly in his earlier recordings, be sensitive and well balanced. Which is how I find the discs cited above. The Decca Handel is stately and grand; appropriate for the music I think. However, I like varying styles in Classical music so I enjoy the quicker, lighter toned Pinnock you referenced and, in Vivaldi, groups like L'Europa Galante and Il Giardino Armonico as well .

If you like Marriner in the Serenade for Strings, you might also enjoy his conducting of Tchaikovsky's Suites For Orchestra on Capriccio.


I have very limited experience with classical. Although when it's time to paint I listen to Mozart or Bach. I mean painting as custodial work on the house, not the artistic kind.
Anyway, I wanted to post a thanks for the list. I'm going to try a few.


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Rachmaninov Symphonies link is now fixed, not sure what happened, sorry about that.


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Tyson -

Thanks for the list, am long overdue to expand the classical portion of my library. No small task compiling all that, as others have noted it will take a while to assimilate.

A love for classical music, fine scotch, & really good 'toons, you are obviously a man of refinement & taste.  :thumb: