Exploring "Non-Standard" Repertoire: Ten Suggested Recordings

A listener who wanted to go beyond what we call the standard repertoire recently asked me if I would make a list of a handful of recordings of "non-standard" symphonic works that I could recommend to someone whose taste was fairly broad, though on the conservative side. She said that she loved virtually everything from Bach to the more conservative 20th-century composers (Bartók, Stravinsky, etc.), but was not familiar with out-of-the-way repertoire.  Of course, different people will have different definitions for "out of the way" - to some listeners, Carl Nielsen's symphonies are fairly familiar territory, while to others they are totally unknown. A lot depends on the programming of your local orchestra, or on the availability of a classical music radio station (and its own approach to programming; some stations nowadays play only music from the Baroque period through perhaps early Beethoven, with an occasional single movement from a Brahms symphony, if it isn't too loud or distracting to the background listener).

I did wind up preparing a list of "non-standard" pieces for this person, and thought it might be fun to share it with you - and perhaps even get readers of this blog to add their own recommendations (or to fight with mine).  You can make grounds rules for your own list. Here are the ones I'm using:

1) I make no claim that these are "the best" works outside the standard repertoire. They happen to be recordings that I like, and that I believe most listeners who might describe themselves as the lady cited above did would also like. The list is definitely highly personal.

2) There are many other pieces that would fit this list - but it had to stop somewhere, so I arbitrarily limited myself to ten for this blog.

3) I admit to arbitrariness in defining what was "outside" the standard repertoire and what was not. I decided that for these purposes Bruckner and Shostakovich, for instance, were not outside it, and Ralph Vaughan Williams was. You might make a completely opposite case. The list, by the way, is alphabetical - not in order of preference.

4) Symphonic and concert repertoire would be included, while opera would not. (That's probably a fun but different list.)

5] Anything listed is available currently; my own first-choice source for purchase is Archivmusic.com because of its wide selection and easily navigated site.

Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 1. There are a number of good recordings, but I like the all-Barber disc from Naxos (8.449024) with Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish Orchestra. It includes the rarely heard Second Symphony, the First Essay, and the School for Scandal Overture, and makes a case that Barber was too harsh when he withdrew the Second Symphony. But it is the sweepingly romantic First Symphony that stays longest in the memory.

Leonard Bernstein: On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite. No one has surpassed Bernstein's 1960 recording with the New York Philharmonic - not even a later Bernstein effort. This is one of Bernstein's great pieces, his own arrangement of his movie score into a powerful symphonic suite. The rest of the recording is all Bernstein, including Fancy Free. (Sony 63085)

Antonin Dvořák: Symphony No. 6 in D. Dvořák's last three symphonies are played all the time, but we rarely hear the earlier ones. My favorite of those is No. 6 in D, a vibrant, charming, colorful symphony. But if you get Istvan Kertesz's fabulous recording on Decca 473798 you get a two-disc set of Symphonies Nos. 4-6, along with a few shorter gems of Dvořák that you also might not know.

Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2, "Romantic."  I get teased by some of my friends for loving this juicy, melodious, expansive piece - but I can't help it. Leonard Slatkin's coupling of this with Barber's gorgeous Violin Concerto (Elmar Oliveira plays it beautifully) would be my choice (EMI 47850).

Victor Herbert: Cello Concerto No. 2 in E Minor. An undiscovered gem - Dvořák heard this and was inspired to write his own masterpiece in that genre. You cannot go wrong with Yo-Yo Ma (Sony 93072).

Leoš Janáček: Glagolitic Mass. This unusual, powerful, jagged mass is unlike any mass you've ever heard. I once heard it referred to as a "pagan powerhouse," and it is a work that will thrill you unless you insist on quiet reverence. I don't believe Rafael Kubelik's recording has ever been bettered (DG 429182).

Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, "Espansiva" - Leonard Bernstein, Royal Danish Orchestra. You'll find yourself swept along by Bernstein's infectious energy, and if you haven't yet met Nielsen's music, this symphony is a great way in. On Sony 47598 it is coupled with another extraordinary symphony by the Danish master, No. 5. I predict that if you haven't yet caught the Nielsen bug, this disc will infect you with it.

Walter Piston: Symphony No. 2. Perhaps the finest symphony by an under-valued American master, this is music of passion, power, and beauty combined into a taut, exciting work. Michael Tilson Thomas's Boston Symphony Orchestra performance is extraordinarily communicative, and it's coupled with well-chosen works by Ives and Ruggles (DG 463633).

Wilhelm Stenhammar: Symphony No. 2. This Swedish Romantic composer, a kind of Brahms with a Nordic lilt, deserves to be known far more widely than he is, and this beautiful symphony is the best introduction to his music. One thing I love is that the only available performances, in competition with each other, are made by father and son! Both conduct it lovingly - Paavo Järvi on Virgin 45244, and Neeme Järvi on DG 445857, a two-disc set that also  gets you Stenhammar's First Symphony and the lovely Serenade.

Heitor Villa-Lobos: The nine Bachianas Brasileiras. These remarkable works, wherein Villa-Lobos magically combines the worlds of Brazilian folk music and Johann Sebastian Bach, are endlessly fascinating. I have fallen in love with the recordings by the São Paulo Symphony under Roberto Minczuk on the Swedish Bis label (Nos. 1406, 1410, and 1250 for all nine).

August 15, 2008 3:39 PM | | Comments (9)

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9 Comments

Thanks for mentioning the Bachianas Brasileiras. I now have an excuse to try them again. I have to admit they never really clicked with me, but I have heard only one recording and maybe that's the problem--this particular conductor never really clicks with me. Too bad he's the home-town boy, too. ;-)

Might I put in a plug for some underrated works:

Samuel Barber Piano Concerto (on record you must get the original Browning/Szell on Sony if you can find it; no one else plays it with the proper fire)

Janáček: String Quartets

D'Indy: Symphony on a French Mt. Air, String Quartets

Mehul: Symphonies

Ustvolskaya: Piano Sonatas. Really bizarre stuff, and there's nothing like it before or after her.

Piston: Quintet for Flute and String Quartet

Fine: Anything! Whatever happened to him?

Mozart Sinfonia Concertante and Debussy La Mer: Okay, I know these aren't off the beaten path, but can we ever listen to them enough? I mean, really, can we? :-)

Perhaps my list is a bit avant-gardist (just a bit), but most of them are quite accessible and beautiful works:

1. Stefan Niculescu, Symphony nº3, for sax and orchestra.

2. Villa-Lobos, Choros 8 (orchestra with 2 pianos), 9 (orchestra), 11 (piano and orchestra) and 12 (orchestra)

3. Alberto Ginastera, String Concerto

4. Pascal Bentoiu, Symphony nº5

5. Mindaugas Urbaitis, Lithuanian Folk Music, for string orchestra

6. Ervin Schulhoff, Piano Concerto

7. Fernando Lopes-Graça, Chamber Concerto

8. Carlos Chavez, Piano Concerto

9. Camargo Guarnieri, Piano Concerto nº4 (there's only a bad quality recording, conducted by the composer, but I hope Naxos release the second volume of his piano concertos soon)

10. Cálin Ioachimescu, Concerto for double bass, trombone and orchestra

Aside from favorite standards, finding effectively communicative and sincere performers -- singers are the true polestars here -- leads me to explore multiple examples of, for example, Canteloube songs. Or even the oldest recorded singers, whose amazing abilities still can bring you up short! Then you get to Erich Kleiber's Rosenkavalier or Figaro, or his son, Carlos's Brahms Symphony 4.

Of course you may just be interested in the thump of the bass in your stereo!


I spend almost as much time listening to "old" (i.e., pre-WWII) recordings as I do listening to modern recordings. I have written before about the greater variety of interpretive personality that seemed present in those days as opposed to current, more "purisitic" times -- a trend that I believe has been to the detriment of music. In the past there were clear, very strong differences noticeable by even moderately sophisticated listeners, differences between conductors, between singers and between instrumental soloists. Today the "permissible" interpretive range seems narrower, and I definitely believe we have lost something in the way of impact because of it.

For anyone interested in an old-fashioned virtuoso singer who performed into the 1960s (and lived into the 1990s), seek out recordings of the Ukranian tenor Ivan Kozlovsky. Purists should probably stay away -- he stretches phrases, takes liberties with dynamic shading, holds high notes, all the things purists complain about. But it is thrilling singing, singing that announces itself as singing of importance from the first note. There are complete operas and recital recordings available.
-Henry

Of course you’ve opened a can of worms, Henry. There are so many works that are unjustly neglected, and it’s obvious that many (including myself) are grateful that you remain a champion of the ‘lost repertoire’. You have written extensively about the forgotten ‘lighter classics’, and I’m hoping this post becomes one of a series. Many excellent suggestions by readers have already been posted, and hopefully more will contribute as well. I couldn’t resist adding my two cents, and I found my choices falling into wildly different categories. For example, the ‘Short Piece’ category might include such works as Delius Irmelin Prelude, Franck Psyche et Eros, Liadov The Enchanted Lake, and Webern Im Sommerwind. I’m glad someone mentioned Vaughn Williams – I am partial to his 5th Symphony, and would surely put that in my ‘Major Works’ category. And why not Bridge’s The Sea Suite instead of La Mer next time?

I have very strong feelings about music that includes voices and/or chorus with orchestra. These days, the chorus seems relegated to an extremely small corner of a wonderful repertoire. There is the ubiquitous Orff or Beethoven 9th, Messiah during the holidays and the occasional Mahler 2nd to close a season. They might get to do one of the big requiems, but probably only either Mozart, Brahms or maybe Verdi. Those are all great works (excepting the Orff of course!), but the selection barely scratches the surface of what’s out there. In addition to the many Masses written by Mozart, Schubert and works like Haydn’s The Creation that aren’t done enough, there are some other gems worth mentioning. Here are my picks of (some!) of the great overlooked works for chorus, voice and orchestra (alphabetical order) – and Henry, if you have recording suggestions, please insert at will.

1. Barber Prayers of Kierkegaard – Never performed! Atlanta with Shaw is a great choice. This is a world-class chorus with something usually reserved for fully professional group: a distinct sound concept.
2. Beethoven Die Weihe des Hauses, op. 124 - A wonderful and major late Beethoven work that I have never seen on any program. If you can find the out-of-print Abbado recording with Bryn Terfel and the Berlin Philharmonic, grab it. This particular CD also contains another work of incidental music, to Leonore Prohaska, worth a good listen.
3. Bernstein Wonderful Town – Bernstein at his best: catchy tunes, jazzy riffs, some light-hearted social commentary – but basically a party from start to finish.
4. Brahms Gesang der Parzen, op. 89 – As much as I love Nänie, op. 82, with its featured beautiful choral writing (and juicy oboe part, a close cousin of the great Violin Concerto solo), I have to go with the op. 89, a true masterpiece that puts the orchestra on equal footing – this is a whole symphony compressed into about 14 minutes, and it is a boiling cauldron of Brahmsian intensity.
5. Britten Spring Symphony – An equal in my mind to the great War Requiem. Britten’s choice of poetry and his settings of them are miraculous. I don’t know of many composers that form this level of partnership with the texts. Like the War Requiem, experiencing this piece can be a truly timeless event. I have Previn and London Symphony Orchestra on EMI from 1979 – great stuff.
6. Bruckner Helgoland – One of his last works, written at the same time as the unfinished 9th Symphony. This is a powerful work with male chorus that is a self-contained symphonic movement – all the power and scope of Bruckner condensed to about eleven minutes (in this way, somewhat similar to the Brahms above). His other works with chorus, especially the spacious Te Deum, are also worth getting to know. Barenboim’s account with Berlin is awesome. Henry, has Asahina recorded this? He certainly knows what to do with Bruckner.
7. Debussy Le martyre de St Sébastien – A profoundly affecting work that qualifies as a true masterpiece. I can’t recommend the live DVD recording of Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra highly enough.
8. Janacek The Diary of One Who Disappeared – Well, Janacek is certainly getting good mentions on this blog so far, so I thought I’d toss this original and intense piece into the mix.
9. Mendelssohn Die erste Walpurgisnacht – Sadly never heard, as A Midsummer’s Night Dream is invariably chosen. You can really hear why Harnoncourt once said that ‘Mendelssohn became Wagner’. The inner voices are surprisingly complicated and chromatic. This is a more challenging listen than its more famous cousin and unique in Mendelssohn’s output. I love my recording with Harnoncourt and the virtuosic Chamber Orchestra of Europe (it is paired with Midsummer). Perhaps with a creative translation of “Walpurg” the title wouldn’t seem so scary!
10. Stravinsky Pulcinella – With the three vocal soloists, please! Rarely heard with voice, this piece takes on a new dimension with their inclusion.

A great topic, Henry! Maybe there should be a separate list for concerti, but I've included a few here:

1. With all respect to my old friend Alyce Mott, Lynn Harrell recorded both the Herbert cello concertos along with a pastiche "Five Pieces for Cello and Strings," with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

2. I would suggest all of the Nielsen symphonies. I can't believe that more orchestras don't program them. For the Fourth ("The Inextinguishable") and Fifth, go for the Bernstein/NY Philharmonic recordings. The Fourth has a major solo timpani part (played by the legendary Saul Goodman) and the Fifth has a huge improvised solo snare drum part, brilliantly executed by the peerless Elden "Buster Bailey.

3. If the Barber symphonies deserve to be played more, so, too, do his First and Second Essays for Orchestra.

4. Bruch: Concerto for Clarinet and Viola. A wonderful work. BTW, a great way for an orchestra to showcase two principal players.

5. Skalkottas: Greek Dances. There are many, some for strings, some for full orchestra.

6. Hanson: how about the Suite from "Merry Mount" to go along with Henry's symphony suggestion.

7. Lyadov: The Enchanted Lake. Water music, anyone?

8. Menotti: Violin Concerto, though not too many play it. A wonderful work and a nice change of piece from the Barber Concerto which has been programmed to death.

Your recommendations are excellent, and here are some of mine.
Franz Berwald. Swedish; a contemporary of Berlioz and Rossini. Try his four symphonies, the piano concerto,etc, which I have on Naxos conducted by Okko Kamu. It's delightful and quirky music with odd turns of phrase which will make you say "What?" when you first hear it.
Mily Balakirev (1837-1910 ). If you enjoy the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin etc, try Symphony no 1 by this unjustly neglected Russian master. Or the symphonic poem "Tamara" based on an old Georgian legend. (How relevant!).
Paul Dukas. Symphony in C major. There's more to this composer than the familiar Sorceror's Apprentice. When you hear this symphony, you'll wonder where it's been all your life.
Albert Roussel (1869- 1937 ). It's a shame that this highly original French composer has been overshadowed by his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel. Try his four symphonies, which I have on RCA conducted by Marek Janowski. This music is vastly different from Debussy and Ravel, highly colorful but not impressionistic. It's rugged, forthright music with pounding rhythms and pungently dissonant harmonies.
The ballet Bacchus et Ariane would make a welcome alternative to Daphis and Chloe.


I love the fact that Mr. Berger and others are making superb suggestions to add to mine. It is wonderful to see these recommendations of off-the-beaten-path repertoire, and I hope that this discussion enhances the listening pleasure of many readers, and introduces them to new discoveries.
.
-Henry

Funny, I was going to suggest Leoš Janáček's Sinfonietta and the symphony-like tone poem Taras Bulba (the recordings I know are with the Czech Philharmonic and Václav Neumann, and are excellent, but I haven't done a comprehensive survey). Then I saw you've already listed the Glagolitic Mass, so perhaps it's too much Janáček for one blog post.

On second thought, you can never have too much Janáček: let's throw in his piano suite On an Overgrown Path (Po zarostlém chodníčku), which is beautiful, utterly unique, and for some reason hardly ever performed. I don't have a favorite recording of it; recommendations welcome. This blog suggests Leif Ove Andsnes. Most of the suite is within the ability of amateur pianists, too.

Janáček has always struck me as one of the most evitable composers. Others are inevitable: one could say that if Beethoven had not existed, we would have had to invent him. Beethoven may have been more interesting or more creative than his contemporaries, but he is still recognizeable from them, just as Mozart is from Haydn, Bach from Buxtehude, etc. But Janáček just comes out of left field: if he had not written his music, nothing like it would exist.

Henry,

Here's my list...
1. Igor Stravinsky, Symphony in C
2. Edward Elgar/Anthony Payne, Symphony No.3
3. Aaron Copland, Symphony No.3
4. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No.6
5. Amy Beach, “Gaelic” Symphony
6. Michael Daugherty, Metropolis Symphony
7. Pytor Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.3
8. Josef Suk, Symphony in C Minor “Asrael”
9. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Symphony No.2
10. Alexander Zemlinsky, Lyric Symphony

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

It is so rare that anyone dealing with classical or "serious" music per se, ever includes Victor Herbert. And yet he is one of the true giants among American composers.

I'd like to add his "Irish Rhapsody" to your list - a work once so popular that it literally got "done to death" and fell into an unfortunate distant, misty memory. However, your goal was a list of recordings and therein lies the reason for Herbert's dimness in American memories - almost no really fine recordings, outside of the outstanding Andre Kostelantz/Beverly Sills classic, exist. Everything's tinny and scratchy or flat and rushed. Few new recordings are done by conductors who truly understand Herbert's unique rubato style.

Ah well, for now we do have Yo-Yo Ma.

Again, thanks for remembering Victor!


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