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
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
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
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
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).