Here are some of my favorite books, CDs, and video recordings related to classical music and otherwise. (There are many of course, but this is only a small selection!) In no particular order:
Trevor Pinnock & The English Concert – George Frideric Handel: Water Music (Deutsche Grammophon, 1983)
A lively, period instrument performance of some Baroque jams from Handel.
Andrew Lloyd Webber & Various Artists – Jesus Christ Superstar: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Verve, 1973)
One of my favorite musicals of all time. I will never tire of the movie soundtrack version, which is full of stunning, passionate performances.
Edo de Waart & San Francisco Symphony – John Adams: The Chairman Dances (Nonesuch, 1987)
Five classic pieces from John Adams, one of my favorite contemporary composers. There’s always something new to discover in his contemplative, pulsating, ecstatic music.
Esperanza Spalding & Musicians – Esperanza (Heads Up, 2008)
Jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding shows off her dazzling talent in this joy-filled album, mixing songs in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Murray Perahia – Bach: Goldberg Variations (Sony Classical, 2000)
Yes, Glenn Gould’s two recordings of Bach’s seminal work are quintessential but Murray Perahia’s version is fantastic as well.
Tõnu Kaljuste, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir & Tallin Chamber Orchestra – Arvo Pärt: Te Deum (ECM, 1993)
It’s so difficult to choose just one recording of Arvo Pärt’s music but this one is essential. Opening with his radiant Te Deum and bookended by the plaintive Berliner Messe, this album has been a favorite of mine since I first discovered it.
Pat Metheny – Secret Story (Geffen, 1992)
Jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny explores a wide spectrum of colorful sounds on this movie soundtrack-like album.
André de Ridder, Daniel Hope, Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin & Max Richter – Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012)
Max Richter breathes new life into Vivaldi’s beloved (but often overplayed) collection of violin concertos. While retaining a handful of motives and cues from the original, Recomposed is almost an entirely new work, featuring contemporary structures, looping, and electronics. The result is truly remarkable—allowing us to hear a classic with fresh ears.
Marin Alsop, Jubilant Sykes, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra & Musicians – Bernstein: Mass (Naxos, 2009)
Leonard Bernstein’s big, bold—and often brashly controversial—setting of the Catholic Mass is given a lush and cohesive performance by Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony, and a host of guest musicians.
Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions (Sony Masterworks, 2011)
At first glance, it seems like a bluegrass album with the seemingly-disparate grouping of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer, and mandolinist Chris Thile shouldn’t work. Well, that assessment is 100% wrong, as this album is an absolute delight from start to finish.
Elizabeth Lunday – Secret Lives of Great Composers (Quirk Books, 2009)
This is the book that solidified my interest in music history. The stories throughout are funny, shocking, and never boring.
Nicolas Slonimsky – Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (W.W. Norton & Company, 1953/2000)
A fascinating read that chronicles how composers and their works were received over time. Just a taste: in 1881, Beethoven’s music was likened to “the upsetting of bags of nails with here and there an also dropped hammer.”
John Adams – Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (Picador, 2009)
Unlike some autobiographies, composer John Adams’ is not bloated and self-absorbed. It’s a deeply absorbing and thought-provoking account of his career, and written in an accessible, almost conversational style.
Alex Ross – The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Picador, 2008)
Anyone who thinks that all classical music written after Brahms is dissonant, weird, and uninteresting needs to read this book right now. Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, spins a rich musical history of the amazing spectrum of styles and compositions that came out of this politically and culturally discordant time period.
Alex Ross – Listen to This (Picador, 2011)
Ross’ second book is a collection of essays and writings from The New Yorker and other sources. The material covered is wonderfully diverse – ranging from Mozart and Esa-Pekka Salonen to Radiohead and Bob Dylan – and Ross’ writing style is engaging and smart, but never in a way that talks down to readers.
John Bird – Percy Grainger (Oxford University Press, 1999)
This biography of the Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger will forever remain one of the weirdest, yet most fascinating things I have ever read. The tale of Grainger’s strange, colorful life has to be read to be believed…
Peter Schickele – The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach (Random House, 1977)
Composer and musical satirist Peter Schickele hilariously chronicles the life of the fictional composer P.D.Q. Bach, the “last and least” of J.S. Bach’s offspring. It’s an ingeniously-written parody of musicological work and enormously entertaining.
Michael Tilson Thomas & San Francisco Symphony – Keeping Score series (SFS Media, 2004-2011)
The video series that initially sparked my interest in music history. Each episode, of seven total, delves into the life and career of a particular composer and one of their representative works. Colorful visuals, clips from live performances, and engaging commentary from conductor Michael Tilson Thomas make each episode an engaging journey of discovery. (Below is a clip from the episode on Shostakovich and his Fifth Symphony. Other episodes feature Beethoven, Berlioz, Copland, Mahler, Ives, and Stravinsky.)
Berlin Philarmonic – Digital Concert Hall
One of my favorite services on the Internet is the Berlin Philarmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. Not only do they stream a selection of live concerts each season (showcasing one of the best orchestras in the world IMHO), but there’s also a fantastic archive of past concert recordings, which stretches back to the early 2000s and even before. Additionally, there is a great selection of artist interviews (be sure to watch some with the delightful Sarah Willis), short features, and films.
The only downside is that access can get a bit pricey – a seven-day ticket costs about $12 USD while a twelve-month ticket costs upwards of $200 USD. However, the price is well worth it and pays off after a few uses. (Great student/educator discounts are also available and some of the features and concerts, such as the one in the clip below, are free with an account.)
Alternatively, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra also offers a free streaming service for a number of their live concerts.