KlassikNet: 101 Best Classical CDs
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 101 Best Classical Music CDs:
Early and Baroque Music

CHANT CISTERCIEN (12th century)
Ensemble Organum
harmonia mundi

If you have fond memories of the strange world of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, or of Sean Connery in the film version then this disc is for you. Recorded at Fontfroide, one of France's oldest Cistercian monasteries, this collection of 12th century chants will draw you into the sounds of the Latin Middle Ages. The granite voices of the Ensemble Organum make for a sure-footed guide.

JOSQUIN DESPREZ (ca 1440-1521): Missa Pange Lingua
Ensemble Organum and Ensemble Clément Janequin
harmonia mundi

The Flemish composer Josquin Desprez (or Josquin des Prés) is recognized as the greatest musical genius of the late Middle Ages. His masterpiece the Missa Pange Lingua represents the height of Franco-flemish polyphony and occupies a place in musical history as important as Bach's Mass in B, Mozart's C Major Mass or Miles Davis' Flamenco Sketches. The performance on this disc is unrivalled.

ALLEGRI (1582-1652): Miserere
PALESTRINA (ca 1525-1594): Missa Papae Marcelli
MUNDY (ca 1529-ca 1591): Vox Patris Caelestis

The Tallis Scholars

English to the core, Peter Phillips and his early music group The Tallis Scholars have few rivals when it comes to the sacred music of the Renaissance. In fact, this album exploded onto the market when it was released back in the '80s. The luxurious beauty of Allegri's Miserere and the controlled spirituality expressed in Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli are presented with great depth and refinement.

SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Musikalische Exequien - The Seven Words of Christ
Peter Schreier, Siegfried Vogel, Theo Adam
Dresdner Kreuzchor
Rudolf Mauersberger, conductor
Berlin Classics

Often considered the father of German music, Heinrich Schütz was the first German composer to have assimilated the treasures of Italian music (and especially Venetian) while still producing music of great vision. The works heard on this disc number among his greatest masterpieces, echo the religious fanaticism and the barbaric slaughter that ravaged Germany during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war worse than the Yugoslav conflict today. Recorded in East Germany at the height of the Cold War, the great Dresden Holy Cross Choir traces its roots back to Schuütz himself. The sound engineering is superb.

MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Vespers of the Blessed Virgin
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Archiv Produktion

Recorded "live" in Venice in San Marco's Basilica where Claudio Monteverdi was choir master for several decades, this superb version of the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin breathes new life into this work. Under the leadership of British conductor John Eliot Gardiner, for whom this music holds few secrets, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir demonstrate tremendous virtuosity.

SCARLATTI (1685-1757): 22 Keyboard Sonatas
Pierre Hantaï harpsichord
Astrée-Auvidis E 8502

Generations of pianists and harpsichordists have been nourished during their formative years on Domenico Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas (555 in total!). They are not only dazzling in their virtuosity, but contain a wealth of musical material. Composed partly for Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal, betrothed in 1729 to Fernando who was later to become King of Spain, these short pieces represent the pinnacle of Spanish baroque music. Young French harpsichordist, Pierre Hantaï, brings out all the elegance and fireworks of these compositions.

BACH (1685-1750): Six Cello Suites
Pierre Fournier, cello
Deutsche Grammophon

It was the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals who resurrected these Six Cello Suites. Today, they are a yardstick by which to measure the technical ability of any cellist. Even though Pablo Casals, Janos Starker, Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Tortelier, Anner Bylsma, and Mstislav Rostropovitch have each given a significant interpretation of this corpus, none has achieved quite the same exquisite balance as Pierre Fournier (1906-1990). A great Bordeaux!

BACH (1685-1750): Six Trio Sonatas for Organ
Ton Koopman, organ
Archiv Produktion

The organ is central to Bach's music and the Six Trio Sonatas are considered by most specialists as the Cantor's perfect cycle. Dutch organist Ton Koopman, an extraordinary virtuoso, communicates the intimacy of this music. Played on a splendid instrument in the Waalse Church in Amsterdam, this recording will satisfy even the most demanding listeners.

BACH (1685-1750): Violin Concertos
Thomas Zehetmair, violin
Amsterdamse Bach Solisten

Just like the Brandenburg and keyboard concertos, the violin concertos illustrate Bach's ease and mastery in the concerto genre. Over and above their virtuoso writing, these works have a rythmic seduction which makes them irresistable. Through his elegant and totally committed playing, Austrian violinist Thomas Zehetmair (b. 1961) breaks new ground in an already rich catalog.

BACH (1685-1750): The Well-Tempered Clavier (vol.I+II)
Ton Koopman (harpsichord)

The daily bread of all piano students, The Well-Tempered Clavier was in fact composed for the harpsichord! It is an immense encyclopedia of forty-eight preludes and fugues. Many great pianists today maintain that this vast cycle still sounds best played on a harpsichord. The brilliant Dutch harpsichordist Ton Koopman takes on this great masterpiece to bring out its multitude of colors and moods. Recommended piano versions include Edwin Fischer, Sviatoslav Richter and Friedrich Gulda.

BACH (1685-1750): St Matthew Passion
Lucia Popp, Marjana Lipovsek, Peter Schreier, Theo Adam
Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Staatskapelle Dresden
Peter Schreier, conductor

In the Saint Matthew Passion, Bach blends metaphysical reflection into the drama of the Crucifixion. Tenor Peter Schreier (born in Meissen, near Dresden, in 1935) not only interprets the role of the envangelist, but also directs the exquisite Dresden orchestra and Leipzig choir. While remaining absolutely correct musicologically, this version possesses the dynamic and breadth that one searches for in vain in interpretations on period instruments.

PURCELL (1659-1695): Music for a while - O Solitude
Alfred Deller (counter-tenor)
harmonia mundi

Henry Purcell was the greatest English composer of the baroque era. The music on this disc illustrates the stupefying ease with which he created the illusion of suspended time. Alfred Deller (1912-1979) was a pioneer in bringing back to life not only this long-forgotten répertoire, but also the equally forgotten voice of the countertenor.

DOWLAND (1563-1626): Musicke for Lute
Paul O'Dette (lute)

Clearly identified with Elizabethan music, the Englishman John Dowland is above all known for his music for lute. This collection contains some of his major works and is interpreted by Paul O'Dette, without a doubt the greatest living lutenist.

RAMEAU (1683-1764): Platée
Gilles Ragon, Jennifer Smith, Guy de Mey, Vincent le Texier
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Marc Minkowski, conductor

Given its premiere at the Court of Versailles in 1745, this ferocious and devastating comedy in which Jupiter pretends to fall for the nymph of the frogs, had an impact comparable to Airplane. One would have to wait for Shostakovitch's The Nose before hearing another work going as far in burlesque and the absurd. Directed with lots of camp by Marc Minkowski (b. 1962).

HANDEL (1685-1759): Messiah
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Handel's Messiah offers a more extrovert vision of the story of Christ than the more metaphysical Bach passions. The undisputed champion of Handel, John Eliot Gardiner interprets what is considered one of his masterpieces with the sympathy which comes from total understanding of the score.

HANDEL (1685-1759): Water Music
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Handel's celebrated Water Music was composed for the glory of George I of England. It was first played in 1717 during extravagant royal festivities on the river Thames. John Eliot Gardiner and his unrivalled English Baroque Soloists put just the right spin on these stately tunes.

VIVALDI (1678-1741): Le Quatro Stagioni (The Four Seasons)
The English Concert
Trevor Pinnock, conductor
Archiv Produktion

Notoriously overrecorded, Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons also have an annoying habit of turning up as music-whilst-you-wait on switchboards of banks and other financial institutions. Like all masterpieces, they have given rise to countless interpretations. British conductor Trevor Pinnock's splendid and intelligent version (on period instruments) remains unequalled.

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