KlassikNet: 101 Best Classical CDs
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101 Best Classical Music CDs:
Romanticism in France and Spain

(Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt, Gounod, Bizet, Saint-Seans, Fauré, Albeniz)

BERLIOZ (1803-1869): La Damnation de Faust
Nicolai Gedda, Josephine Veasey, Jules Bastin
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Colin Davis, conductor

Neither opera, nor oratorio, The Damnation of Faust is a "dramatic legend" that opera houses are deathly frightened to produce. It is French composer Hector Berlioz's most ambitious work. Sir Colin Davis, who has championed Berlioz more than any other conductor, knew how to grasp two essential components: visual invention and metaphysical reflection. If you are fed up with the Faust myth, try Romeo and Juliet, a steamy work even more difficult to pigeon-hole, with Seiji Ozawa leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon).

BERLIOZ (1803-1869): Symphonie Fantastique
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
David Zinman, conductor

Hector Berlioz's most famous work, the Fantastique is one of the most often recorded symphonies. After extraordinary versions by Beecham/Orchestre National de l'ORTF (EMI), Markevitch/Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux (Deutsche Grammophon) or Davis/Concertgebouw of Amsterdam (Philips), the American conductor David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony have come as quite a surprise. Instead of banging us over the head with this music like so many of his colleagues, Zinman's fat-free approach turns this music into pure crystal.

CHOPIN (1810-1849): 19 Nocturnes - 24 Préludes op. 28
Samson François, piano

Polish-born, Frederic Chopin is generally considered history's greatest spokesman for the piano. The Nocturnes and Preludes are but two of several ingenious cycles written when Chopin was at the height of his career in 19th century Paris. Admired and heavily courted by wealthy and aristocratic patrons, Chopin excelled in poetic and refined composition for the piano, which sometimes took the form of concise, though dense, musical verse. Samson François (1924-1970) is a legend in France. A big risk-taker, his Nocturnes and Préludes can sound like a jazz improvisation.

CHOPIN (1810-1849): Recital (Mazurkas, Ballade no 1, Prélude op. 45, Scherzo no 2)
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano
Deutsche Grammophon

This album has toured the planet. Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995), who Roumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache considered the greatest living musician, imposes the most elegant and virile vision of Chopin's music.

CHOPIN (1810-1849): Piano Sonata no 2 + 3 - Barcarolle
Vlado Perlemuter, piano

Legions of pianists have lost their way while trying to perform these two treacherous sonatas. The Polish-born French pianist Vlado Perlemuter (b. 1904) knew how to reveal their secrets. His hard-line, uncompromising approach exposes the raw strength of these Chopin works. The Funeral March of the second sonata, generally played with pomposity, demonstrates noble accents and a ferocious beauty which place it amongst the greatest interpretations.

LISZT (1811-1886): Sonata in B Minor - Piano Concertos no 1 + 2
Sviatoslav Richter, piano
London Symphony Orchestra
Kirill Kondrashin, conductor

Dark and imposing, the B-Minor Sonata is no laughing matter. Favoured by pianists who specialize in the grand manner, it has all the style and melodrama of a Gothic horror story. Richter's torrential performance is perfectly threatening. The two piano concertos, conducted by the Russian Kirill Kondrashin, are almost absolute perfection.

LISZT (1811-1886): Twelve Transcendental Studies
Georges Cziffra, piano

The Twelve Transcendental Studies were for the 19th century piano what the effect of the World-wide Web is on computing. Almost impossible to play, and in mediocre hands bordering on cheap thrills, they literally propelled piano technique into the 20th century. The phenomenal Georges Cziffra (1921-1994), who supported his family at five as a circus act in his native Hungary, is simply mind-bending.

GOUNOD (1818-1893): Faust
Richard Leech, Cheryl Studer, José van Dam, Thomas Hampson
Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse
Michel Plasson, conductor

After Bizet's Carmen, Charles Gounod's Faust is the most famous French opera. Unmistakeably French, Faust is a throwback to a time when opera in Paris had to have a ballet sequence danced by pretty girls to keep the aristocrats, bankers and industrialists of the Third Republic happy. Michel Plasson's version featuring José van Dam's terrific Méphisto would have never seen the light of day without three Americans with impeccable French (Richard Leech, Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson). The definitive recording for probably a long time to come.

BIZET (1838-1875): Carmen
Teresa Berganza, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Ileana Cotrubas
Ambrosian Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon

Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, Carmen is produced somewhere - making it the world's favourite opera. Some audiences only hear the camp sparkle associated with Bizet's vision of Spanish culture, though German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, considered Carmen superior to any of Wagner's operas. It is not by chance that most of Bizet's peers (Wagner included) envied the young French composer's musical and dramatic genius. Three versions vie for the top rating on record: de los Angeles/Beecham (EMI), Troyanos/Solti (Decca) et Berganza/Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon). For some, the last distinguishes itself by a slim margin for its stylistic rightness (Abbado's lively and well chiseled direction) and the distinguée Carmen of Teresa Berganza.

SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921): Havanaise - Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (+ Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps and Sarasate)
Jascha Heifetz, violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
John Barbirolli, conductor

Was Jascha Heifetz (1899 or 1901?-1987) the greatest violinist this century? Many violinists think so, though an equal number are less inclined to place Heifetz above Fritz Kreisler, David Oïstrakh, Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng, Yehudi Menuhin, Zino Francescatti, Leonid Kogan or Isaac Stern. One thing is certain. Nobody played the violin with as much brio. His detractors said that he was insurpassable - in second-rate music. Released as part of the Références series, an excellent historical collection on EMI, this disc presents Heifetz in virtuoso pieces. The verdict is clear: whoever has not heard Heifetz play the Introduction and rondo capriccioso has not heard anything. But, that should not prevent you listening to him play Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven.

FAURE (1845-1924): Requiem - Messe Basse - Elégie
Alain Clément, Philippe Huttenlocher
Maîtrise Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens
Orchestre Symphonique de Berne
Michel Corboz, conductor

Compared to the sinister strains of Verdi's Requiem, that of Fauré's is peaceful and reassuring. Inundated with light this music's disarming beauty shuns an affected or saccharine interpretation - a trap that conductor Michel Corboz cleverly avoids.

ALBENIZ (1860-1909): Iberia
Alicia de Larrocha, piano

Iberia, a series of twelve pieces for piano, remains a little-known masterpiece. Composed between 1905 and 1908, this cycle glorifies the Arabo-Andalusian songs and dances which gave birth to flamenco; the colours and fragrances of Sevilla or Malaga; the weight of ancestral traditions and beliefs (bull-fighting, religious processions, gypsy rites....). Without Artur Rubinstein, the great pianist Alicia de Larrocha would probably still be unknown to music-lovers. His discovery of her immense talent while visiting Spain would later give this artist's career a new boost. Recently reissued by EMI, the first recording of Iberia exhales the most devouring duende.

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