Top 25 for the 20th Century

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Here we are, the better part of a decade into the 21st century, and yet a sizable number of classical concertgoers still put down "20th-century music" as the repertory they least want to hear when they buy tickets for a symphony orchestra, chamber ensemble or solo recital.

In hopes that the battle is not yet lost, I've boiled down the tumultuous history of 20th-century music to a list of 25 recordings that might not only appeal to more venturesome readers but also to give them some sense of what the fuss was all about.

These are two very different objectives. It would be a simple matter to prepare a roster of 20th-century compositions that would offend nobody -- start with Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on "Greensleeves," Serge Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and go on from there. Still, with due respect to these admirable pieces, for better and for worse the 20th century was a time of radical creative exploration, and to play down its emphasis on modernity would both mislead and shortchange my readers.

Yet radicalism can be overvalued, too. It could be argued that the American composer John Cage's "4' 33"," is the most daring musical statement of the 20th century -- 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence and nothing else, a complete challenge to all traditional values. It could also be argued that this is sheer lunacy, of course. In the spirit of Cage, I will remain silent on the matter, except to note that "4' 33"," whatever its philosophic merits, is decidedly uninteresting to listen to -- and, above all, I want you to go out and listen.

And so no work was permitted on this list if it didn't provide an engaging (if sometimes challenging) aesthetic experience, divorced from whatever historical importance it might have. It also seemed necessary to restrict each composer to a single CD or CD set, although several of the greatest artists here (notably Strauss and Stravinsky) changed their styles considerably over the course of their long careers.

Another early decision removed all pop, jazz and rock from consideration. This hurt. Do I really believe that Arnold Schoenberg's Suite for Piano, Op. 25, is necessarily a "better" work than Brian Wilson's "Pet Sounds" or John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme"? No, I do not. But the choice to concentrate entirely on works derived from Western European classical traditions allowed me to narrow the field as well as write about some music and musicians who are less than widely known.

Finally, I am acutely aware of the fact that all the composers on this list were born white and male. Suffice it to say that the classical-music world of the 20th century was in many ways a cloistered and highly restrictive community, and that those limitations are necessarily reflected in this list. It is already apparent that musical life in the 21st century will be very different.

-- Tim Page

Leos Janacek

"Sinfonietta," "Taras Bulba" and others. (Charles Mackerras conducting the Vienna Philharmonic; Neville Marriner conducting the London Symphony, others. Decca; two CDs.)

Janacek (1854-1928) was among the strangest and most original of 20th-century composers. He built his pieces block by sonic block, as though putting together some kind of gigantic Lego construction. All of Janacek's attributes -- his clean, brilliant orchestration, tart harmonies, fascination with stark repetition, fanciful use of folk melodies from his native Bohemia -- may be found on this collection. This is a near-perfect introduction to a composer who is only now beginning to receive his due.

Gustav Mahler

Symphony No. 4. (New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein; Reri Grist, soprano. Sony.)

This is far and away the gentlest among the symphonies of Mahler (1860-1911) and it barely squeaks into the 20th century, having been finished in 1901. Some will prefer the ornate grandeur of the Symphony No. 8, scored for hundreds of choristers, eight vocal soloists and a huge orchestra; others value Mahler for the intensely subjective angst he conveyed in the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth symphonies. But the Fourth combines Mahler's mastery of the modern orchestra (he was among the great conductors of his time) with a whiff of orientalism and a sure sense of proportion: For once, there is nothing overblown about the music and it says what it has to say in less than an hour. Mahler, who regularly worked the human voice into his symphonies, concludes this one with an ecstatic soprano solo -- a bright, paradisiacal vision of bliss that was originally titled "What the Child Tells Me."


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