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Top 25 for the 20th Century
20th-Century Music Gets a Bad Rap. Here Are 25 Reasons to Reconsider.

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."

Claude Debussy

Preludes for Piano. (Paul Jacobs. Nonesuch; two CDs.)

Debussy (1862-1918) wrote a number of celebrated pieces for the orchestra -- of which "La Mer" ("The Sea") is probably the best known -- but I continue to find him most winning and, if you'll forgive the inapt metaphor, most visionary in his piano works. This is music that has moved beyond the traditional building blocks of melody, harmony and rhythm into a realm of pure sound (Debussy once said that his ideal piano would have no hammers). Talking of the Preludes in technical terms -- of their "scales," "arpeggios" and so on -- seems prosaic and almost beside the point. What Debussy is intent on conveying are images -- clouds, showers, flashes of lightning -- all of which the late pianist Paul Jacobs conjured with unfailing taste and vivid imagination in his classic recordings.

Richard Strauss

"Elektra." (Birgit Nilsson, Regina Resnik; Vienna Philharmonic, directed by Sir Georg Solti. Decca; two CDs.)

Almost a century has passed since its premiere, but I would still nominate "Elektra," a short, furious and magnificent one-act opera by Strauss (1864-1949), as the most profoundly shocking work in the standard repertory. A score of violent extremes, disgustingly base and very, very beautiful, often at one and the same time, "Elektra" sets Sophocles' dubious antiheroine's fantasies of matricide (and their ultimate realization) to some of the most achingly erotic and sumptuously orchestrated music this side of "Tristan und Isolde." It might almost be described as a singing commercial for madness, which has rarely seemed so seductive and all-powerful.

Jean Sibelius

Symphonies No. 4, 5, 6, 7. (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Herbert von Karajan. Deutsche Grammophon; two CDs.)

You need to know at least two symphonies to begin to understand the music of Sibelius (1865-1957) -- the Fourth because it is a bleak, weird and elliptical masterpiece like nothing else in the literature (a musical answer to Stonehenge or the Easter Island statues), and then another symphony to reassure you that the composer was flesh and blood after all. This set gives you the blazing and affirmative Symphony No. 5, the serene, quasi-Mozartean No. 6, and the tautly mysterious No. 7, which sometimes sounds as though it is just about to turn into a trombone concerto. Karajan's glacial cool and fastidious tidiness are unusually effective in this music.

Ferruccio Busoni

Piano Concerto. (Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi. Telarc.)

Indulge me on this one, for some pieces are best defended by frank admissions of affection. I've loved the vast, improbable Piano Concerto by Busoni (1866-1924) for almost 40 years and while I recognize that it has any number of flaws and would likely make no other critic's Top 25 list, I suspect that some readers will respond to it, too. The Concerto (1904) lasts upward of 70 minutes, combines some noble melodies with others of unspeakable banality, provides a massive workout for the pianist and concludes with a movement for male chorus, set to a mystical text in praise of Allah and the "Eternal Power." Busoni was an intellectual -- unusual for a composer -- and if some of his music comes from the head rather than the heart, his best work is shot through with a curious and elevated mixture of questing and repose.

Arnold Schoenberg

The Solo Piano Music and Piano Concerto. (Maurizio Pollini, pianist, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Claudio Abbado. Deutsche Grammophon.)

Again and again, Schoenberg (1874-1951) ranks dead last in popularity surveys among concertgoers: His perceived "sin" was to rationalize and then to codify a manner of composing outside of traditional tonality, and some listeners will never forgive him for it. Still, considering how infrequently Schoenberg is played these days (even when he makes it onto a program, it is usually one of his early lush and atypically consonant pieces -- "Transfigured Night" or "Pelleas and Melisande" -- that gets the nod) it is hard to fathom the basis for such hostility. The piano music is a relatively accurate summation of the composer's progress in general -- from the Brahms-with-wrong-notes intermezzos in Op. 11 through the brief, abstract "Six Little Pieces" (Op. 19), on through the fervent and surprisingly juicy late Piano Concerto. Like him or not, Schoenberg was a huge force in 20th-century music; coming to terms with his work should be part of your musical education; and Maurizio Pollini is a brainy and persuasive advocate.

Maurice Ravel

Piano Concerto in G; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; "Gaspard de la Nuit." (Samson Francois, pianist; Monte Carlo Conservatory Concert Society Orchestra, conducted by Andre Cluytens. EMI.)

The French composer Ravel (1875-1937) wrote much more than just "Bolero." His Concerto in G for piano and orchestra is especially appealing, with two jaunty, bracingly "jazz age" fast movements surrounding a singularly lovely and understated elegy in waltz garb. Ravel also joined a long and distinguished line of composers who tailored works specifically for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (Ludwig's brother, who lost his right arm in World War I) with the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Then again, "Gaspard de la Nuit" practically needs three hands to play it correctly: It is widely considered one of the most spectacularly colorful and difficult of all pieces for solo piano. You've probably never heard of either pianist Francois or conductor Cluytens, both of whom are long dead, but this elegant and idiomatic recording from the early 1960s is still in print and well worth searching out.

Bela Bartok

Concerto for Orchestra: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; "Hungarian Sketches." (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner. BMG Classics.)

Bartok (1881-1945) evolved his own distinct brand of modernism from his study of Hungarian folk music. The Concerto for Orchestra, one of his last and most immediately appealing works, is a magnificent test of a virtuoso ensemble, giving every section a full-body workout -- from the massed strings and brass to the dapper croak of the bassoon and the high whistle of the piccolo. This recording is half a century old, yet such was the brilliance and power of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bartok's fellow Hungarian Fritz Reiner (and the superb sound provided by RCA's early stereo engineering) that it remains the one you want, particularly with the two added pieces.

Igor Stravinsky

"The Rite of Spring," "Firebird," "Petrouchka" and "Orpheus." (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Sir Colin Davis. Philips; two CDs.)

I can think of at least half a dozen works by Stravinsky (1882-1971) that I prefer to "The Rite of Spring," including the three other ballets on this set. And yet to leave it out would be like passing over Joyce's "Ulysses" in a survey of 20th-century literature. It simply can't be done: "Rite" influenced practically everybody (with the exception of Stravinsky, who never wrote anything like it again) and never before had there been such a series of meticulously crafted and shatteringly effective musical cataclysms. Davis's version may not be the most exciting on record, but it is deft throughout and the set also includes examples of Stravinsky at his most ecstatic and opulent ("Firebird"), his most playful ("Petrouchka") and most solemn and gravely luminous (the much-neglected late ballet "Orpheus").

Alban Berg

"Lulu Suite," "Der Wein," three movements from the "Lyric Suite." (Judith Blegen and Jessye Norman, sopranos; New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Pierre Boulez. Sony.)

Arnold Schoenberg had two outstanding pupils, both of whom applied their master's lessons very differently. Anton Webern (1883-1945) moved increasingly into abstraction and concision; his only symphony is about 10 minutes long and some of his miniatures last less than 30 seconds. Alban Berg (1885-1935) was more expansive and romantic: His "Lulu Suite" and "Der Wein" sound very much like what Mahler might have written had he lived another decade or two. This is lush, night-blooming, complicated music, and a little difficult at first. But Berg quickly gives up his secrets, and after a time you will be surprised by the depths of sentiment and old-fashioned schmaltz to be found in these scores.

Carl Orff

"Carmina Burana." (Chorus and Orchestra of the German Opera, Berlin, conducted by Eugen Jochum.)

The walls shake, the floor rumbles and, inevitably, in concert performance, the audience leaps to its feet the moment the final chord has died away. Almost unknown only 50 years ago, "Carmina Burana," a proudly pagan choral work by Orff (1895-1982), went on to become the most commercially successful classical composition of the 20th century. Its primal tunes and pounding rhythms, once encountered, are impossible to forget: The opening chorus, "O Fortuna," has been used incessantly in film (and, increasingly, on the dance floor), and if you have a friend who owns exactly one classical CD, if it isn't Handel's "Messiah," chances are it's "Carmina Burana." Strangely, considering its popularity, "Carmina Burana" is the only one of Orff's compositions to have entered the standard repertory. There is a lot left to be discovered -- rapt, gentle Christmas pieces for chorus and orchestra, a generous amount of music for children (much of which maintains an appeal for grown-ups as well) and several terrifying settings of Greek tragedies that give "Elektra" a run for its money.

Silvestre Revueltas

"Noche de los Mayas," "Sensemaya," "Homenaje a Garcia Lorca" and others. (Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen. Sony.)

Mexico's greatest composer, Revueltas (1899-1940) packed a lot of experience into his 40 years. He won acclaim as a child prodigy in his native land, went on to study violin and composition in gangster-era Chicago, fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, returned to Mexico, where he wrote film music while drifting in and out of mental hospitals, and eventually died from drinking. His music is convulsive, blindingly colorful and utterly original, as much a product of the roadside cantina as of the concert hall. The "Homenaje a Garcia Lorca," a 1937 tribute to the murdered Spanish poet, is a whirling riot of sound, while the "Noche de los Mayas" concludes with an assault from a huge percussion section, complete with conch shells being blown like trumpets, calling to mind the cries of gigantic predatory birds.

Aaron Copland

Piano Variations; Piano Sonata; Piano Fantasy. (Benjamin Pasternack. Naxos.)

You probably know "El Salon Mexico," "Appalachian Spring" and "Fanfare for the Common Man," some of the most famous music ever written in America. But when the mood was upon him, Copland (1900-1990) was as uncompromising a modernist as our country has produced -- and he was never more daring than when writing music for the piano. The Piano Variations, 12 minutes of coiled, steely fury, are erected upon a gonging four-note motif that sounds like church bells gone berserk. The Piano Sonata is equally original but much less daunting; the evanescent, spellbound finale, with its near-motionless harmonies, is one of the loveliest movements Copland ever wrote. And the Piano Fantasy is half an hour of epical knots and tangles that all but dares you to make sense out of it. Benjamin Pasternack has, and his fine, poetic and authoritative recording of these three masterpieces is available at a budget price.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Strings Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 7, 8 and 12. (Borodin String Quartet. Virgin Classics; two CDs.)

Shostakovich (1906-1975) was barely 11 years old when the Russian Revolution broke out and effectively imprisoned him for life. He wrote a great deal of music, including an inordinate amount of tub-thumping, state-sponsored trash dedicated to the memory of such unsavory characters as Lenin; rarely is there such a huge divide between the best and the worst of a composer's work. But Shostakovich's chamber music generally represents him at his purest and most concentrated. His 15 string quartets, all but two of which were written after his 40th birthday, are marked by an integrity, intensity and dark inner light that make them harrowingly personal experiences: You feel as though you're reading Shostakovich's diaries.

Olivier Messiaen

"Quartet for the End of Time." (Tashi. RCA Victor.)

Messiaen (1908-1992) was a devout French Catholic mystic who found inspiration in the cries of birds and saw multicolored auras whenever he heard music. His most famous composition, the "Quartet for the End of Time," was created while he was a German prisoner of war in 1941 and was scored for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, the only instruments available to him in the camp. The beat-up piano was missing some notes, a fact Messiaen took into consideration while fashioning the quartet, which was first performed in Stalag VIIIa before a literally captive audience of some 5,000 prisoners. Like many of Messiaen's works, the quartet combined disjunct melodies, tricky rhythms, complex harmonies and an idiosyncratic formal structure in a manner that was subjective, passionate and often swooningly Romantic. Pianist Peter Serkin, violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman founded the chamber group Tashi 30 years ago specifically to play this Quartet, and their recording has stood the test of Time.

Allan Pettersson

Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 11. (Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leif Segarstam. Bis.)

The Swedish composer (1911-1980) wrote 16 symphonies and all of them have their admirers. Still, only the No. 7 (1968) has begun to win a wide audience, due in part to the championship of the National Symphony Orchestra's late music director Antal Dorati, who led the premiere and made the first recording. I find much of Pettersson tough slogging: The unrelenting anguish, agitation and lack of humor in most of his later symphonies (some of which are cast in single movements lasting more than an hour) call to mind the lapel-shaking excesses of Mahler at his most hysterical. But the Symphony No. 7 is a work of art -- a stormy, unbroken 45-minute trajectory that leads to a soft, sad extended coda of ethereal beauty.

Benjamin Britten

War Requiem. (Peter Pears, Galina Vishnevskaya and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Britten. Decca, two CDs.)

Britten (1913-1976) composed his "War Requiem" specifically for the 1962 reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, a 15th-century structure destroyed by German bombers in World War II. The music seems both very old and very new, melding the spare serenity of chant with complex and angry modern harmonies, while the text interweaves the traditional Latin Mass for the dead with verse by the English poet Wilfred Owen, who was himself killed a week before the end of World War I. This first recording, made shortly after the premiere -- with vocal soloists from England (tenor Peter Pears), Russia (soprano Galina Vishnevskaya) and Germany (baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), just the countries that had suffered most in the two wars -- was conducted by Britten himself and remains unsurpassed.

Milton Babbitt

"Philomel," "Phonemena" and other works. (Bethany Beardslee and Lynne Webber, vocalists. Robert Miller, pianist. New World Records.)

Babbitt (born 1916) is still probably best known to the general public as a polemicist -- as the author of a famous essay published in High Fidelity under the provocative title "Who Cares if You Listen?" The article, a serious analysis of contemporary music and its diminishing audience, was originally called "The Composer as Specialist," but the magazine's editor thought the title dull and academic and changed it at the last minute -- without Babbitt's permission and to his eternal horror. In fact Babbitt, like all composers, has always cared a good deal whether people listen to him. And you should listen, for his music, with all of its complications, offers wit, transparency, dazzling challenges for performers, and a sort of distilled, shimmering aural grace. A work like "Philomel," an early example of electronica, now strikes the ear as downright charming.

Pierre Boulez

"Pli S elon P li." (Christine Schafer, soprano; the Ensemble InterContemporain, conducted by Boulez. Deutsche Grammophon.)

Boulez (born 1925) was the angry young radical of postwar France, writing bitterly polemical attacks on Schoenberg and Stravinsky and composing music that was then considered the apogee of the avant-garde. He would grow into one of the grandest of Grand Old Men, known mostly as a conductor (and celebrated for his performances of, among others, Schoenberg and Stravinsky). But his own music now seems a logical, poetic and altogether gratifying extension of the late work of Claude Debussy, very much in the French tradition. "Pli Selon Pli" (1957), set to texts by Mallarme, is particularly luscious. Listen and marvel at the colors Boulez can elicit from an orchestra, as the bassoon melds with the piano in an afterglow of misty chimes, while the snare drum patters away like distant rainfall.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

"Stimmung." (Singcircle, directed by Gregory Rose. Hyperion.)

It is very difficult to hear the music of Stockhausen (born 1928) nowadays. Most of his many and varied works from the late 1940s through the early 1980s were issued on LP by Deutsche Grammophon but the composer has steadfastly refused to let the label bring them out on CD. Instead, a would-be listener must go to Stockhausen's own Web site and pay exorbitant prices (more than $50 per disc after shipping and handling are factored in). Fortunately, a few of his works have been recorded by other companies, and we are particularly lucky to have a terrific performance of "Stimmung" (1968), an a cappella piece for small chorus. A mantric, reiterative and eerily compelling study in natural overtones, "Stimmung" is also charged with giddy humor and a sense of communalism that is very "1960s." I admire many of Stockhausen's pieces, but this is the only one that makes me smile.

Stephen Sondheim

"Sweeney Todd." (Original Broadway cast recording. RCA, two discs.)

Sondheim (born 1930) first came to public attention as the precocious lyricist for Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," but moved increasingly into writing both words and music in a series of brilliant shows that redefined American musical theater. Bleak and hilarious, grisly and gorgeous, "Sweeney Todd" (1979) combined any number of genres -- opera, musical comedy, the tangy cabaret stylings of Kurt Weill, the English "penny dreadful" horror show -- yet came out as something that was distinctly Sondheim's own, and was immediately recognized as a masterwork. A recent revival has trimmed both the score and Jonathan Tunick's orchestration, to punchy and interesting effect, and a recording of this production is available on Nonesuch. But the original rendition still sounds great, and this is where it all began.

Alvin Lucier

"I Am Sitting in a Room." (Alvin Lucier, performer. Lovely Music.)

After 10 minutes, you'll probably hate this piece, but by the time it reaches the half-hour mark, I'll bet you are fascinated. The idea behind "I Am Sitting in a Room" is very simple, rather akin to making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy with the inevitable fuzzy dissolution of the original image. What Lucier (born 1931) did was to take a tape recording of a brief speech, play it into another tape recorder, then take that tape and play it into another recorder, and so on, until all language was filtered away and what was left was a mercurial patina of sonic residue -- the "ghost" of the speech, if you will. It may sound arty and pretentious, but it couldn't be more lovely, especially as the distortion moves in to stay. Words become music, sound becomes shimmer and a natural process of acoustics is demonstrated in the most elegant and strangely beautiful fashion.

Steve Reich

"Music for 18 Musicians." (Steve Reich and Musicians. Nonesuch.)

Reich (born 1936) had been producing valuable and important work for more than a decade by the time "Music for 18 Musicians" received its premiere in 1976. Yet it was this 55-minute composition -- a succession of shimmering, ethereal aural colors propelled by a steady pulse -- that won him world acclaim. Tonal, repetitive, insistently rhythmic, Reich's piece helped define a new idiom, eventually known as minimalism, that was unmistakably of its time but far removed from the snarls and tangles of much 20th-century music. Either of the two recordings by Reich and his group, Steve Reich and Musicians, may be recommended, but the Nonesuch version is divided into tracks so that those of us who like to dance around obsessively to Section 6 over and over again can do so without scanning through the whole piece every time.

Philip Glass

"Koyaanisqatsi." (Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, Philip Glass Ensemble; a film by Godfrey Reggio. MGM. DVD.)

Sorry, but this is one that you're going to want to see as well as hear. The soundtrack that Glass (born 1937) wrote for Godfrey Reggio's 1983 film, "Koyaanisqatsi," is available in two separate CD recordings, but you should really pick up the DVD, for this is probably the most pathbreaking and influential mating of film and music since "Fantasia." Completely non-narrative, without a single identifiable character or line of dialogue, "Koyaanisqatsi" (the name comes from a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance") evolves into a vast cinematic ballet, music and motion forever interweaving and intertwined. The music represents Glass at his most vibrant, nuanced and insistent, and the film's critique of speedy, wasteful modern society -- hives of people swarming in and out of Grand Central Station, frantic traffic on the Los Angeles freeways, willful self-destruction on a cosmic scale -- struck many as simplistic a quarter-century ago but now seems all too prescient.

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