Classical music newbie needs your suggestions

I purchased around 300 like new classical albums last summer. Music from a wide range of composers. I also purchased around the same amount of operas. (I may sell those).

I’m finally retired and able to pursue a lifelong desire to understand and enjoy classical music.

Pieces that move you to tears, or pluck heart strings. Your all time favorites.
The albums you’d take to that desert island.
Any suggestions are welcome.


btw, do you live near me, Plainfield, NJ? After you learn more about what you respond to, I inherited a lot of LP’s and have many classical I will part with for very low price. I am more interested to have more room on my shelves.

It took me over a year to appreciate (some) music from the 40's through 50's when I bought 12 feet of albums (for $75!).

This will be a much more enjoyable experience. I listened to the whole Solti Wagner epic and some Puchinni when I was a young man.

Hi, I could write at length with suggestions, but I’ll try to limit myself.

Some folks above have suggested some accessible beautiful pieces, such as Pachelbel’s Canon. I’ll add Handel’s concerto grosso Alexander’s Feast, and three discs by pianist Vikingur Olafsson consisting of collections of short pieces by Bach (some transcribed for keyboard), Mozart, and Debussy/Rameau. Outstanding collections.

Bach’s music for solo instruments is varied and wonderful. For keyboard (which I prefer played on piano over harpsichord), there are the Goldberg Variations (many to choose from; I prefer Jeremy Denker’s and Murray Perahia’s versions, along with Sitkovevski’s rendition for string trio), the Well-Tempered Clavicle I and II (again, many to choose from; I like Jennifer Hewitt’s); French Suites (not discussed on this forum much; I like Gavrilov’s); English Suites (Andras Schiff is my favorite). For violin, the Sonatas and Partitas, and I suggest starting with Partita #2 in D, and I like Hilary Hahn although there are many great ones to choose from. Someone above mentioned the Cello Suites (Yo-Yo Ma’s are terrific).

Handel’s concerto grossi are a gateway to his very listenable works; Andras Schiff made a recording of three piano sonatas by Hadyn; and speaking of accessible sonatas, try Uchida’s recordings of Mozart’s sonatas for piano. And, well, speaking of Mozart, his piano concertos, esp. nos. 18-26 (and extra especially no. 21’s second movement (the theme from the movie “Elvira Madigan.”)

Brahms: his Ballades for piano (try Pollini) and for late-night meditation, his Intermezzi (Arkady Volodos).

I’ve gone on way too long and probably suggested too many piano pieces, but here’s one more, which I think is a highpoint of Twentieth Century music, Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, our times’ Goldbergs.


What a fun question!

Do you have a favorite instrument? Favorite era of classical music? Affinity to a particular composer or conductor or orchestra?

I played trumpet through college, so I'm partial to music with lots of brass. Baroque music often has a lot of high (piccolo) trumpet parts, especially Handel. My favorite classical pieces that have extensive trumpet parts are Mahler's 5th Symphony and Ravel's adaptation (for full orchestra) of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Don't overlook Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" just because it reminds you of an outer space film. Brass ensembles are great fun to listen to: Empire Brass and Canadian Brass are two of my favorites.

My mother and son play cello, so I have gathered quite a collection of cello music. Others have mentioned Johann Sebastian Bach's "Cello Suites." They are extraordinary pieces to listen to, being majestically powerful or hauntingly beautiful through the various movements. In addition to just getting these suites as performed by Yo-Yo Ma (he has several recordings of the Bach suites), it is fascinating to hunt down high-quality pressings by other famous cellists that have also recorded the suites: the seminal album by Pablo Casals, and then Jànos Starker's and Mstislav Rostropovich's pressings are also in my collection, and make for fun comparisons on interpretation.

Another strategy is to find combinations of conductor and orchestra that produced great recordings during the vinyl era; obvious pairings are Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic. Also look for recordings done by great conductor/orchestra pairings that also feature awesome music sections: some of my favorite sources of recordings are the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner and Sir George Solti that also contain the superlative Chicago brass section, with principal trumpet player Adolph "Bud" Herseth, or the San Francisco Symphony during the Pierre Monteux years that had principal trumpet player Charles Bubb, Jr.

I also enjoy vinyl recordings of film scores, jazz, Bossa Nova, French Yé-Yé pop, and bagpipe music, but that will be a topic for another day's question.

Enjoy the listening, and Happy New Year!

I think the hard part is not just composer and composition, but particular performance + recording sound quality. For example, DG had a superb roster, but I didn't like how most of their records sounded. Decca- often sublime and you can go down some rungs sometimes to London and even some of the budget series that were pressed in England. One, which I bought when I was a kid is the Martinon/Paris Conservatory of Divertissement / Jeux D'Enfants / Danse Macabre / Le Rouet D'Omphale which I first got as a Treasury series (budget) and many pressings later, I can still enjoy the cheaper copy. The Decca is now spendy. 

I have quite a few EMI ASDs and their boxed sets from the same era of things like Shostakovitch, Vaughn Williams, Du Pre, which were all good. Some, highly regarded, are not as interesting to me musically. 

The RCA doggies and Mercury Living Presence were hyped by TAS back in the day and finding clean copies is a challenge. I haven't checked audiophile reissue prices for some of these but would imagine they are spendy as well.

One of the issues I'd like to underscore is that if you talk to somebody who is knowledgeable (I have a few friends who really know repertoire), their focus is on the performance, not necessarily sound quality. Thus, if you dig into Scriabin, you'll see that many musicians think Vladimir Sofronitsky was one of his best interpreters (he also married Scriabin's daughter). But the recordings are a little rough. 

Among the solo performances, the cello is one of my favorite instruments (no, I never studied cello) and of course Starker's rendition of the Kodaly piece for unaccompanied cello is killer. The early recordings on Period Records are mono-- I have a few copies, along with later reissues. I prefer the old copies. 

The body of classical music is so large, even leaving aside modern or late 20th century composers that most of the university level folks have niche areas in which they go deep. Beyond that, it can be a very large sea to swim. Have fun-- many classical records are now depressed in value (though not the most desirable warhorses), so this is a good time to buy in my estimation. And classical records often didn't get trashed the way some pop/rock LPs did. 

I'm hardly a guru. I did most of my classical LP buying when the LP was declared a dead letter, in the '80s. There are thousands of these records here that have gone unplayed by me for years, but I'm not selling any of them. The exploration is 1/2 the fun. Enjoy~