Classical Music: A How-To Guide for Beginners

This will be an ongoing thread to recommend great recordings and great performances of classical music. It seems that many audiophiles have a couple pieces of classical music, but have not fully delved into the genre. This is unfortunate, because there are literally thousands of treasures to be experienced. Classical music encompasses all aspects of human emotions, and there are is something out there for everyone. People may feel intimidated by all the choices. Exploring different pieces becomes enjoyable once you have a foothold. I hope to provide that foothold for people who wish to initiate a collection of masterpieces.

A couple of references are worth mentioning. First, is an excellent source of highly opinionated reviews. Although some may disagree with some of the reviews, there are too many sites that think everything is wonderful. For a subscription magazine, Fanfare has a broad overview of many recordings from different genres. Good sources of CDs would include Amazon (new and used), Barnes and Noble (particularly sets with a 20% off coupon), Tower Records for certain sales, and for imports. is an online club with good prices.

My plan is to offer recommendations as I traverse my own collection, explaining the rationale for the choices. I hope that people will go and buy some of these, and listen to the aspects I mention. I hope that this is a fun adventure, and that others will come to appreciate the beauty of the classics. I feel lucky that this music has enriched my life, and I am always happy to share in some knowledge and experience. The software is inexpensive, so perhaps people would appreciate that chance to explore new music rather than fret about the latest power cord.
Beethoven. The Nine Symphonies. Barenboim. Berliner Staatskapelle. Teldec.

There are dozens of Beethoven symphony cycles. Some offer chamber orchestras, period instruments, or some variation in the latest and most authentic edition of the scores. However, this is the one that keeps me coming back.

The Berliner Staatskapelle play immaculately. They have real character and warmth. Barenboim could have recorded this cycle with any orchestra of his choosing, and this decision was brilliant.

This Beethoven is full-blooded, big, and bold. Barenboim infuses an incredible sense of energy and momentum throughout all 9 pieces. There is nothing boring or slack, not even for a moment. This cycle has no weak spots, either. I could pick any disc from this set and be instantly enthralled.

Barenboim has adopted many markings of Wilhelm Furtwangler, a famous German conductor known for spontaneity, excitement, and an overarching sense of purpose throughout each movement. While Furtwangler was occasionally erratic, sometimes histrionic, and often dimly recorded, Barenboim puts a steady hand to these polished performances.

The sonics are among the best. The strings have mass, the brass ring-out, and the soundstage is huge. The orchestra plays in a warm, burnished tone, yet with immense clarity.

Beethoven is an amazing composer, and heralded the start of the Romantic era with Symphony #3. I am always struck by the sense of energy, the deceptive simplicity or many of his passages, and the fact that he gets better and better the more you listen. This is a set that sounds great the first time, and sounds even better the 10th or 25th time you listen.
Here are a couple that I hold dear:

1) Tchaikovsky + Glazunov violin concertos with Max Vengerov and the Berliner Philharmonkier
2) Beethoven Triple Concerto + Brahms Double Concerto with Rostropovich, Richter, Oistrakh
3) Dvorák: The Symphonies with Istvan Kertesz + LSO
4) Vengerov Plays Bach, Shchedrin, Ysaye

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Vengerov. Abbado. Berliner Philharmoniker. Teldec.

Beethoven Triple Concerto. Brahms Double Concerto. Richter. Oistrakh, Rostropovich. Szell. Cleveland Orchestra. EMI.

Michael, I am going to totally agree that these two are must-haves.

Vengerov is arguably the best living violinist. He has a masculine, confident, and energetic technique that makes the Stradiverius soar. If I want someone to hear how good my stereo sounds, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is what I play. This piece is amazing from start to finish. Even Abbado, who I find boring and mannered, seems to be inspired. Abbado whips-up the Berliners to have that sense of communication between soloist and orchestra. This piece is accessible from the first listen, and continues to impress with repeated listening. The engineering on this recording is perfect.

The Brahms Double Concerto features some of the best talent put on stage, PLUS they deliver. Szell's Cleveland Orchestra was widely regarded to be world class and perhaps the best in the US. Szell launches into the Brahms with his charactaristic incisiveness, getting full committment from the orchestra. The soloists throw themselves into the music as well, with an inspired sense of communication between all players. Karajan actually does a good job as well. The recording is very good, with a little hiss, but a very warm 'analog' sound.
I would highly recommend The Teaching Companies series on classical music with Greenberg.Also, (WCRB/WGBH 89.7 HD-2) broadcasts the Boston Symphany Orchestra Saturdays at 8:00pm, and WHRB (Harvard Radio 95.5) does live broadcasts on Sunday afternoons.
I'll speak in broader terms and not suggest any actual recordings. I'd recommend people listen to "chamber music" classical music as it's easier to "digest", IMO. A fewer number of instruments, less cluttered.

Per Wikipedia:

Chamber music is a form of classical music, written for a small group of instruments which traditionally could be accommodated in a palace chamber. Most broadly, it includes any art music that is performed by a small number of performers with one performer to a part. The word "chamber" signifies that the music can be performed in a small room, often in a private salon with an intimate atmosphere. However, it usually does not include, by definition, solo instrument performances.
great thread! keep it coming (for is novices)

By the way, I agree with Tgyeti - Chamber music is easier to digest in my experience, but it's also fund to have the "chamber" be in your listening room. I find most orchestra music recordings don't image as well.
Consider starting your Classical music adventure with Mozart's symphonies conducted by MacKerras on Telarc. Energetic performances with fine sound and melodies that are so accessible you'll be hooked in no time.

For the more adventurous, Shostakovich's symphonies 4,5,7,9,15 conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. No one else gets the complexities of intellect and emotion in Shosty's stuff like Ashkenazy.
For beginners nothing is scarier than 20th century music. All that atonal stuff is difficult enough for musicians. But, there's way more to 20th century concert music than serialism or bizarre "crash and bang" experimental sonic art.

1) Rachmaninov, Symphonic Dances and the Piano Concerti
2) Khachaturian, Symphonies (No. 3 is lots of fun)
3) Respighi, Ancient Airs and Dances, Queen of Sheba

These are examples of 20th century composers who wrote music for pleasure rather than an intellectual exercise. (Love Shostakovich, but for beginners??? Prokofiev maybe.)

One of the great early 20th century pieces, The Planets by Gustav Holst.

Another good place to start are recordings by the Kronos Quartet, adventurous, yet accessible.
Horowitz. Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon.

Vladamir Horowitz is one of the best pianists of the 20th century. Here, you can have about 6 hours of music in a box set at bargain price.

Why is he so good?

One thing is his total control of the piano. He can play the most complicated passages, at any speed of his choosing, effortlessly. Not only does he hit all the keys, but he shapes the note to give intonation and depth to a piece.

Another aspect is his uncanny approach to rhythm and intonation, and his ability to create each piece anew. Even if you have heard these pieces before, he makes them so fresh and natural.

One last attribute is his ability to have fun. You can hear how he is enjoying himself. He plays not just for the audience or for perfection, but also for his own pleasure. Watch some videos on youtube, and look at his facial expression.

Be sure to read the notes inside. After reading about his Moscow concert, you can truly appreciate the electricity and excitement in the air.

This set is priceless. It is a wonderful introduction to the piano.
My advice for the beginning classical music fan isn't a recording - my suggestion is get one recording (hopefully, a pretty good one) and listen to it a lot. Familiarity breeds love with great music.

I don't want to start a debate thread since we have a different purpose here, but I think the recommendation of the Beethoven Triple Concerto + Brahms Double Concerto with Rostropovich, Richter, Oistrakh is very wrong-headed as the

1) pieces are lesser works by both composers;
2) I personally don't like the performances.

Brahms - a very self-critical man - rarely published his lesser efforts. I think the quality control edit function was close to kicking in with the Double Concerto. Meanwhile, there are maybe 30-40 works of this terrific composer which are exciting first-rate compositions.
Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps). Boulez. Cleveland Orchestra. DG.

This orchestral showpiece is a also an audiophile showcase. One of the great modern works of the 20th century, and yet somehow popular despite the dissonances and lack of an overall melody.

Pierre Boulez brings clarity to the extra-ordinarily complex rhythms. The piece is played and recorded as clear as can be. The instrumental colors and sections are highlighted throughout.

Now some are going to take issue with this particular recording. Perhaps Boulez can be cool, analytical, and episodic. However, his strengths trump those criticisms in my view. There are other conductors who play it faster, more dramatic, and with emphasis on the harmonies. But Boulez strips it down to the pure composition and orchestration with beauty and devastation. Plus, he allows the Cleveland Orchestra to "let 'er rip" on numerous occasions, which is particularly impressive with his style to the climax build-up.

It would be difficult to agree on the best Rite, but this one sounds wonderful, is impressive on an emotional and intellectual basis, and is coupled with a great Petrouchka. I come back to this one often.
Mozart Piano Concertos are great for an introduction to classical music. The complete set on London/Decca played by Vladimir Ashkenazy is excellent. If you don't want to buy the whole set, I recommend finding a disc with Concerto's #20, #21, #23, and/or #25, which are arguably the best of the best. Recordings featuring soloists such as: Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Rudolf Serkin, Mitsuko Uchida, and Murray Perahia - will almost certainly be an excellent purchase.

thank you so much Rtn1!!! i just cued up the Rite of Spring album you suggested in my account. You get one free full listen to decide if you would like to purchase their mp3's. The orignial files are in WAVE format so they sound very good while first listening. I have not done the foray into much classical and was wondering if they would have much on this LALA site but i was pleasantly surprised to be able to find the album you recommended. Seems the first half of this disc is the New York Philharmonic? That is how it is shown on the title displayed and then the second half is indeed the "...Printemps" tracks from the Cleveland Orchestra. Yes, i am a newbie at finding great classical recordings but i love emotional and well recorded music so thank you for what you started here with this thread!! Cheers
I also read mention of chamber music in this thread and i know i would be a candidate for some great recommendations in that regard. I love listening to wonderful cello for example!! I shouldn't say i am a total newbie as i have been to several symphonies but i am VERY ignorant as to where to look to find beautiful pieces of well recorded music in this genre. I love the label ECM to give you an idea, but that is not a classical label, but that may give you an idea as to what i am searching for sonicly as many of those artists come from classical backgrounds and the recordings are usually very nice. thanks guys!
Just to clarify the last recommendation, there are two Boulez Rites. The first on Sony, the second on Deutsche Grammophon. The first is more fierce and free. The second is more measured and refined, with excellent sonics. Either would be good. I was referring to the latter in the post above.
Brahms. Piano Concertos 1 and 2. Fleisher. Szell. Cleveland Orchestra. Sony.

Here is a recording for the ages. Leon Fleisher's career was cut short from a crippling dystonia of the hand. In this recording, his playing is sublime and ethereal. The notes are coaxed from the piano and float into space. Tempos are perfect. Szell contrasts with a firery accompaniment. Pianists, conductor, and orchestra are in total communication. This one gets better with repeated listening. The recording is warm and analog-sounding. There is a slight hiss, but you will not hear it once you become engrossed in the performance.
Rtn - That's a great recommendation. Beautiful music, and terrific performances.
Mahler. Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophone. Bernstein. Volumes I and II.

This is an overwhelming set. In college, I saw Mahler 2 in Cleveland, and I was overwhelmed. No one told me classical music could sound like this.

Mahler was an absolute composing genious. His orchestration is utterly unique. His music is about life and death, love and loss. It reaches the heights of God and man, and the depths of sorrow and despair.

This set has historical importance. Leonard Bernstein may be properly credited with interpreting Mahler for the modern world. He opened the world of Mahler to many with passion and total conviction. Sure, there were others composers before him (ie. Horenstein, Walter, Klemperer, Mitroupolos, Scherchen), but Bernstein, in my view, brought Mahler into real global popularity. Bernstein embraced all of the work, not just a piece here and there. I cut my teeth on this set for all Mahler symphonies, and I still get choked-up listening to it.

Bernstein plays these symphonies 'to the hilt', and gets away with it. He is able to extract every ounce of emotion and drama without sounding mannered. His 'heart-on-sleeve' approach is not the only point of view, but I find it highly effective and suitable. Bernstein also gets incredible playing from the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra led by Mahler himself for a few years.

Bernstein recorded these pieces for Sony and for DG. You will find proponents for each recording. I have several shelves of Mahler, attesting to the concept that their is no single best interpretation. Nonetheless, Bernstein's DG set makes a wonderful introduction to these symphonies with maximum impact. Mahler is less approachable from the first listen than Tchaikovsky, but after several listens, it all falls into place. Familiarity definitely helps here, so don't give-up without a few listens. These pieces also have huge sonic impact, and will satisfy the most discriminating audiophile.
great thread....thanks to all for the suggestions. have been getting into classical more in the past year or so but have been meandering around without much success. attempts to find "stuff i like" have been very hit and miss and often confusing. i know what it is i like....just didn't know where to find "it".

have already purchased a few titles mentioned early on in this thread and am really enjoying them. plan on getting a few more that have been mentioned.

this thread really helped point me in the right direction.

thanks again

Lev, I too have begun a quest to listen to more classical music. My question is in "understanding" classsical. Do we have to be musicians, which I am not,to understand this art? And if as a "non-musician" can I truly appreciate the music? And in reading classical reviews it occurs to me that I don't know what the hell they're talking about. It sounds more like a wine review rather than a music review. That said, I seem to gravitate towards the Baroque and Chamber music, as that seems to be more palpable, I guess because it's less "complicated" and a little more rythmic; i.e. you can actually whistle it. But I'll keep reading and listening because it is truly beautiful music and well worth sinking your teeth into.
A merlot will do til I can appreciate the cabernets.
spot on Donntn. couldn't agree with you more regarding simpler, more rhythmic works for beginners. i used the word "confused" in my previous post very deliberately. this is how i felt after listening to something complicated. i couldn't make sense of it so enjoying it was out of the question. maybe someday we will both learn to appreciate other types of classical?.

but then maybe we won't???however... i don't think not being a musician has anything to do with it

just like other genre's of music, there is some stuff i like and other stuff.... not so much. don't like *all* jazz, rock and blues so i'm ok with not liking all classical. what's great is i've (we have) found some "truly beautiful music" and are on a path to find more.

cheers and keep on whistling my friend!


The place to start is with classical radio. This is so easy in these days of streaming audio. Most major cities have classical music stations. This will be the easiest way to expose yourself to a wide range of the most loved compositions. Just listen and take note of what you like and don't like. That said, certain composers tend to have certain strengths. For instance, if you like beautiful melodies, Mozart and Schubert will be your guys. If vocal harmony is what moves you, Bach cannot be surpassed. Beethoven uses rhythm in ways that transform very simple tunes into the most profound musical statements. But all of these statements are generalizations. This is why classical radio is your friend. You may find it especially useful to listen for broadcasts of the concerts of major orchestras in the evenings. They are many times accompanied by lectures which will help you understand the music. Happy listening!
On a recent TV series Michael Tilson Thomas (a well known conductor for the SFO) talked about progression in classical music starting with simple forms and moving on gradually to the more complex. He described how some one could/would transition from music that was initially principally dependent on rhythm and melody to, ultimately music which was dissonant, atonal, and to the uninitiated sounded like nothing much more than noise.

His point was that when you first hear a new music what you hear is foreign and may be hard to grasp or appreciate, but as time passes and your mind absorbs this new music, it will make sense to you. This is not an academic thing, it is a natural process, and FWIW mirrors my personal experience.

Many folks come to classical music because they think they should (like being told you should read classical books or taking vitamin pills, its good for you!). They are used to short pop/rock/country tunes and have developened nothing much more than the short musical attention spans required and can't understand the form of much that lasts over 5 minutes.

Many of these folks start off with small scale classical music loaded with melody and rhythm. They like the beat and the ability to hum alone. Its a natural thing, but eventually they will become curious about what else is out there so they go to larger orchestral pieces, often overtures from operas, concertos, and symphonies, which are generously represented in the lists of 'Warhorses' and are found on most all compilation disc's which are easier for them to assimilate.

Ultimately, for those suitably impressed, they move on to the more complex musical forms, that which must often be heard many times to fully understand and as often, to appreciate. We've learned never to discard music we can't appreciate. We just put it on the shelf and take it down every few years. It is amazing how often when I do this I can not understand why I didn't like it before and why I though it was so difficult.

So classical music is a journey which can sustain you for a life time if you give it a chance in the beginning. You don't need to be a musicologist, just a person with an open mind.

BTW, don't worry if you can't understand what the reviewers are saying. Their reviews are no different than the reviews in audio. Some of the reviewers are nothing more than vacuous self-important gas bags and others, those who will share your musical values, will appear with time and be helpful. Initially, it is best if you want to depend on reviews is to operate on a 'consensus' just like folks do here for audio stuff.

Anyway for me it was very rewarding. I grew up on hillbilly (blue grass for those of you with sensitivities), pop, and rock with no musical background. While I still love the old toe tapping fiddle loaded hillbilly stuff, I spend 95% of my listening time with classical, and have pretty much replaced pop and rock with jazz.

Hope you guys stick with it and enjoy it as much as I have.
I just left a movie, "Shutter Island" with Leonardo Dicaprio that had some interesting classical music. Maybe you know what it is?
The music of various composers has been cobbled together to create the music in this movie. Google and you shall learn all. :-)
newbee, thanks for the info. There is a scene showing an old record player with music sounding like todays best analog rig.
Tchaikovsky. Symphony #5. Vienna Philharmonic. Gergiev. Philips.

This must have been quite a performance to attend. Gergiev and the VPO play with searing intensity. Gergiev here is guest conductor, and his interpretations generally run from hot to cold. This one is truly inspired. I could picture the entire orchestra sirting up on the front of their chairs. What an incredible sound! It is impossibly lush and lithe at the same time. The music never drags, and you can even get a sense of the electricity in the air. The engineering on the recording is perfect. Big strings and big brass, beautiful winds. This is the unique sound that made Vienna famous.
newbee, why don't you start a thread on bluegrass. I saw a movie comedy on TV that mentioned the Foggy Mountain Boys. It was funny as hell and I liked the music which was "Bluegrass".
Mahler is not a great composer.