looking for ideas on must have classical music

Hello classical devotees!

A friend had me rip quite a few of his CDs for his trip abroad. most were classical, and many were like 'best of' compilations. one or two were whole symphonies.

armed with these at least and no others I felt it time to wade into the classical waters and increase that genre in my library.

what then, are your fav, 3 or 4, go to, gotta have composers, movements, and or conductors out there on CD at least?

if also available in HD or otherwise, please point towards them as well, if you don't mind.

your input is sincerely appreciated and this input will initiate my list for current and future additions to the catalog, so again, thanks very much!!

I guess I should have said 'works/movements' rather than just movements. Sorry.
I can see why you ask as a list like this could be virtually endless. Add to to that all the different performances of the same pieces at different times and you realise this could make assembling a system seem like a doddle! It might be a good idea first to determine which instruments and sub genres of Classical you like best eg vocal, piano, harpsichord, guitar, quartets, symphonies etc.

However, having said all that, for my money two piano pieces stand out above the rest.

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2.

All versions all good, how could they not be?

My favourites are the ones by Kissin and Ashkenazi.


Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations are also indispensable for me.

Both the 1955 first attempt and the 1981 slowed down version.

Even the reimagined Zenph 1955 recording is full of brilliance.

Build the foundation.

Haydn,Mozart and Bach.
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) by Richard Strauss. Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic - Deutsche Grammaphone Original Classics - 1958. His first and best stereo recording of this R.Strauss masterpiece!
Bela Bartok: Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Deutsche Grammaphon 1977. A lively and thrilling performance! An alternate would be Fritz Reiner's with the Chicago Symphony on RCA Living Stereo.
Four by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA Living Stereo worth acquiring: 1) Also Sprach Zarathustra - R.Strauss, 2) Concerto For Orchestra - Bela Bartok, 3) The Pines And Fountains Of Rome - Ottorino Resphigi, 4) Pictures At An Exhibition - Modest Mussourgski. Superb stereo recordings from '58-59 done by Lewis Layton (all tube gear!).
Julia Fischer with the Russian Symphony Orchestra  Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D on SACD.  This is a very moving interpretation which flows smoothly.  It is on the PentaTone label.  I find it more expressive than the Itzhak Perlman version.

Martha Argerich With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat on CD. A classic 1971 recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

As you can see, I am a definite Tchaikovsky fan.

So many suggestions and so little time!

1.  +1 for the above recommendation for Bach's The Goldberg Variations, although I prefer Perahia's performance to Gould's.  Excuse the pun, but for a nice variation on the keyboard performances, try Sitkovetsky's version for string trio.

2.   Shostakovich's 24 Etudes and Fugues for Piano.  I like Scherbakov's playing for Naxos.

3.  Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier.   (As you can tell, I like classical solo piano.). I have Jennifer Hewitt's version, although there are many good ones.

4.  Handel's concerto grosso of Alexander's Feast.  The concerto, not the oratorio.  Just delightful!

5.  Mozart's Piano Concertos, from #18 on up, esp. nos. 21-26, and even more especially the 2nd movement from no. 21 (aka the "Elvira Madigan" movement).

6.  Beethoven's 9th Symphony, esp. The Ode to Joy in the fourth movement.  Well, of course.

7.  Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, esp. Partita #2, Fifth Part -- the "Ciaccona" (Chaconne").  Menuhin considered it to be the greatest work for violin.  Many, many good versions; I like Milstein.

Have fun!
Forgot one.  Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos.  A classic album demonstrating the ability of the Moog synthesizer as a keyboard instrument.  
Wagner Overtures conducted by Sir George Solti. Holst The Planets conducted by just about anyone (I favour Sir Adrian Boult). Vivaldi Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) conducted by Trevor Pinnock. Beethoven Symphonies conducted by anyone of your choice. For modern Symphony Orchestra style Leonard Bernstein or Gunter Wand, for "period" style by John Eliot Gardner. Great performances in poor sound by Arturo Toscanini. J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concertos conducted by (again) Trevor Pinnock.
Great performances in poor sound. Isn't that Springsteen?
@blindjim ,
I would concentrate on listening to the composers you have already listened to and listen to more of their works.
Thinking back to my classical introduction, it was on WQXR and WNCN,but they are now either gone or shadows of their former selves.
Unfortunately, streaming services are geared for popular music and tend to have terrible playlists for classical.

Tablejockey has it right-go with the basics.
I would start with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart. They encompass a wide time frame and you can see which style floats your boat.
Another approach is by label. Almost anything on Naxos is excellent. 
Many good suggestions. I would start with a cross-section of great composers and genres until you figure out what you like. From the above list (mostly). . . 

Concerto for solo instrument and orchestra

  Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D.

  Mozart's Piano Concertos, from #18 on up, esp. nos. 21-26, 

  Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2.

Large scale works for orchestra

  Beethoven's 9th Symphony

  Mussorgsky Pictures At An Exhibition

Smaller scale works for orchestra or for ensemble

  Vivaldi The Four Seasons

  Brahms Clarinet Quintet

Solo instrument

  Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

  Shostakovich's 24 Etudes and Fugues for Piano

Or maybe Bach Cello Suites rather than Partitas and Sonatas for Violin. 
The first post is the best so far, you need to start by finding out what you like in classical music. Therefore, your first list should cover a wide range of material to help you understand the landscape, and guide your further exploration. Here are my suggestions:

1. Bach: Goldberg Variations - Glenn Gould (I prefer the 1981 recording, but you might like the 1955 one)
2. Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
3. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (John Eliot Gardner is good)
4. Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 (I started with Van Cliburn)
5. Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite
6. Mason Bates: Alternative Energy

That should get you started.
I use Vaughn Williams " The Lark Ascending" . People who don’t respond
to the sublime beauty of this piece are unlikely to ever come to Classical
music .
 Another is the Vln.and Pn.  Sonata of Frank .

Four by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA Living Stereo worth acquiring: 1) Also Sprach Zarathustra - R.Strauss, 2) Concerto For Orchestra - Bela Bartok, 3) The Pines And Fountains Of Rome - Ottorino Resphigi, 4) Pictures At An Exhibition - Modest Mussourgski. Superb stereo recordings from '58-59 done by Lewis Layton (all tube gear!).

These suggestions are good.

I'm not very knowledgeable about classical music, but I found a CD on which I like a lot of pieces:  "Classical Music For People Who Hate Classical Music".
 Holst's Planets, Aaron Copeland, Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Vaughan Williams
to really explore this, take a Music Appreciation class at your local college...and take up an instrument
to really explore this, take a Music Appreciation class at your local college...and take up an instrument
More excellent advice. Classical music appreciation benefits from understanding.  

A few suggestions which are off the beaten track:

Gorecki: Symphony #3 (Sorrowful Songs)
David Hykes and the New Harmonic Choir: Hearing Solar Winds
Anonymous 4: 1000 A Mass for the End of Time
The Harp Consort: Missa Mexicana

Good listening!
No. I think, the OP wants to hear the voice. Start with most famous operas or/and most famous performers. Nothing beats the power of the voice, not even full orchestra.

sorry I'm a bit late getting back. life demands my attention a bit more of late.

@all others....

many thanks

Great start!! THANK YOU!

I was in band from elementary into high school. playing trumpet and coronet.

joined local big band jazz band for two years prior to military service.

currently learning electronic keyboard.

I've been collecting music and avidly investigating various genres since 2000. usually one at a time as is my curiosity at the moment.

now its time I believe, to check out classical music more closely.

I tend to favor strings and piano, but enjoy full on orchestras just how I like pizza.... with everything on it!

one piece I heard some years back which i dearly loved but lost its title was conducted by I believe the name had these words; Sir + either Raleigh or Walter (not sure if it is the first or sur name), but for sure it was a Beethoven concherto/sonata for violin or viola. it was the most engaging piece I've heard in my woefuylly limited eXP, then or since.

I know for a fact 'Sir' preceeded his name.

I heard it on a local Fm channel and never thought to call 'em up and ask about it.

it was sort of a tear jerker kind of tune. solo violin thru most of it. plainly beautiful.

on hand are lots of Mozart, Beethoven, Back, some Handel, of course The Nutcracker, but not too much diversification otherwise.

while there are as well various popular cuts from Listz, Devor, Rafael, etc., it amounts to a paltry sampling of the classics IMHO.

again many thanks for all of this input.
No one has mentioned: Rimsky-Korsakoff Scheherazade.
True I can't pronounce the names. True I am a complete 
novice in this arena. Is my choice wrong, uninformed or
simply classless?

Excellent advice from Stringreen.  I would add what would likely be an important aspect of any good music appreciation class.  Approach your exploration of this fantastic genre in a way that looks at and considers the chronology of the evolution of the music.  Music from more recent periods or current are much more meaningful and more easily appreciated if there is, at least, some exposure to music from earlier periods.  Enjoy!  

Steer clear of  Herbert Von Karajan
The dullest and dreeriest conductor ever
Dvorak Symphonie no 9 is a big one. Bruno Walter has a heavy duty version.

For Opera I suggest not to miss La Boheme (Puccini) with Pavarotti/Freni. A very live recording with fantastic voices.

Look for version where the orchestra is recorded in the center and 
a far away. IMO gives the most natural experience.

Recordings of the same piece differs a lot so it may take some time to find your favourite. To have a library like Tidal's is super.
Best forum for this question to be answered. Their list.


Honestly, not to be insulting, but by comparison and with a few exceptions, people on Audiogon know nothing about classical music in real depth. I might add that people on that forum know about as much about equipment as people here know about classical music. It balances out. You could spend a lifetime there learning and will be truly enriched for it. Your friend's Best of recordings are like the Reader's Digest  but not a terrible place to start to learn what you like. Your tastes will broaden over decades of listening. Classical music vinyl played on a great system in a great room is something extraordinary. Truly like being there and, unlike almost everything else, the real thing is available as a reference in any great symphony orchestra's hall. 

My best recommendation. Start streaming chamber music and see what pleases you.

 Pick up a copy of Camille Saint-Saëns - Danse Macabre. I have one on the Phillips label. You'll recognize music that you may have heard but didn't know who the composer was. I've listened to this CD maybe 300 times or more. ALSO, check out the deals on the Mercury Living Presents boxed sets. They are the best value in music today. The soundtrack from Amadeus is excellent. (Anything recorded by St. Martin-in the-Fields is going to sound great!) Enjoy! and let me know how you like the Saint-Saens. Joe 

looks like I have my work cut out for me here! wow. THANKS!!

I'm speechless and grateful. deeply.

Scanning through the above, there's not enough:
  • Mendelssohn
  • Schumann
  • Schubert
  • Chamber music in general (I only saw the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, which is a good rec)
So, with that in mind, I suggest you get
  • Dvorak - "Dumky" Trio
  • Mendelssohn quartets and/or trios
  • Mendelssohn violin concerto
  • Schubert string quartets - Death and the Maiden of course, but all good
  • Haydn Lark Quartet
  • ANY Brahms or Beethoven chamber music.  Beethoven Middle Quartets and Archduke Trio, Brahms Sonatas for more accessible, Brahms op. 51, Beethoven Opus 130 for truly innovative. 
  • If you ever need a good cry, try the slow second movements of Brahms, Schubert, Dvorak.
  • Schumann piano - Kreisleriana, Carnaval, Kinderszenen
  • Schumann String Quartets
  • Hindemith's Viola Concerto "Der Schwanendreher" and Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht are also beautiful. Neither is twelve-tone "serialist" but you are starting to get into not-for-beginners.
bdp24 wrote (in part):

...Holst The Planets conducted by just about anyone (I favour Sir Adrian Boult)...

I also have an EMI/Angel pressing of Adrian Boult's rendition. I have several versions of The Planets on CD and LP, and have heard the Seattle Symphony play it live twice, with different conductors.

Anyway, I was listening to the Boult Planets and there were things about it that caught my attention, particularly the tempi and dynamics, but also the ability to bring up the volume of particularly significant themes or harmonies. I thought, "Whoever this guy is, he sounds like he was BORN to conduct this." I checked the liner notes and it turns out Sir Adrian Boult conducted the world premier of "The Planets." Not only that, but he did all the legwork, recruiting an orchestra up to the challenges, finding a suitable venue, raising funds, getting the word out, etc. He was probably working out The Planets with an orchestra while Holst was still composing it.

Anyway, on the back of the album jacket is the facsimile of a note handwritten by Holst, profusely thanking Boult's participation in that project, and realizing it might not have seen the light of day without Boult's participation. 

So, yes Bdp24, there's a good reason for you favouring the Sir Adrian Boult version.

Another version I *really* like is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. I was curious how a conductor so deeply involved in period-correct Baroque works, downsized for authenticity, could take such masterful command of The Planets, a work where the orchestral company has to recruit extra celli and bassists, and drag out just about every percussion instrument (plus the celeste) they can get ahold of.

It turns out that Gardiner is a descendant (grand nephew or something) of Holst's patron, who underwrote Holst's efforts to compose that ambitious work.

I love bombastic oversized orchestral works such as The Planets and Pictures at an Exhibition.

But I also love J.S. Bach's six Cello Suites. It demonstrates that J.S. Bach didn't know how to write bad music. The Suites are produced by one musician, one bow, and one cello, but the melodies are so compelling that they draw your mental focus in like a magnet. In fact, I find the Suites to be the best cure for earworms. Listen through one or two Suites and the musical flow on one hand and the creative intricacy on the other will make you forget everything else, and likely put a spring in your step for the rest of the day. Each of the six Suites is composed of six movements, which give you 36 first-rate melodies to flush out the earworms and replace them with a great stream of variety.

After 55 years or so, Janos Starker's version on Mercury Living Presence (from the mid-'60s) largely survives as the gold standard. A few years ago, it was *still* available on CD, SACD, LP, and hi-def download--every format up to the task.

I consider Starker's rendition of the Bach Suites analgous to the music you hear from the piano playing of the great Artur Rubinstein. Both are all business, avoid schmaltzy excess, and play with an expressive purity that showcases the genius of the composers. I also like Lynn Harrell's rendition (CD) on London Digital, whose tempo and style capture the dance origin of the Suites' format without getting too cute about it.

If you have a turntable, the Speakers Corner reissue of the mid-'60s Living Presence Bach Suites in stereo is to die for. I ought to know: I also have an original pressing in mono. I also grew up listening to Starker's Mercury Suites in stereo and heard my brother practicing his cello lessons for 9 straight years. The 9th year he studied under Lynn Harrell.
Excellent comments and suggestions above.

I would add:

Chrisropher Parkening, Parkening Plays Bach. Also John Williams’ recordings of the Bach Cello Suites. Another favorite guitarist is Carlos Barbosalima, any of his recordings.

Chopin’s Nocturnes and piano concertos, I like Pollini and Barenboim, but there are dozens of fine versions.

Schubert...some of his vast vocal music, I would begin with Songs for Male Chorus (Robert Shaw Chamber Singers), and sample some volumes from the Schubert Edition on Hyperion. I also recommend Schubert’s piano sonatas.

Mahler...the second symphony, Resurrection (again, lots of versions, but I usually reach for Gilbert Kaplan with the London Symphony). And explore some of his songs (“Lieder”), try Thomas Hampson or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as a start.

Brahms, his German Requiem and the Alto Rhapsody...Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony versions are nice. And some of my favorite, Brahms’ late piano music, say opus 116-119, especially the recordings of Stephen Bishop Kavacevich.

Some delightful fun, Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance or the Mikado.

Something ethereal, Bill Douglas’ Deep Peace, Ars Nova Singers
77jovian wrote (in part):

... Mahler...the second symphony, Resurrection (again, lots of versions, but *I usually reach for Gilbert Kaplan with the London Symphony*).

Good call. Kaplan is the ultimate amateur enthusiast. He recorded his version around 1986-7. He had fanatically studied the Resurrection notation for (I think) decades. He even owns Mahler's original Resurrection manuscript. Even as an amateur, Kaplan had so much credibility with the London Symphony that they followed his direction fastidiously.

Audio magazine's review (and they had many seasoned classical reviewers on the masthead) called the Kaplan recording "A Resurrection Symphony for the ages." Can't get much higher praise than that.
You'll like Presto Music. You can sample most of their music and much of it is available in one or another hi-def format. CDs are available for all. 

Classical music consists in a vast array of sub-genres, and almost limitless modes of expression. I like contemporary music. Composers (all Pulitzer Prize winners) you might consider: Meiczyslaw Weinberg, Joan Tower, Roxanna Panufnik, Lera Auerbach, and, if you're feeling a little outre, Missy Mazzoli. Schoenfield's Klezmer Rondos are delightful. The Bach oeuvre is vast and uniformly excellent, but I particularly like the cantatas - about 60 hours of music. Bartok is good to test your rig for speed and detail, and has a primitive, almost feral quality that can be deeply satisfying. 

That's my take. The journey is half the fun. 

A couple of suggestions for the OP and all the contributors to this thread: If you stream, check out the IDAGIO streaming service for Classical music exclusively.
Many search opportunities and wonderful suggestions for new recordings and even particular moods.
Also,  I invite all of you to check out the thread “Classical Music for Aficionados,”
Talk about Classical music.
Where have you all been?

The suggestions already offered are great. I would add: had a really wonderful experience learning about classical music, as well as it's historical precursors and variations, from a course offered by The Teaching Company, "How to Listen to And Understand Great Music," by Robert Greenberg. I had been a lifelong rock and jazz listener, and this series opened by eyes; it was a revelation. It's hard to appreciate the richness of classical music without an understanding of its form. The course is a wonderful and detailed introduction, also with lots of samples of varied genres. 
It's costly at its full price, but if you get on their email list they discount considerably and frequently. It's worth the wait.
@ott, "Classical music consists in a vast array of sub-genres, and almost limitless modes of expression."

Yes that's easily forgotten when you want a similar Classical thrill to some hard rock or harmonic pop.

Speed/ tempo is probably the main criteria I use to categorise music. I don't really enjoy too much of a mix match when it comes to tempo because that doesn't help to create a particular mood. At least not for me.
Based upon the nature of your question it might help to think in terms of time periods then concentrate on great examples within each period. Specific recording are unimportant as you will over time develop your personal favorites. Examples might include....
1. Medieval (Gregorian Chant)
2. Renaissance: William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and Giovanni Gabrieli. 
3. Baroque: J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi.
4. Classical: Mozart, Haydn, early Beethoven
5. Romantic: Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and many others
6. Impressionists, Debussy, Ravel, 
7. 20th Century: Bartok,Stravinsky, Gershwin, Bernstein, Barber to name a few.

As you listen you will gain the ability to hear something unfamiliar yet still have and idea of what time period it may have been composed.  This ability will find you well on your way to a lifetime of discovery and enjoyment.  HAVE FUN!      
Some people come to classical with a bunch of composers , others
by following in love with only one or two .
For the latter,
under 50, Bach and Schubert,over 50 , Bach and Brahms .Brahms often has a powerful effect on otherwise educated older folks .
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra--Philip Glass

Incredible feedback and i am extremely grateful for all of it.

all have my most sincere thainks.
One of my favorites is Tchaikovsky‘s violin Concerto in D.  I have a few versions.

Another amazing collection of work to consider is the entire collection of Beethoven’s piano sonatas played by Mari Kodama,  hi-Rez and high fidelity recording available by pentatone classics.

Vivaldi’s four seasons is extraordinary popular and for good reason, it’s quite good!

The Bach cello suites by Yo-Yo Ma. He has recorded it three times in his career, the most recent one just came out last year and it is excellent.

 Check out anything by Julia Fisher on pentatone.

Also check out some of the Wilson audiophile  recordings available at acoustic sounds.

good luck, have fun!

isn't most classical music over 50 years old? 😎
Isn't mommy calling you?
+1for Julia Fisher !!!
I agree with Sprigreen andd Frogman, take up a music appreciation class. Good for you that you took up keyboard, I did the same at age 54, bought an ole Kimball upright and several years later a 1926 Chickering Grand, rebuilt it and found a great teacher. My motivation? to learn how to play Mozart’s piano concerto k466 2nd movement. As I found out, dreams are wonderful but the journey maybe more so.

Appreciation of great classical music from the Renaissance to 21st century composers is something that requires development and listening. We all have our particular favorites. Recommendations of particular pieces just reflects individual tastes. ALSO, support your local orchestra, great art requires support for it to sustain.