40 Years of Stereophile: The 40 Essential Albums CLASSICAL


WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Sir Georg Solti, Vienna Philharmonic, et al
Decca/London (1958, 1962, 1964, 1965)

The fact that Wagner's Ring is undeniably the finest music-drama ever written did not encourage record labels to record it with the invention of the LP—it was simply too vast and expensive an undertaking. But with stereo and advances in technology, Decca and producer John Culshaw eventually did so, and revolutionized the way opera was recorded—with stage details, movement, perspective, tricks of amplification and tape speed to alter pitch and tone quality), and more. With the Ring, recording opera became an art form. Furthermore, with the brain-splitting clang of Donner's hammer and the subsequent thunderbolt near the end of Das Rheingold, every audiophile in the world had a new demonstration disc. Other Rings do this or that a bit better, but for sheer grandeur, this is still it: In the stereo era, much of the cast has still to be bettered (ditto the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic), and sonically, it's still a masterpiece.—Robert Levine

J.S. BACH: Goldberg Variations
Glenn Gould, piano
Sony (1981)

With Gould's first recording of the Goldbergs in 1955, the world was introduced to a unique artist and began listening to Bach differently. By the time of this remake, Gould's eccentricities—humming along, odd tempo choices and accents, a refusal to perform anywhere but in the recording studio—were well-known, as were his spectacular gifts. Fleet-fingered, incredibly accurate, with soul and intelligence in equal parts, Gould was it. So is this, his later performance of the Goldbergs, now available in a boxed set along with the 1955 recording, in excellent sound and for the first time using the original analog tapes, made as backups because the engineers didn't altogether trust the new digital technology.—Robert Levine

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies 1-9
Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic
Deutsche Grammophon (1963)

Von Karajan recorded the complete Beethoven cycle four times, but this was the first ever recorded and intended to be sold as an integral set. Initially, those who wanted the set had to subscribe; the LPs were sent, symphony by symphony. It remains the key example of the most important partnership of label, orchestra, and conductor in the history of recordings. It's not a perfect set (what is?), but the orchestra's fabulous enthusiasm, and the senses of unity, event, and achievement, are palpable. The set remains a milestone for these foundations of the symphonic repertoire.—Robert Levine

HILDEGARD VON BINGEN: A Feather on the Breath of God
Emma Kirkby, soprano; Gothic Voices
Hyperion (1983)

With this gorgeous CD, Hildegard von Bingen, 12th-century abbess, composer, artist, poet, visionary, and friend and advisor to popes, kings, and emperors, became a household name. Who would have believed that this collection of wandering, twisting plainchant lines and more complicated pieces would usher in an era in which baby-boomers raised on Dylan and Hendrix, the Stones and the Beatles, would listen to chanting monks? The whole production was both mystical and approachable—the boyish purity of Emma Kirkby's soprano mingled with a recorded ambience that made us believe we were in or near an ancient monastery. The performances are impeccable, and the whole endeavor at least gave us the impression that we were in touch with a time long, long ago.—Robert Levine

<B>GLASS: Koyaanisqatsi
Michael Riesman, Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, Members of the Philip Glass Ensemble.
Nonesuch (1982)

Here is an example of a movie and its score being virtually inseparable, probably for the first time since the era of silent films. Godfrey Reggio's ravishing film is as important for Glass's music as for its images, which depict nature's, society's and technology's multiple relationships. The score, underlining the imagery, contains some of Glass's most stunning music—the runaway arpeggios are here, and so is a gloriously low bass-voice drone at the film's start and finish, as well as some choral music the composer has yet to better. As a result of this important collaboration, Minimalism became Mainstream.—Robert Levine

GÓRECKI: Symphony 3
Dawn Upshaw, David Zinman, London Sinfonietta
Nonesuch (1993)

Composed in 1976, Górecki's Symphony 3 had its admirers from the start; within two months of its release 17 years later, this recording was on the Classical Top Ten charts, and quickly "crossed over," without a bit of marketing, to the pop charts as well. Its three tonal, dirge-like movements are laments for the victims of World War II. Perhaps it tapped into a type of new-age goodness/sadness consciousness and spirituality. Whatever; who would have guessed that this would become the best-selling disc ever by a contemporary composer?—Robert Levine

HANDEL: Messiah
Christopher Hogwood, Academy of Ancient Music, vocal soloists
L'Oiseau-Lyre (1984)

Here was as close a re-creation as possible of the performance of Messiah given at the Foundling Hospital in 1754. The pitch is at 415Hz, the voices are small, vibratoless, and remarkably agile, there's plenty of ornamentation in both vocal and instrumental lines, the trebles sing the higher chorus parts, the small complement of period instruments plays crisply, and unsentimental tempos prevail. It all adds up to a vital, meticulous, polished, ear-opening performance that altered the way we listened to 18th-century music. Some still argue with the sound of the "scratchy" violins, and historically informed performances in general remain a matter of taste, but this set is riveting. The clear, precise sound continues to be a joy.—Robert Levine

SCHUBERT: Complete Songs
Many vocalists; Graham Johnson, piano
Hyperion (completed 2000)

In 37 volumes, each conceived by and with the superb playing (and fascinating, informative accompanying notes) of pianist Graham Johnson, this set proved that a small label like Hyperion could steal the type of artistic thunder heretofore thought available only from one of the huge conglomerates. Each disc has a unique theme, and the singers are the finest in the business: Janet Baker, Thomas Allen, Arleen Augér, Elly Ameling, Philip Langridge, Brigitte Fassbaender, Thomas Hampson, Lucia Popp, Peter Schreier, and more. Schubert, the master of the Lied, finally gets all of his songs recorded.—Robert Levine