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Classical for Beginners

Now and then, people ask me for advice on where to begin with the daunting world of classical music recordings. They've heard bits here and there, they're curious, they imagine they'd probably enjoy it once they got involved, but they wouldn't know where to look if they walked into -- oops, I mean logged onto eMusic.com and started poking around. My strategy is always to offer a handful of suggestions, in as wide a variety as possible. "Try these," I say. "See what grabs you, and we'll work from there.

" That's the idea behind this Dozen. Here are 12 recordings selected to entice people who have had little exposure to classical music, but who know they want more. I've carefully contrived the list to cover a wide range of colors and styles, instruments and moods, shapes and sizes. Some pieces are light, some heavy; some charming, some imposing; some dramatic, meditative, amorous, tragic, lofty, goofy. All in all, the selections encompass 1,200 years of music history -- and they've all been chosen to make a good first impression and whet your appetite.

They're "gateway" works, if you will. I'd be surprised if there were anyone who couldn't find something on this list that pleasured and intrigued them. Think of it as a sampler, a tapas menu: if you don't care for the stuffed olives/Renaissance Mass, try the garlic shrimp/20th-century string quartet. Are these the twelve greatest works ever? No, though some of them could justly claim a place on such a list. Most of these are works I actually have suggested to people, and which have gotten a favorable response. Others I have seen appeal to newbies in ways I never expected. Others are just a few personal favorites which I proselytize for whenever possible. Gregorian Chant For Easter Artist: Capella Antiqua, Munich Release Date: 2006 The recorded history of "classical" music in the Western "art" tradition (so many of these terms are so problematic) begins in the medieval period with music composed for church use -- settings of sacred texts in Latin for choirs singing in unison, just one note at a time. The serene meditativeness of Gregorian chant (named for liturgical reformer Pope Gregory, 540-604, who launched the practice according to legend) has made it popular in recent years, usable as a backdrop for anything from yoga to post-rave chilling. There are plenty of chant CDs out there, some with hipper packaging, but these performances by the male voices of Capella Antiqua, Munich, surrounded by a cathedral-like halo of reverb, are stately and gorgeous.

Ockeghem: Requiem Artist: Ensemble Organum, Marcel Pérès Release Date: 1993 A friend of mine, also a musician, has played a number of classical pieces for his infant son, and reports that Allen seems to like the music of Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410-1497) best. It could be the way this Renaissance composer weaves voices together to create a sort of ear-blanket. Or perhaps this music's low gentle murmuring reminds him of sounds in utero. Either way, the Ensemble Organum's performance of this Requiem (a Mass to honor the dead) is spacious and calm, but also possesses a sort of authoritative, virile resonance. Bach: Six Concertos for the Margrave of Brandenburg Artist: Trevor Pinnock Release Date: 2008 Incomparably joyous and sparkling, these six pieces can claim to be both the greatest of baroque instrumental works and, with the possible exception of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" concertos, the most popular. Composers in the baroque era (roughly 1600-1750) prioritized a musical skill called counterpoint, the practice of combining independent instrumental or vocal lines into a complex whole. Johann Sebastian Bach had no rivals (and surely never will) in this art, giving every section of the orchestra something rewarding -- and fun -- to do. He built structures of grandeur and irresistible energy. Each of these concertos are scored for a different combination; if you'd like a taste, try the first movement of the Concerto no.

2, in which four bright-toned soloists (violin, flute, oboe and trumpet) dance festively around the accompanying string orchestra, or the fleet finale of the Concerto no. 3, a whirlwind showpiece for strings alone. MOZART: Overtures Artist: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart After Bach and his contemporaries had brought Baroque counterpoint to its peak, composers of the next generation reacted by lightening the texture of their music. The melody line dominated, and the middle and bass instruments were entrusted with harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment rather than with independent lines of their own. This new style, though, was no less bubbling and energetic -- see the overtures (instrumental preludes) which Mozart (1756-91) wrote for his operas. Brilliant attention-getters, arresting but never too pompous, full of catchy tunes, cheeky wind solos and stirring trumpet-and drum passages, these overtures are played with great verve by Capella Istropolitana. CHOPIN: Etudes Opp. 10 and 25 Artist: Freddy Kempf Release Date: 2004 Frederic Chopin's music, full of innovations in nuances of harmony and delicate coloristic effects, pushed the boundaries of what a piano could do. In these two sets of etudes (completed in 1832 and 1836), he also pushed piano technique, making unprecedented demands of virtuosity in works that are still among the most richly dazzling ever written. Not all the pieces are finger-tanglers, though; some are studies in sensitive touch and singing melody.

Though pianist Freddy Kempf's technique is precise, these etudes are for him poetry first; in op. 10 no. 3 in E or op. 25 no. 1 in A-flat, he phrases the surface melody with the expressivity a great vocalist might bring to it. Pearl Fishers and Other Famous Operatic Duets Artist: Various Artists It occurred to me that an album of duets might make an even better introduction to opera than one of solo arias -- even though those big diva/divo moments are what the general public thinks of when they hear the term opera. Duets, of course, display the character interplay that the dramatic side of opera is all about: love, conflict, friendship -- or betrayal, as in the searing finale to Act II of Verdi's Otello, when Iago falsely swears loyalty to the title character. Two rapturous and justly popular duets recorded here come from French operas, the rest from Italian. Complete recordings of many of these operas are also available on eMusic, so if these excerpts whet your appetite, you can move on to explore the entire work.


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