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Five Great Classical Pieces

Posted on:March 22, 2021

This post was originally titled “My Top Five Classical Pieces”, but I found it impossible to enumerate any five pieces that made any sense as my “top five”, and changed it to its current title. Put another way, if I had more time to do a “My Top 50 Classical Pieces” post, these five would definitely make the list.

I’ve conspicuously excluded Bach from this list (otherwise most of this list would just be Bach, which makes it less interesting).

Schubert: String Quintet in C major

Schubert’s tragically short life was bookended by this extraordinary chamber music. Unclear if he knew of his impending death as he composed this (the symptoms caused by his syphilis had resurfaced after a three year hiatus), however some people have regarded the string quartet as his “requiem”.


Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor

The main melody was composed in Elgar’s head as he underwent an operation under sedation to remove his tonsils. Its premiere was a disaster due to a lack of rehearsal, and went under the radar until Jacqueline du Pré revived it, some 40 odd years later, with Sir John Barbirolli and London Symphony Orchestra. She went on to record the concerto a few more times, including with her future husband, Daniel Barenhoim (my personal favourite). For a modern interpretation with better sound quality, Alisa Weilerstein (also with Daniel Barenhoim, conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin) is very good.


Mahler: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”

Mahler was known primarily as a conductor during his day, and his output as a composer was sidelined by the concertgoing public (possibly except the premiere of his Eighth Symphony, which was a roaring success). Only fellow conductors recognized the genius of his works, and kept the flame alive until its renaissance in the 1960s. The Second Symphony is Mahler’s first foray into his fascination with (the possibility of) life after death. In his own words:

If I were to say what I think of this great work, it would sound too arrogant in a letter. … The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. I think there is no one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angel’s wings to the highest heights.


Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture

Mendelssohn leaves his indelible mark in terms of the Wedding March in the incidental music proper, but the overture, composed 15 years earlier before when he was just 17, is truly astounding in its musical maturity.


Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”

Dvořák was already internationally renowned when in 1892 he was invited to the United States to lead the National Conservatory of Music of America and effectively kickstart the classical music scene stateside. Although he complained of homesickness often, that period of three years in the United States were some of the most productive in Dvořák’s life. He composed the Cello Concerto, American String Quartet, and of course, the Symphony “From the New World”, perhaps his most famous work, and one of the most recognized of all symphonies. The New World Symphony has been recorded to death, and there are plenty of good recordings. For “idiomaticity”, I like Talich’s recording. For a modern version with great sound quality, Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is great as well. Finally, for “blow-you-off-your-seat” intensity, Kertész with Wiener is the way to go.