A Baker’s Dozen of Classical Gems

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Although I’m primarily known as a world music and jazz aficionado, I have also loved classical music for a long time. I was a teenager when I first heard Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Van Cliburn’s acclaim-winning performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1. I loved rhythm and blues and jazz, but this music spoke to me as well. If you haven’t listened much to classical music, let me tell you it’s not all starched shirts and formality. There is the richness of timbre and tone that comes with an orchestra of acoustic instruments. There is the intimacy of chamber music and duets. There is the passion and pathos of great opera.

Two albums have been playing on repeat in my house—French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa singing Debussy’s art songs and a recording of Rachmaninoff and Barber’s Cello Sonatas performed by cellist Jonah Kim and pianist Sean Kennard. Kim and Kennard perform passionately in the video below, not stiff or starchy at all. They have been playing together since they were teenagers at the Curtis Institute of Music and have played almost every sonata in the classical repertoire. The Rachmaninoff sonata was the first work they ever performed together, many years ago. For my part, I first heard the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata decades ago, performed by the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and I’ve never forgotten how elegant and sweeping the music is. I also love how the cello’s sound suggests the human voice in many ways.

Mezzo-sopranos may not sing the high coloratura notes in soprano territory, but I find the lower vocal range richer, kind of like the difference between half-and-half versus milk.  Marianne Crebassa’s repertoire on Secrets pulls mostly from Debussy’s art songs. It’s an intimate (mostly since a flutist performs on one cut) duet recording with pianist Fazil Say. The lyrics to Debussy’s art songs are written by great modern French poets, and his music still sounds so modern. His choice of unusual harmonies, whole-tone scales, and other musical trademarks means this music will never sound old.

Crebassa was born in the Mediterranean city of Agde, attended music school in Montpellier, and has performed works by Schumann, Bernard Herrmann, Gluck, Mozart, Handel, and many others. She also had her more recent debut at La Scala. Fazil Say was born in Ankara, Turkey. A child prodigy, he went on to study in Dusseldorf and at the Berlin Conservatory. His passionate and expressive playing is perfectly suited for Crebassa’s singing.

Enjoying these two albums over the past few weeks inspired me to create a playlist of some classical favorites. I wanted to feature the popular Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’s opera Lakmé  from French soprano Sabine Devieilhe’s album Mirages. Devieilhe’s soprano is soaring and stratospheric, and she won first prize at the Conservatoire de Paris in 2011. I first heard this song long ago in the 1987 Canadian film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. This version by Devieilhe and mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa sizzles with the synergy between the two singers. It’s interesting to hear and compare the differences in timbre and range of these two vocal stars.

Other gems in the playlist include Russian-American pianist Olga Kern playing a movement from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata #2 and one from French pianist Pascal Rogé, one of Debussy’s finest interpreters. Typical of Debussy’s impressionistic conception of music, we hear “Reflets dans l’Eau” (Reflections in the Water). Influenced by impressionist painting, Debussy translated it into his music and his composition titles. We also hear Joseph Canteloube’s Songs from the Auvergne by New Zealand’s great mezzo Kiri Te Kanawa, who I was lucky enough to interview for my first book Stolen Moments. I feature a 15th-century song from Castile, Spain, rendered by the late Catalan soprano Montserrat Figueras.

Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto from his Symphony #5 featured prominently in the film score for Death in Venice. Like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which we hear later in the playlist, it is one of the most famous adagios in all of classical music. There’s also a Mahler piece sung by another mezzo, Christa Ludwig (see how I gravitate to mezzos?). It’s sometimes been said that Mahler’s genius is most evident in his lapidary art songs, whereas his big symphonies can be unwieldy and uneven.

Vladimir Horowitz plays Étude in C-sharp minor by visionary Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. I once played this track on Café LA and Rickie Lee Jones called in to say she had been feeling down and how hearing this song lifted her spirits. Horowitz’s piano genius is also heard on a Rachmaninoff prelude from his historic return to Moscow concert in 1986, at the height of tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Reagan era. This concert is available on DVD as well, and I recommend it as an interesting slice of history.

The final piece of music comes from conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s reading of Beethoven’s Symphony #6, the Pastoral. I discovered Furtwängler during graduate school and had friends who were really into him and members of the Furtwängler Society. We listened to his Beethoven all the time.

Classical music is a rich and varied musical genre that will always be part of my world. I love hearing the sound of acoustic instruments in acoustic settings, without synthesizers or electronics. The sounds of all the players in harmony with one another—and the genius of the composers who wrote these works—are so impressive and beautiful. So please – jump in and enjoy!