The very special Vienna Philharmonic type of French Horn
What follows is (make no mistake) no attempt at objective musical criticism (if indeed such a thing even exists). Rather, it is my highly-opinionated, subjective, personalized list of what I consider great music in the style that I am partial to: romantic orchestral music (particularly if it features a lot of brass). I played trombone in the high school band and orchestra, but my favorite instrument in the symphony orchestra is actually the French horn (I never played it, even though I've learned many instruments such as piano, guitar, baritone, tin whistle, and blues harmonica).
I have other clear affinities. Classical buffs often talk about the divide between those who love passionate, classic, definitive performances despite the sound (or where good sound is a good bonus, but in the end, optional), and those who love the sound quality of the orchestra, how it was recorded, the acoustic characteristics of the hall where the recording was made, etc.
The latter are known as "audiophiles." I am firmly in this camp. I can't stand tinny, old, scratchy, hissy recordings, and I don't care if Beethoven himself was captured conducting his ninth symphony, or how glorious and unique and charismatic Wilhelm Furtwangler (who died too long ago to even make it to the stereo era) was supposed to have been. To me, the essence of recorded music is the sound and the balance between the instruments that is better perceived, the better the sound quality is.
I see this almost as part and parcel of romanticism itself, since it stressed emotion and feeling and color over the mere structure and formalism of the classical period proper (exemplified by Mozart and Haydn and very early Beethoven). Good sound in classical recording is, in my mind, the equivalent of vivid color in great painting. Orchestration is like the composition and contrast of masterpieces of painting or photography. It's essential to the experience (by definition, I would say, but people differ on this).
It's the joy of hearing a great musical composition in as close an approximation to how it was meant to be heard (i.e., in the concert hall) as possible. I used to usher at Detroit Symphony Orchestra concerts, so I know well how classical music sounds in person. Something that resembles the sound of the old earphones from a transistor radio (that's mid-60s technology, for all you young whippersnappers) or the soundtrack of The Little Rascals just ain't gonna cut it. I'd rather read about great historical recordings than listen to them.
I love brass. Nothing comes close to that (though I am increasingly coming to appreciate sumptuous, silky strings, as I get older, and I like the different combinations of instruments heard in unquestionably great orchestrators such as Wagner, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and others). When I listen to a recording, my first concern (assuming it has good sound overall) is: "how does the brass sound?
After that, my preference is passion and commitment to the music. Do the orchestra and conductor genuinely like and understand the music they are performing? One comes to sense this the more one knows about the music and listens to it (and reviews can be an aid in that regard). The third thing is the tempi that a conductor takes (i.e., how relatively fast or slow he decides to conduct the music, as well as his stylistic distinctives).
As a general rule, it is good to buy or listen to recordings that feature orchestras from the same country (or general musical tradition) as the composer (oftentimes, this holds true for the conductors as well, but considerably less so). Thus, for Wagner and Bruckner and Schubert, German and Austrian orchestras are the best. For Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky, Russian ensembles are the ticket, while Debussy and Ravel are played better by French orchestras, Copland and Ives by American, Holst and Elgar by English orchestras, etc. This is not always the case, of course, but it is a good, faithful rule of thumb. American orchestras seem to do well playing all sorts of music. Perhaps that is because of the multi-cultural nature of our society.
I have some other individual tastes that will often be manifest in my recommended recordings: in my opinion the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is without doubt the finest in the world. Part of the reason for that (apart from the obvious heritage of Vienna in the world of music) is that the brass instruments are different in the "VPO." Old-fashioned, less mellow-sounding and more resonant French horns (more like the sound of traditional "hunting horns") are used. The Vienna strings sound sweeter and more beautiful than any other orchestra. One music critic, Bernard Holland, described it this way:
The Vienna, as most of us know by now, is an enclave of distinctiveness in an international orchestral world where everybody now plays pretty much the same way. With its shared ear for accentuation and rhythm and its anachronistic instrumental sound, the Vienna raises the word "provincial" to an exalted level. Most conductors simply let this orchestra have its way; few are powerful enough to make it change, . . .And another, Edward Rothstein (+ second source):
The Vienna also treats itself, somewhat justifiably, as a privileged guardian of the symphonic tradition, passing on knowledge from one generation to the next, refusing to alter its instruments . . . to suit international standards, and governing itself without appointing a musical director.For more (in great detail) on the fascinating differences in most if not all of the instruments in this extraordinary orchestra, see The Sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. Other favorite orchestras of mine include the London Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
* * *
The Vienna's instruments -- its horns with longer tubing, its oboes with special reeds, its drums covered with goatskin -- are, like its distinctive performing style, part of a common patrimony . . . These differences were palpable during the orchestra's performance of the 1890 version of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, led by Georg Solti. The brass arrayed against the rear wall gave a woody, burnished sheen to the composer's proclamations. The woodwinds were lyrical but almost elementally simple, their sound free of vibrato. The strings were warm and glowing during Bruckner's plentiful tremolos.
In my opinion, the greatest set of recordings ever made was the VPO, led by Sir Georg Solti, performing (my favorite composer) Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (four operas; recorded 1958-1965). This is not my own isolated opinion, by any means. The Penguin Guide to CDs: Best Buys in Classical Music (Edward Greenfield, Robert Layton, and Ivan March), that I will be exclusively citing in the listings below, stated: "No more magnificent set has appeared in the whole history of the gramophone." About Das Rheingold (1958), they stated: "spectacular . . . demonstration quality . . . Much has been written on the quality of the recording, and without a shadow of doubt it deserves the highest star rating . . . outstanding achievement." It was also voted the best recording of all time by readers of The Gramophone magazine.
This set of recordings (especially Rheingold and Gotterdammerung) also features far and away the most awesome, spine-tingling, exciting-sounding, best-recorded brass I have ever heard on record (and I first heard these on records in the mid-70s) or CD. Being a lover of brass, Wagner, and this particular orchestra, the music here is literally pure ecstasy and joy for me to hear: my favorite music by my favorite composer, played by my favorite orchestra, on the best label (see next paragraph), with perhaps the finest recording engineering ever, and the most fabulous brass ever heard by mortal human beings (with that unique Vienna sound).
Decca/London was the label that recorded this Ring, and in my opinion it produces recordings with consistently, significantly better sound than any other label. There simply is no comparison. I don't think it's even arguable. Decca is legendary for this, with its famous "Decca tree" of three microphones, and producers and engineers that are as famous and celebrated as many conductors, like John Culshaw and James Lock.
The sound is fuller, more resonant and sweet and pleasing, true to a live performance. It never sounds forced or overblown or tinny or thin, and seems to have a fuller frequency range. All the instruments can be heard, and in the right balance with others. The brass is invariably prominent, shining, and glorious, as it always should be. The strings shimmer and the woodwinds jump right out of the speakers as if one was in the concert hall. It makes your stereo system sound several levels of quality higher better than it really is (an important consideration for me!).
Lastly, before I begin individual recommendations, it should be known that CDs -- generally speaking -- only started sounding as good as vinyl records around 1998, when the 24-bit technology began to be used. I've found, however, that Decca/London recordings from the early 90s sound as good as any post-1998 CDs on other labels (example: Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's set of Mahler symphonies: 1992 or Lorin Maazel and the VPO: Sibelius' seven symphonies: 1991).
(linked to Wikipedia entries)
BAV Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch.
BBC BBC Sym. Orch.
BPO Berlin Philharmonic Orch.
BSO Boston Sym. Orch.
CBO City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
CLE Cleveland Orch.
COL Columbia Sym. Orch.
CON Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam)
CRS Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
CSO Chicago Sym. Orch.
DRE Staatskapelle Dresden
DSO Detroit Sym. Orch.
FRT Radio Symphony Orchestra Frankfurt
IPO Israel Philharmonic Orch.
LAP Los Angeles Philharmonic
LPO London Philharmonic Orch.
LSO London Sym. Orch.
NYP New York Philharmonic
ONF Orchestre National de France
ORR Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique
OSM Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal
PAR Orchestre de Paris
PHI Philadelphia Orch.
PHO Philharmonia Orch.
RPO Royal Philharmonic Orch.
RSO Royal Scottish National Orchestra
SDS San Diego Symphony Orchestra
SFS San Francisco Symphony
SLS St. Louis Sym. Orch.
VPO Vienna Philharmonic Orch.
ZUR Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
No. 3 ("Eroica")
ASM/Marriner (1983) / 1990 "in every way outstanding . . . weight and strength . . . a rare transparency of texture and extraordinary resilience of rhythm"
VPO/Bohm (1972) / 1992
CSO/Solti (mid-70s) / 1992 "power and weight . . . strong and positive . . . electric degree of tension"
ORR/Gardiner (3-93) / 1994
COL/Walter (1959) / 1996 "beautiful and sympathetic . . . rich horns . . . full-bodied strings"
PHO/Klemperer (1959) / 1998 "spacious . . . magnificence"
BBC/Barbirolli (late 60s) / 1998
NYP/Bernstein (1966) / 1999 "electrically intense"
CLE/Szell (60s) / 2002
VPO/Schmidt-Isserstedt (1966) / 2002
BPO/Karajan (60s) / 2004
VPO/Maazel (1980) / 1990
VPO/Kleiber (1975) / 1995 [widely considered by critics as the best recorded performance]
CSO/Reiner (5-59) / 1998
CLE/Szell (60s) / 2002
PHO/Ashkenazy (1982) / 2003 "vivid and urgent reading"
BPO/Karajan (1-77) / 2003 "magnificent in every way, tough and urgently incisive"
VPO/Bernstein (9-77) / 2004 "impressive . . . warmth and conviction are most impressive, with the finale blazing in triumph"
LPO/Stokowski (1969) / 2005
VPO/Bohm (1971) / 1995 "splendid account"
CLE/Szell (60s) / 2002
BPO/Karajan (10-76) / 2003
VPO/Bernstein (11-78) / 2004 "plenty of character . . . combination of joy and serenity . . . persuasive"
VPO/Abbado 1992 "electrifying, incandescent, fresh and rhyhmic"
CLE/Szell (60s) / 1992
VPO/Kleiber (1976) / 1995 "incisively dramatic reading, marked with sharp dramatic contrasts and thrustful rhythms"
CSO/Reiner (10-55) / 1998
PHO/Klemperer (1961) / 2002 "power and concentration at broad speeds make for a memorable performance"
PHO/Ashkenazy (1984) / 2003 "warmly spontaneous, generally direct . . . glowingly convincing . . . fine playing . . . full and spacious"
VPO/Bernstein (11-78) / 2004
PHO/Stokowski (1975) / 2005
VPO/Bohm (1972) / 1992 "spacious and powerful . . . transcending sense of a great occasion . . . glorious finale . . . strongly recommendable"
CSO/Reiner (1961) / 1994
CSO/Solti (10-86) / 1995 "the choral finale is exuberant"
BPO/Karajan (10-62) / 1996
BPO/Fricsay (1958) / 2001
CLE/Szell (1963) / 2002
VPO/Schmidt-Isserstedt (1966) / 2002
BPO/Karajan (1-77) / 2003 "most inspired in its insight [of Karajan's three recordings] . . . concluding eruption has an animal excitement"
VPO/Bernstein (9-79) / 2004
LSO/Stokowski (1967) / 2005
SDS/Talmi 1994 
La Damnation de Faust
LSO/Davis (1974) / 2001 "quite outstanding sound . . . subtlety and fantasy"
L'enfance du Christ
LSO/Davis (1970) / 2001 "performance is impressive . . . The large-scale brass sound is formidably caught"
BPO/Maazel (80s) "undoubtedly very fine . . . no lack of poetic feeling"
BSO/Munch (1958) / 1994
LSO/Davis (5-75) / 1994 "the sound is completely natural and realistic, and has impressive transparency and detail . . . a first recommendation"
BSO/Ozawa (1976) / 1990 "warm and dramatic . . . first-class performance"
LSO/Davis (1968) / 1990 "rare sympathy with this score . . . great vitality and atmosphere"
OSM/Dutoit 1990 "masterly, heart-warming reading . . . superbly recorded in richly atmospheric sound"
SDS/Talmi (11-20-94) / 1995
LSO/Davis (5-63) / 1994
ONF/Bernstein (late 70s) / 1999 "brilliant and understanding performance which captures more than most the wild, volatile quality of Berlioz's inspiration"
PHI/Muti (1986) / 1999 "balance of fierceness against romantic warmth . . . holds the thread of argument together firmly without ever underplaying excitement"
BPO/Karajan (1975) / 2000 "compelling . . . beautiful orchestral sound . . . spacious yet intensely dramatic finale sends the adrenalin racing . . . very vivid . . brings out every nuance"
CON/Davis (1974) / 2001 "primary recommendation . . . the reading itself is paramount"
OSM/Dutoit (1985) / 2001 "spectacular wide-ranging sound . . . excellent detail and a rich ambience, too . . . expressive warmth"
ONF/Beecham (1959) / 2003 "classic status . . . great rhythmic subtlety . . . indispensable"
CSO/Abbado (80s?) / 2003 "right dreamy atmosphere and feverish intensity . . . much poetic feeling"
RPO/Batiz (80s?) / 2005 "brings the score vividly to life . . . consistent warmth and intensity"
L'Arlesienne Suites No. 1 and No. 2
In the Steppes of Central Asia
CSO/Solti 1992 "playing as refined as any on record . . . both spacious and purposeful . . . tension and electricity. The recording is both atmospheric and clear"
COL/Walter (1960) / 1995 "white-hot intensity . . . magisterial and dramatic . . . most impressive . . . recording is full and well balanced"
PHO/Klemperer (1961) / 1999
BPO/Bohm (early 60s) / 2002 "centrally recommendable version . . . polished playing . . . undoubtedly effective . . . well-balanced recording"
BPO/Karajan (1987) / 2004 "typically powerful and dramatic performance . . . beautifully played . . . at the top of the list of recommendations"
CSO/Solti 1992 "powerful, weighty performance . . . lyrical feeling passionately expressed in richly upholstered textures . . . a broad nobility"
PHO/Karajan (1957) / 1993 "unforced naturalness . . . warmly compelling"
COL/Walter (1-60) / 1995 "wonderfully sympathetic . . . affectionate . . . a masterly conception overall . . . detail is remarkably clear"
BPO/Karajan (1986) / 2003 "magnificent reading . . . spontaneous-sounding, with consistently fine playing . . . striking freshness"
CSO/Solti 1992 "big-scale view . . . most compelling . . . strikingly rich sound"
LSO/Boult (1971) / 1990 "no lack of Brahmsian warmth . . . great dignity and spaciousness . . . a mellow performance, keenly lyrical in feeling, but the LSO play with great enthusiasm and fire . . . vitality"
COL/Walter (1-60) / 1995 "highly recommendable both as a performance and as a recording"
BPO/Karajan (1988) / 2003
VPO/Kleiber (3-80) / 2004 "a performance of real stature . . . completely free from eccentricity. A gripping and compelling performance"
PHO/Klemperer (3-57) / 1999
PHO/Karajan (1957) / 2005 "complete naturalness . . . glowing eloquence that is unfailingly impressive. The sound is remarkably good . . . the Philharmonia play marvellously"
CSO/Solti 1992 "unfailingly pure and strong . . . playing . . . is magnificent"
COL/Walter (1960) / 1995 "pervading lyricism . . . yet power and authority are underlying . . . full, well-balanced sound in an attractively spacious ambience"
BPO/Karajan (1964) "rich . . . relaxed . . . spacious"
[see my extensive paper]
CRS/Wand "distinguished playing . . . unforced and natural eloquence . . . musically a very satisfying account and can be recommended alongside the finest"
BPO/Tennstedt "pure beauty and natural strength . . . the finale resplendent"
DRE/Blomstedt "ardour and conviction . . . sumptuous tone . . . a beautiful sound and it suits Bruckner . . . much to recommend it and is both eloquent and dignified"
CSO/Solti 1996 "total clarity . . . raptness . . . plenty of brilliance"
COL/Walter [1881 Haas] (2-25-60) / 1996 "strings full and brass sonorous . . . pretty impressive . . . characteristically spacious . . . the playing has fine atmosphere and no want of mystery"
VPO/Bohm [1886 Nowak] (11-73) / 1999 "finely shaped with the benefit of beautiful orchestral playing"
PHO/Klemperer [1886 Nowak] (9-63) / 2004
BPO/Barenboim [1878 Nowak] (8-11-91) / 1995
BPO/Karajan (1980) / 1990 "compelling performance, tonally very beautiful"
CSO/Solti 1996 "strong, rhetorical reading . . . playing and recording of outstanding quality"
BAV/Jochum [1881 Nowak] (3-66) / 2003
PHO/Klemperer [1881 Haas] (11-64) / 2003
CRS/Wand "consistently well shaped . . . ardour and conviction . . . great dignity"
DRE/Blomstedt "well-shaped account . . . very fine . . . beautiful playing . . . totally dedicated . . . strength and imagination . . . gravitas"
VPO/Karajan [1885 Haas] (4-89) / 1996
CBO/Rattle [1885 Nowak; w/ percussion] 1997
BPO/Karajan [1885 Haas] (2-71) / 2006 "superb feeling for the work's architecture, and the playing . . . was gorgeous"
VPO/Giulini 1995 "stature . . . undoubted spirituality and power"
BPO/Maazel [1890 Nowak] (1990) / 2000
VPO/Boulez [Haas] 2000
BPO/Karajan [1887+1890 Haas] (5-57) / 2005 "amazingly good sound"
LAP/Mehta [1890 Nowak] (4-74) / 2006
VPO/Schuricht [1894 "original" Nowak] 1962
BPO/Karajan [1894 "original" Nowak] (3-66) / 1991 "superlative . . . glorious"
CSO/Solti 1996 "large-scale . . . spacious . . . tension is unrelenting, making the big climaxes thrillingly powerful . . . the brilliance of the playing and the recording are formidable"
BPO/Jochum [1894 "original" Nowak] (5-12-64) / 2003
COL/Walter [1894 "original" Orel] (11-18-59) / 2004 "beautiful . . . splendidly sonorous brass . . . mellow, persuasive reading"
LSO/Monteux 1990 "freshness and impetus . . . electricity . . . vivid yet refined feeling for colour . . . delicacy of texture"
LSO/Previn 1990 "Every colour and sonority, however subtle, registers . . . much to admire in Previn's performance"
ONF/Martinon 1993 "some extremely fine playing, and these performances can hold their own with any in the catalogue . . . particularly vivid"
OSM/Dutoit (5-88) / 1999
BSO/Tilson Thomas (1970) / 2003 "extremely well played and very atmospheric . . . vivid and translucent"
BSO/Davis "great success . . . sense of tremendous power"
PHI/Ormandy 1993 "sound is remarkably good . . . detail remains quite clear and the music making is vividly projected"
CON/Haitink 1994 "playing of great sensitivity and virtuosity . . . real atmosphere . . . exciting"
LPO/Baudo 1995 "first class, and can be ranked alongside the finest accounts now on disc"
BPO/Karajan (1964 - DGG) / 1996 "still very much in a class of its own . . . one can almost see and smell the ocean . . . enshrines the spirit of the work as effectively as it observes the letter . . . superb playing . . . pre-eminent . . . sheer magic"
LSO/Previn 1999 "a considerable achievement . . . Debussy's orchestral colours made to sound more vividly sunlit. The playing of the LSO is extremely impressive"
OSM/Dutoit (10-89) / 1999
LAP/Giulini 2003 "very fine . . . much excitement here, as well as poetry"
ONF/Stokowski "warmly resonant recording . . . superbly evocative"
BSO/Davis "very fine . . . sumptuously played and recorded"
PHI/Ormandy 1993 "especially atmospheric"
CON/Haitink 1994 "few versions are quite as beguiling and seductive . . . equally admirable recording quality, with transparent textures, splendidly defined detail and truthful perspective"
LSO/Previn 1999 "spontaneity . . . voluptuous . . . no lack of ambient atmosphere"
OSM/Dutoit (10-88) / 1999
PHI/Ormandy 1993 "beautifully played and warmly recorded"
CON/Haitink 1994 "atmospherically played . . . realistic colour, marvellously refined sound"
LPO/Baudo 1995 "as atmospheric as any in the catalogue and more beautifully shaped than many"
OSM/Dutoit (10-89) / 1999
BPO/Karajan (1964 - DGG) / 2003 "outstanding . . . ravishing string playing"
Overtures, Symphonic Poems, Slavonic Dances
BAV/Kubelik (mid-70s) / 2002
SNO/Jarvi 1992 "characteristically warm and persuasive reading . . . totally sympathetic"
LSO/Kertesz (mid-60s) / 1992
SNO/Jarvi 1992 "airy beauty . . . open-air feeling . . . radiant playing . . . free . . . imaginative"
LSO/Kertesz (mid-60s) / 1992 "straight and direct, certainly dramatic . . . playiong has the freshness of new discovery"
LSO/Kertesz (mid-60s) / 1992 "direct, literal, and dramatic"
SNO/Jarvi 1992 "wonderfully sympathetic reading . . . recording is in the demonstration bracket"
LSO/Kertesz (mid-60s) / 1992
SNO/Jarvi 1992 "warmly resonant orchestral sound-image"
BPO/Kubelik (1971) / 1995 "glowing performance . . . expressive . . . no lack of vitality and sparkle"
CLE/Dohnanyi 1997 "extremely fine . . . exciting climaxes . . . among the finest available CD versions . . . top-drawer Decca sound"
VPO/Kubelik (10-56) / 2000
LSO/Kertesz (mid-60s) / 1992
BPO/Kubelik (1966) / 1995 "orchestral balance is particularly well judged"
COL/Walter (1962) / 1996 "famous account . . . sound [is] warm and full . . . a strong yet superbly lyrical reading . . . virility . . . mellowness"
CLE/Dohnanyi 1997 "makes one hear it with new ears . . . attractively alive and spontaneous . . . among the finest available CD versions . . . top-drawer Decca sound"
LPO/Handley 1999 "exceptionally full and brilliant sound . . . strong, fresh impact . . . the life and spontaneity of the reading are most winning"
VPO/Karajan (1965) / 2003 "charisma . . . full of vigour . . . blending polish and spontaneity"
VPO/Kondrashin 1991 "finest sound quality . . . quite remarkable . . . the finale is especially satisfying"
LSO/Kertesz (mid-60s) / 1992 "one of the finest performances ever committed to record"
CON/Davis 1994 "beautiful orchestral playing throughout . . . very satisfying"
BPO/Kubelik (early 70s) / 1995 "certainly among the finest . . . playing of great radiance"
COL/Walter (early 60s) / 1996 "one of the first completely successful stereo recordings . . . a more relaxed view of the outer movements . . . finale finds dignity without pomposity"
CLE/Dohnanyi 1997 "superbly played and recorded . . . grippingly spontaneous performance . . . glowing with warmth . . . the sound is spectacularly full and rich" [no first movement repeat]
CLE/Szell (early 60s?) / 1998
PHO/Klemperer (10-63) / 1999
VPO/Kubelik (10-56) / 2000
SNO/Jarvi 2002 "satisfyingly spacious performance . . . sheer beauty of playing . . . high drama of the reading . . . the finale is bold and swaggering"
LPO/Macal 2002 "his performance [is] second to none . . . fresh, sparkling and incisively dramatic, and beautifully played"
BPO/Karajan (DG 1964) / 2003 "powerful lyrical feeling and an exciting build-up of power in the outer movements . . . very rewarding"
CSO/Reiner (11-57) / 2005
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