Throw out your tired old bargain bin Classical Music album. Here are five lesser-known gems by brilliant but under-appreciated composers sure to provide inspiration for the most transcendent, sophisticated ideas you’ve ever conjured.
1. If you watched Looney Tunes, you know the cross-dressing Bugs Bunny only prances with open arms toward the hoodwinked Elmer Fudd to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. With apologies to the illustrious Tchaikovsky, no doubt turning in his grave, may I recommend Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No.5, “The Egyptian” 1st Mvt (1896). Epic and sentimental without the melodrama, elegant but not pretentious with a sublime, serene ending, I confess to shedding a tear or two when performing it live in an orchestra. You can get the same effect if you raise the volume until the sound vibrates while inhaling rosin dust.
2. More satisfying than Gregorian Chant: Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri (circa 1630). Performing or transcribing this setting of Psalm 51 was forbidden except on Holy Wednesday in the Sistine Chapel, punishable by excommunication. Then-14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard it once, transcribed it flawlessly from memory, then gave the manuscript to a historian who published it. Naughty little Wolfgang was summoned by Pope Clement XIV, who instead of punishing Mozart, praised his genius and lifted the ban on the music.
3. How about Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23? Yeah. I’m tired of it too. Instead try Andante from Piano Concerto No. 2 by Shostakovich (1957). If I were the heroine in a Victorian gothic tragedy and decided I must walk into the sea, this would be the soundtrack. You probably recognize the delightfully quirky 1st movement from Disney’s Fantasia 2000, but it’s no wonder the producers passed on the 2nd movement, which should probably come with a warning label. “Beware: Symphonic Desolation. May cause spontaneous acute longing for fictitious tragically perished poet lover.”
4. Meditation from Thaïs by Massenet is inarguably inspiring… unless you’ve heard it on every classical music compilation album produced since vinyl. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (1914/1920) was drafted as the composer sat watching WWI troops deploy across the English channel. Soldiers who apparently couldn’t tell the difference between music notes and Morse code arrested him for spying. Thankfully he persisted, because this metaphorical bid for peace (based on George Meredith’s poem memorializing the fallen warrior) is the most transcendent, sweetly pastoral, most triumphant music I know.
5. Love the Hebraic flair of John William’s Schindler’s List soundtrack? Check out Prayer from Jewish Life No.1 by Ernest Bloch (1924). Soulful, introspective, and not a little devastating, most people probably don’t know a cello can sound like this — note the audience’s stunned silence at the end of Sol Gabetta’s masterful performance.
5 1/2. I couldn’t leave you without an alternative to Bach’s lovely but well-worn Air in G. The only clue this enchanting Neo-Classical Minuet from Suite In the Old Style by Alfred Schnittke was written in 1972 and not the 17th century is its understated richness and tentative “peek” at romanticism with the demure, almost sexy oboe lines. Enjoy!
* If you enjoy the music, please consider purchasing it from a retailer.
Can’t get enough? Catch up on Part 1: No, Really, Don’t Play It Again, Sam: Five Classical Listening Alternatives