Classical Music Little-Known Favorites

I’ve been seriously listening to classical music—both through live performance and recordings—for nearly 50 years, and am always surprised to find that I still discover or am introduced to works that are new to me and extraordinarily moving. “How can I have gone so many years without discovering this?” I often ask myself when I hear such a piece. Often, these “new” works are by well-known composers, but sometimes they are by composers I have never heard of. And, of course, some of them are new works by living composers.

For example, in 2017, I created a continuously-updated blog entry for “Symphonies by Women” because I was embarrassed to admit I couldn’t name a single one off the top of my head. Well, as you can see there are hundreds, and some of the few I have had the privilege to hear are really good.

There is an enormous amount of unknown music out there, and if only 1% of this unknown music is first-rate, then there must be hundreds of composers and thousands of works that deserve more attention. In France, Thanh-Tâm Le, who has recently helped me so much with this list of symphonies by women, has compiled a larger list of almost 18,000 symphonies by both men and women, and that is only symphonies!

Do you have some favorite classical works (both new and old) that you only know through a live performance or a non-commercial recording? Do you have some favorite works on vinyl or CD that are not currently available on CD? I know I do.

I’ve created a discussion group on groups.io called Classical Music Little-Known Favorites where I hope you and others will post audio files, YouTube videos, etc., of little-known works that you are enamored of. My hope for this group is that music lovers all around the world will join and present new and neglected works for us to enjoy and champion. Please join and spread the word!

Classical Music Link List – Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas

Here is a list of all things classical-music-related in Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. If you have additional links to add or see an existing link that needs to be changed or removed, please post a comment!

The two abiding interests in my life have been astronomy and classical music. I guess you could call me a professional listener, although I do have a pretty decent tenor voice and would love to sing in a secular mixed choir again. I have aspirations of hosting my own classical music program at a public radio station, or at least providing recordings and commentary. I served several years on the board of the Ames International Orchestra Festival Association (AIOFA), including two terms as board president. It was a great experience bringing fine orchestras from all over the world to C.Y. Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa and hosting them during their stay. I love symphony orchestras (chamber music, too!), and would be very happy to serve in a similar capacity during my active retirement years. Or volunteering at a university music department that has a symphony orchestra. While living in Ames, I had the opportunity to attend many wonderful faculty and student recitals.

I have family in West Texas, so am looking to relocate to be closer to them. Would love to connect with the classical music scene somewhere in this tri-state area, so if you know of any good volunteer opportunities, please let me know!

Shostakovich Piano Concertos

I’d like to introduce you to another fine classical music recording I’ve recently discovered, but first a little editorializing about classical recordings in general.

I hope the day never comes when physical media in the form of compact discs (or something similar) is completely replaced by digital downloads or streaming. The booklet enclosed with physical media always provides useful and often enlightening information about the music, and there’s artistry on the front and back covers. Having been in COVID-19 lockdown for nearly a year now, I yearn for real human interaction without technology instead of “virtual everything”. And I say that as a person who has made his career as a computer programmer. What does that have to do with music on a CD? Well, perhaps I’ve digressed, but let me just say a recording is a poor substitute for a live performance, and a digital file is a poor substitute for a CD. Happily, I have read recently that classical music is keeping the CD alive as popular music largely goes the way of the computer file. As for CD packaging, I much prefer a well-made jewel case (with a hub whose teeth don’t break off easily) over the cardboard digipak that is seeing more frequent use, including the Shostakovich disc I will be briefly discussing here.

I much prefer discs that feature works of just one composer. Not only are they more easily filed and retrieved, but, more importantly, they often introduce you to some lesser-known works of a composer. Something I have learned over my many years of listening to classical music recordings is that there are many first-rate lesser-known works of composers, both famous and not-so-famous. There is a lot of great music out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed, even after a lifetime of listening!

This disc featuring Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya (who now lives in Germany) is one such happy occasion. It features the two piano concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich (himself a fine pianist), plus two of his lesser-known works for two pianos (joined here by Ivan Rudin), Concertino for Two Pianos, op. 94, and Tarantella for Two Pianos, both of which were unknown to me. An all-Shostakovich disc!

Alpha Classics 203

This disc is a delight from beginning to end. Anna Vinnitskaya plays Shostakovich as well as anyone I have heard, with great intensity, energy, and precision during the rhythmic passages, and with great beauty and sensitivity during the legato passages. The Kremerata Baltica is really outstanding in the two piano concertos, as is the quality of the recording. The latter is much above average, I would say, perfectly balanced and articulated. Vinnitskaya herself conducts the orchestra from the piano in the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, op. 35, where she is joined by a fine trumpet soloist, Tobias Willmer. Omer Meir Wellber skillfully conducts the orchestra in the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, op. 102, and the Kremerata Baltica is joined by the Winds of the Staatskapelle Dresden in a perfect union and performance.

Anna Vinnitskaya grew up with the music of Shostakovich in her household, and developed an early and deep appreciation of his music and it shows throughout this recording. She performed his Second Piano Concerto for the first time at the age of eleven, and now at age 37, I have no doubt she is one of the finest performers of the piano music of Shostakovich in the world today. I hope I will have the opportunity to hear her play either of the Shostakovich piano concertos in the concert hall one day soon. Or any other piano works by Shostakovich, for that matter!


One thing I have become acutely aware of after decades of listening to classical music is the enormous difference there can be between live performances or recordings of the same work. Tempo can be one obvious difference. I tend not to like music that is on the fast end of the tempo continuum for a given work—I like to “savor” the notes. But anything as complex and nuanced as an orchestral palette can lend itself to many different interpretations. Yes, the notes are the same, but how a piece is played can make the difference between enthusiasm for the work or complete indifference.

Some Early Piano Music by Robert Schumann

Naïve V 5364

I discovered the music of Johannes Brahms before that of Robert Schumann, but I revere the latter composer now as well. Knowing much of the music of both, there is no question that Robert Schumann had a huge influence on Brahms. Both wrote four symphonies, all eight of which are favorites of mine.

But here we turn our attention to some of the early piano music of Robert Schumann, completed when Schumann was in his 20s, before he was finally able to marry Clara Wieck, and before his first symphony.

These are performances of considerable beauty, passion, and sensitivity by French pianist Lise de la Salle. I highly recommend this CD (Naïve V 5364). The recording is excellent, and De la Salle seems to have an innate understanding of this music and its often rapidly changing moods, a delight throughout.

The works performed are Scenes from Childhood, op. 15; Abegg Variations, op. 1; and Fantasie in C Major, op. 17.

There are thirteen pieces in Scenes from Childhood. The most famous of these is No. 7 Träumerei (Dreaming), but I also especially like No. 1 (Of foreign lands and peoples) and No. 2 (A curious story).

  1. Of foreign lands and peoples
  2. A curious story
  3. Blind man’s buff
  4. Pleading child
  5. Happy enough
  6. An important event
  7. Dreaming
  8. At the fireside
  9. Knight of the hobby-horse
  10. Almost too serious
  11. Frightening
  12. Child falling asleep
  13. The poet speaks

This is followed by the Schumann’s first published work, the Abegg Variations, op. 1.

The disc concludes with the three-movement work, Fantasie in C Major, op. 17, arguably Schumann’s piano masterpiece, and a real tour de force in this performance by Lise de la Salle. When he wrote this piece, Schumann was already beginning to suffer from a mental disorder that would tragically claim his life only 20 years later—an illness with a physical origin that no doubt today could be easily cured.

For an excellent introduction to Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara Wieck Schumann—a piano virtuoso, composer, and teacher of considerable talent—I wholeheartedly recommend the eight-part video course from Robert Greenberg, “Great Masters: Robert and Clara Schumann – Their Lives and Music” (The Great Courses, Course No. 759).

Even though it is a highly fictionalized account, I would also recommend the 1947 movie Song of Love, starring the incomparable Katharine Hepburn as Clara Wieck Schumann, Paul Henreid as Robert Schumann, and Robert Walker as Johannes Brahms.

Prokofiev’s Last Symphony

Photograph of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Dated 1950.

Sergei Prokofiev was truly one of the most remarkable composers of the 20th century. His signature disjunct melodies and quirky, perky compositional style is so interesting and unique that his music is instantly recognizable, even today. When critics complain that the wellspring of current musical idioms has become exhausted or derivative, along comes a composer like Prokofiev who surprises everyone and does something completely different. That is why I believe that even within established musical forms it is possible to invent something completely new and exciting—it just doesn’t happen very often.

Regrettably, no English-language documentary about the life and music of Prokofiev has ever been produced. While we wait for someone to do that, perhaps Robert Greenberg might add another excellent installment to his “Great Masters” series for The Great Courses by profiling Sergei Prokofiev in eight 30-minute episodes as he did for Shostakovich, Brahms, and others.

Sergei Prokofiev composed his last completed work, the Symphony No. 7, between December 1951 and July 1952 at the age of 60-61. Its first public performance in Moscow on October 11, 1952 would be the last public performance Prokofiev would attend. He died less than five months later.

Dmitri Shostakovich attended the premiere, and quickly sent a letter of congratulations to Prokofiev, “I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to such works as your Seventh Symphony makes it much easier and more joyful to live.” Shostakovich would attend Prokofiev’s funeral in March 1953.

Iconic photo of the three greatest 20th-century Soviet composers, together. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Dated 1940.

The most inspired recording I have ever heard of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton conducting. Even though I was already familiar with this work, listening to this performance was like hearing the work for the first time. This interpretation is intimate and compelling.

BIS-2134

The last years of Prokofiev’s life were difficult ones. His health was deteriorating and Stalin’s terrible regime was a constant threat and source of anxiety. Official disapproval had led to a life of poverty for Prokofiev.

With that as a backdrop, Prokofiev was eager that his new symphony would be well received by the authorities as well as the public, hoping that it would earn him a First Class Stalin Prize—he needed the money. But like Shostakovich, Prokofiev took his symphonies seriously, pouring his heart and soul into them while cleverly embedding what he wanted to say musically in a way that would elude the authorities with their limited musical sophistication and intelligence.

Prokofiev even wrote two endings for the symphony. The “real” ending and a contrived ending to please the authorities and help him win the prize. (He did not win the hoped for Stalin Prize, but he was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize for this symphony in 1957.)

Prokofiev told his friend, the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, “Slava, you will live much longer than me, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” As Andrew Huth writes in the liner notes, “Both versions of the ending are included on this disc so that listeners can judge the very different effect each makes.” Track 9 is the final movement of Symphony No. 7 played again with the alternative ending that Prokofiev wrote to please the authorities.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) with Sergei Prokofiev

Joaquín Rodrigo: The (Almost) Complete Music for Piano

Recently, I wrote about the extraordinary orchestral music of 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999). In that piece, I lauded a collection of Rodrigo’s orchestral work, all conducted by the esteemed Mexican conductor Enrique Bátiz with three different orchestras. Today, I would like to share with you the best and most complete recordings of Rodrigo’s piano music, a two-disc set by Gregory Allen and Anton Nel (two piano and piano four hands works).

I wish other music CDs had as much detail about each of the pieces as the enclosed booklet by Gregory Allen and Linton Powell has, nicely indexed by CD track in the margins of the narrative. They write: “The present recordings represent the first complete collection of Rodrigo’s original piano music for two and four hands, omitting only a few transcriptions and lost early works.” In a footnote, they detail the works that are excluded. I am familiar with only one of these, the Cinco piezas del siglo XVI of 1937, which is worth seeking out.

At the end of the documentary Shadows and Light, made when Rodrigo was 90, there is a spellbinding performance of Zarabanda lejana (Distant Sarabande) of 1926. I’m pretty sure the recording they used was the one on these discs. The tempo and sensitivity of this performance is perfect. I have another recording that seems rushed by comparison, and it ruins the mood.

Here we have 2 hours and 33 minutes of delightful piano music composed by Joaquín Rodrigo, sure to increase your appreciation for this great 20th-century composer. Of course, I have a number of favorites.

  • Zarabanda lejana (Distant Sarabande)
  • Cinco piezas infantiles (Five children’s pieces), for two pianos
  • Sonatina para dos Muñecas (Sonatina for two Puppets), for piano four hands
  • Gran Marcha de los Subsecretarios (Grand March of the Subsecretaries), for piano four hands
  • Atardecer (Dusk), for piano four hands
  • À l’ombre de Torre Bermeja (In the Shadow of the Crimson Tower)
  • Plegaria de la Infanta de Castilla (Prayer of the Princess of Castile), from Cuatro piezas para piano

If you need any more convincing that this recording is a “must have”, here are words written by Joaquín Rodrigo himself.

“Gregory Allen’s recording of my works for piano is excellent. His magnificent technique and his authentically fine interpretation satisfy me completely.”

—Joaquín Rodrigo, Madrid, 1991

Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

If you listen to much classical music, you are no doubt familiar with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in 1922. But have you heard Mussorgsky’s original version for piano, written in 1874? A fabulous recording by Russian-born American pianist Natasha Paremski was released just last year, and I highly recommend it. She also wrote the liner notes, which really adds to your understanding of the piece and her enthusiasm for it. Following Pictures is Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, by contemporary composer, Fred Hersch. I like the piece, which he wrote for Paremski. It is based on one of the beautiful melodies in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. I’m sure you will recognize it.

Modest Mussorgsky was a musical rebel and had his demons to contend with, including the alcoholism that ended his life at the young age of 42. Though his character and compositional talents have often been maligned, I think there is more to this man than the caricatures, even of his contemporaries, tell. Stripping away the orchestration provided by Ravel and others, and listening to this work in its raw pianistic form, you will find here a work of true genius, bold and viscerally beautiful.

The Extraordinary Music of Joaquín Rodrigo

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999)

Joaquín Rodrigo was born in Sagunto, Valencia, Spain on November 22, 1901. At the age of three, a diphtheria epidemic ravaged his community and he was not spared. His eyes were damaged and he soon lost his eyesight. Despite his blindness, he went on to become Spain’s greatest composer of the 20th century. After immersing myself in his music for the past several weeks, this avid music listener would like to suggest that Joaquín Rodrigo was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. I believe his acclaim has not yet reached its peak, and that many of his works that to the present day have seldom been played will soon become part of the standard repertory.

Rodrigo is primarily known for his wonderful guitar concertos: Concierto de Aranjuez (1939), Fantasía para un gentilhombre (1954), Concierto Madrigal (1966), and Concierto Andaluz (1967), but have you heard his purely orchestral work A la busca del más allá (In search of the beyond)? Or his piano version of Zarabanda lejana?

There is no better introduction to the music of Joaquín Rodrigo than the four-CD set from EMI Classics, The Rodrigo Edition. One of the foremost interpreters of Rodrigo, Mexican conductor Enrique Bátiz skillfully conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica del Estado de México, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in these completely satisfying performances.

EMI Classics CZS 7 67435 2
EMI Classics CZS 7 67435 2

Joaquín Rodrigo died in 1999 at the age of 97. When he was 90, a loving and insightful documentary was produced, titled Shadows and Light. Please seek it out! It is well produced and inspiring. You can view this documentary on medici.tv (much of it is in English, but for the parts that aren’t you have the option to select English subtitles), or purchase the DVD through Amazon.

Mahler’s Farewell

Lewis Thomas (1913-1993) wrote in his essay Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,

“I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity…How do the young stand it? How can they keep their sanity? If I were very young, sixteen or seventeen years old, I think I would begin, perhaps very slowly and imperceptibly, to go crazy…If I were sixteen or seventeen years old…I would know for sure that the whole world was coming unhinged. I can remember with some clarity what it was like to be sixteen…I was in no hurry…The years stretched away forever ahead, forever…It never crossed my mind to wonder about the twenty-first century; it was just there, given, somewhere in the sure distance.”

Thomas was referring to the threat of nuclear war, which is still very much with us. Now, can you imagine as bad as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, what a nuclear war would be like? We need to rid our planet of these weapons, now.

As I was listening to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the Adagio, this past Monday, I was also thinking, of course, about the frightening ravages of COVID-19, but also climate change and the precipitous decline in biological diversity caused by humans. All of this is driven by the fact that there are too many people on the planet, and the answer is not to kill (by whatever means) people who are already here, but to bring fewer children into the world so we can lower human population to a sustainable level in the coming generations. We could all have a higher standard of living without trashing the planet.

On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, PBS aired a new BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts. I was riveted by the program, presented by Sir David Attenborough, who will turn 94 next month the day before I turn 64. David Attenborough is an international treasure. Watching him so expertly present, as he always does, the urgency of this climate crisis and remembering his many outstanding documentary series such as Life on Earth and The Living Planet, I became teary eyed knowing that he will not be with us for very much longer. You wish someone like David Attenborough or Carl Sagan could live for hundreds of years. Because, when our life is over, we will cease to exist as a conscious entity, for all eternity. I am now certain of that. Realizing that this is our one and only life gives one a very different perspective on what we are doing to this world—and to each other. Humanists value the sanctity of each human life more than anyone who believes in an afterlife. Humanists fully understand the enormous responsibility each of us living in this current generation has to ensure that our civilization does not descend into a dystopian existence. There will be no salvation, just unimaginable pain, suffering, and destruction of all that is good, if we fail.

I am so inspired by young Greta Thunberg, who features prominently in the documentary. Greta and the many other young activists around the world give me hope for the future. Her words and conviction brought more tears to my eyes. I may be 63, but I’m with you 100%, Greta. Sign me up!


In 1908 and 1909, Gustav Mahler finished his last completed work, the Symphony No. 9. There was much turmoil and tragedy in Mahler’s life prior to the writing of this symphony. His beloved oldest daughter, Maria Anna Mahler, died of scarlet fever and diptheria on 5 July 1907 at the age of 4. Immediately after Maria’s death, Mahler learned that he had a defective heart. And his relationship with his wife Alma had become strained. Gustav Mahler died on 18 May 1911. He never heard his Symphony No. 9 performed. It received its premiere on 26 June 1912 in Vienna with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the Adagio, is one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard. While listening to it, one thinks of all the beauty that was and is in the world, and how terribly much we have lost.

The most expressive recording of the Adagio I have heard is by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti (Decca 473 274-2). If this movement of 24:37 does not lead you to weep, I don’t know what will.

Jean Sibelius: An Introduction

The young Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wanted to be a virtuoso violinist but it was in composition that his greatest talent lay. All his life, he was deeply connected to the natural world, and this love of Nature is expressed in much of his music.

Jean Sibelius in 1913

I know of no better introduction to the music of Jean Sibelius than the two CD set of his Symphonies No. 1, 2, and 4, and Finlandia and the Karelia Suite by Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Decca 455 402-2

The earliest composition featured on this recording is the Karelia Suite, completed in 1893; the latest is the pensive Symphony No. 4, completed in 1911. All of the music on these discs is splendid, the performances inspired, and the recordings immersive.

Ashkenazy seems to have an innate understanding of Sibelius, and his conducting and interpretations shine here throughout.

As with many (most?) of the greatest composers, Sibelius faced a number of challenges and personal demons throughout his life. Though he lived a long and productive life, he wrote almost no new music after his brilliant tone poem Tapiola in 1926, 31 years before his death. He did complete a Symphony No. 8, but threw the score into his fireplace in 1945. Sibelius once remarked, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.”

To find out more about the life and music of Jean Sibelius, I’d like to direct your attention to an excellent two-part documentary film by Christopher Nupen, completed in 1984. It is available through the classical music streaming channel medici.tv (highly recommended) and Amazon.