(Just click the “play” symbol to sample Daniel’s picks.)
1. Maurice Ravel – String Quartet
I first heard this piece in the opening montage to Wes Anderson’s film, The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a wonderful quartet – a real watershed of techniques and textures that would define string chamber music for the 20th century. Plus, in typical Ravel fashion, it balances whimsical lyricism with a supreme hipness, a knack for the cool.
- Claude Debussy – String Quartet
The other great quartet of the early twentieth century, Debussy pulls out all the stops on this one. There are moments of sublime beauty and ones of terrific power. He turns the string quartet into an orchestra, both in sonic weight and timbral color, in a way not done since Schubert’s Death and the Maiden
- Johannes Brahms – Intermezzo No 2, Op 118
This is perhaps the most expertly constructed piece ever written. Brahms shows himself a true master of both harmonic invention and structural unity, though the real beauty of this piece is revealed when one plays it. There are literally dozens of was to perform certain passages. The voice leading and counterpoint is so good that one can bring out any number of inner voices to create secondary melodic lines. The balance of raw beauty and intricate craft make this one a special piece indeed.
- Johannes Brahms – Symphony No 3
Probably the most perfect symphony. Brahms, ever the supreme craftsman, paired this symphony down to a mere 30 minutes, his shortest, and much shorter than its contemporaries. The best moment for me is the clarinet melody that acts as the 2nd theme in the first movement. It is quintessential Brahms, plaintive and yet somehow playful at the same time.
- Samuel Barber – Piano Sonata
This one makes the list if for no other reason than the fugue. It is THE fugue of the 20th century. It’s a fiend to perform and stunning to hear, a true testament to the enduring legacy of J.S. Bach and his technique. Barber’s sonata is an American masterpiece.
- Gustav Mahler – Symphony No 1
For all of Mahler’s usual despair and brooding, his first symphony, subtitled Titan is a joyous triumph. Mahler said that the symphony should contain the world, and in this one is all that is good and beautiful. Not that there aren’t dark moments, the 3rd movement, a minor-key variation on Frere Jaques is absolutely haunting, but the work ends in pure bliss.
- Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No 5
Like Ravel, Prokofiev had a penchant for lyricism and catchy rhythms and. His fifth symphony is world unto its own in terms of singable melodies, driving rhythms, and exciting textures. The orchestra races and roars in this mid-century work.
- Igor Stravinsky – Three Movements from Petrushka for Solo Piano
While Petrushka is not my favorite Stravinsky ballet (that title goes to either excerpts from the Rite of Spring or the whole of Firebird) his piano suite from the same larger ballet is an amazing bit of music. It is first and foremost a tour de force of piano technique. The pianist is required to perform extraordinary feats of athleticism. But it is also altogether light and palatable. Nothing else in the repertoire sounds quite like it.
- Sergei Taneyev – St. John of Damascus
Sergei Taneyev is a little-known Russian composer. He took over Tchaikovsky’s teaching position after the great composer’s untimely (and possibly scandalous) death. Taneyev was also one of the greatest contrapuntalists to ever live. He poured over his themes and would compose thousands of short sketches of material before assembling his scores. This cantata is a work of staggering depth and beauty. One gets lost in the swirling counterpoint and the seemingly inevitable crescendo of the first movement. One gets bowled over by the unimaginable hugeness of it all in the last.
- Paul Lansky – Threads
This percussion quartet is the most recent work on my list, composed in the early 2000’s. Lansky really capitalizes on the ritualistic nature of drums and the meditative qualities of the other percussion instruments. Visually, this is a fascinating piece to behold, as the percussionist must navigate through a myriad of instruments and the four players must coordinate inhumanly perfect precision. If there can be said to be such a thing, this piece is the cornerstone of chamber percussion repertoire, right after John Cage’s Third Construction.