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St.John’s Top Ten List
- Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs
My love for Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder) was cemented when I heard the glorious recording done by Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony with soprano Rene Fleming.This was one of those very rare occasions when the first recording you hear of a piece of music, which usually remains your favorite, was supplanted by another.I had first come across the CD recording that featured Christine Brewer and the Atlanta Symphony under Donald Runnicles, but once I heard Rene Fleming, Ms. Brewer was long forgotten.Strauss’s music is transcendent.Using poems by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, each song is concerned with death; not death in the sense of the end of life, but rather as a transition to an existence free of the cares of the world.There is no sadness here, or melancholy, only resignation and acceptance.The vocal lines soar above the orchestra, and the music is complex and lush.There is a superb interplay between soloist and orchestra in each of the songs and the overall effect is astonishing.I want these songs played at my funeral!
- John Adams, Hallelujah Junction
This little-known piece for two pianos is spectacular!Each part twists and turns, changes rhythm, speeds up and slows down on a roller-coaster ride that will leave you breathless.There are passages that are lush and passages that are completely demented.The piece, from its opening bars, speeds inexorably toward an ending marked by an almost demonic musical breakdown.This is quite a piece.Put on your seatbelt and enjoy the ride!
- Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture
This overture really captures the essence of Shakespeare’s play.I love the skittering violins imitating the flitting of the fairies and the playfulness of the whole piece; Mendelssohn perfectly blends the world of the fairies and that of the humans.This overture is chock-full of catchy, happy tunes that you can’t stop humming for the rest of the day.
- Mahler, Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor
I remember first hearing the famous Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th symphony as I was watching Visconti’s film Death in Venice.I sat through the end credits so I could find out what the music was and went out the next day to buy a recording of the Mahler symphony.Apart from the obvious beauty of the Adagietto, what I love about this work is that it is so complex and so complete; Mahler creates an entire world in five movements that draws you in and captivates you.
- Elgar, Enigma Variations
Elgar…of course!I’ve loved this work since I don’t know when; it’s strong, varied and full of great melodies. And yes, Nimrod is my favorite!
- Wagner, Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin
Such quiet, aching beauty that just makes you want to cry.Seeing the Houston Grand Opera production of Lohengrin a few years ago was a very moving experience.This music touches you at the core of your being.
- Richard Strauss, Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier”
Richard Strauss making a second appearance on my Top 10 list!I love the way Strauss weaves together themes from the opera into this suite.The music is so compelling and so evocative, and I love the waltzes!
- Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 2
This is a magnificent and majestic piece of music.The piano writing is truly virtuosic and presents a completely different conception of the concerto from Brahms first piano concerto written some 25 years earlier.There is great dialog between the piano and orchestra, and the surprising third movement could almost be described as a piece for piano, cello and orchestra, some might say a piece for cello and orchestra with a piano thrown in for good measure!The entire concerto leaves you wanting for nothing.
- Britten, Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”
Britten wrote these four pieces as scene changes in his first opera, Peter Grimes.He later excerpted them from the score, rearranged their order, and created this suite.“Dawn,” “Sunday Morning,” “Moonlight” and “Storm” are the interludes titles.They are lush, atmospheric, and give a real sense of the expansiveness of the ocean la Debussy’s La Mer.But there is in each of the pieces, a sense of foreboding, the same as hangs over the whole of Peter Grimes.
- Mahler, Piano Quartet Movement in A minor
Mahler making his second appearance on this list! This movement, the first of a piano quartet that apparently was never completed, is Mahler unlike you’ve ever heard him before. This is the only chamber work without voice written by the composer. It’s also a very early work, written when Mahler was only 16 years old and a student at the Vienna Conservatory. I first heard the work watching Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film Shutter Island where the music becomes the subject of a short conversation. There is a wonderful sadness in this music, appropriate to the film’s subject matter, and, at the same time, tunes you will be humming long after the music ends.