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Arts & Culture

Announcer Chris Johnson’s Top 10 Favorite Classical Recordings

As you might guess, Classical 91.7 announcers are huge classical music fans. We asked them to tell us what their all-time favorite pieces are, and why. Each week during Public Radio Music Month, we'll post their "desert island" lists – pieces so essential, they'd be happily stranded with them on a desert island. (As long as they also had adequate food, shelter, and running water.)

Check out announcer Chris Johnson's list here!


Asking someone like me what his Top 10 recordings are is as exciting as it is daunting. In short, I love everything. I love that on any given day, I have about 40, 000 choices thanks to the exhaustive CD Library at Classical 91.7. And, although my tastes have changed drastically over the years, here is a list of what, if I had to pack only these CD’s for my trip to the proverbial desert island, I would consider necessities. I have purposely excluded any opera from this list. That genre deserves its own consideration.


1. The Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin – J.S. Bach, Nathan Milstein, violin (EMI 6479323)

Milstein did two sets of complete recordings of these pieces. The first dates from 1950 when he was a young man (EMI), and the other comes from when he had attained the status of elder statesman (Deustche Grammophon). I prefer the earlier set for its rawness and youthful vigor.


2. The Nine Symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra – Sir Roger Norrington (Hanssler Classic 93.084-93.088)

These recordings were made in concert and marry the best of the world of early music performance practice with modern instruments. The performances are different than what you might be used to hearing in every way, and as a result, you may experience these storied symphonies in a way that to refer to as  fresh and exciting would be an understatement.


3. The Early String Quartets – Ludwig van Beethoven, Tokyo String Quartet (RCA 61284)

While we are on the subject of Beethoven, no desert island stay would be complete without the string quartets by LVB being represented. I pick the six early quartets played by the Tokyo Quartet because I have vivid memories of playing along with these recordings when I was in high school and because unlike the middle and late quartets, which  look forward in terms of their structure and harmony, the Early Quartets are a masterful summation of the genre as conceived by Haydn and further developed by Mozart.


4. Appalachia Waltz – Mark O’Conner (with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer) (Sony Classical 68460)

Although the reaction from classical music audiences was mixed when this CD was released in 1996, time has shown that this particular recording project was ground breaking in a very real sense. Once scoffed by classical connoisseurs, Mark O’Connor now regularly performs in many of the great institutions of classical music and has been invited to give master classes to young musicians at places like Julliard and Rice University.


5. Symphony No.5 in c-sharp minor – Gustav Mahler, New York Philharmonic – Leonard Bernstein (CBS/Sony 42198)

A lover of classical music should own some recording of ALL of the symphonies by Gustav Mahler, but if I had to pick just one of the symphonies this would be the one. Although the performance is a little rough around the edges, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic milk this piece for all that it is worth. Hearing the Adagietto is, for me, like experiencing heaven on earth.


6. Speaks Volumes – Nico Muhly (Bedroom Community HVALUR1)

I happened to meet this rock star composer by complete chance in Houston. We had a mutual friend who I picked up from a concert one night and into my car, hopped this character of a person named Nico. Later he sent me a copy of this CD and I still remember the day I opened it up and gave it a first listen while sitting in the parking lot of my apartment building. I had never heard music like this before and the experience was as if a new world had been opened up to me. It was one that I always wished had existed but just didn’t know it.


7. Rainbow Body, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra – Robert Spano

This CD is a compilation of some American masterworks by various composers. It includes Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” alongside two popular works by contemporary composers Chris Theofanidis (Rainbow Body) and Jennifer Higdon (Blue Cathedral). No desert island list is complete without music by Aaron Copland and I am starting to think the same for Theofanidis and Higdon as well.


8. Der Rosenkavalier Concert Suite/Four Last Songs –  Richard Strauss, Houston Symphony – Christoph Eschenbach; Reneé Fleming, soprano (RCA 68539)

 When I first moved to Houston in 1996, the city was at the height of Eschenbach-mania. Although I didn’t dully appreciate it until later, my first operas were by Strauss and Wagner and all with CH and the Houston Symphony in the pit at Houston Grand Opera. This recording is a relic of those days and features Reneé Fleming who has a special relationship with HGO and the City of Houston. In my opinion this has to be one of the best recordings of “Four Last Songs” ever made.


9. The Ecstatic Collection – Music by Michael Torke (Ecstatic 092201 – 092206)

This set of six CD’s features prominently in my radio programming. The music is not profound in the sense of Bach or Beethoven, but puts a smile on my face and often sends me leaping around the halls of the radio station. The composer sent me the set after a protracted email exchange that he initiated. As a funny side-note, I had to request a second copy of one of the discs after I opened it up to discover the manufacturer mistakenly enclosed a copy of the latest work of  hip-hop artist Trey Songz instead of the expected selection of orchestral music.


10. Selected Piano Sonatas – W.A. Mozart, Andreas Haefliger, piano (Avie 25)

There are so many possibilities when you consider the music of Mozart. I love all of the symphonies, all of the violin concertos, the string quartets, but I thought some piano music might contrast with the heavy orchestral fair that makes up most of this list. There is also something that is the purest of the pure about Mozart’s writing for solo piano. I love all the sonatas on this disc, and in my opinion, Haefliger nails each one.