Who would have thought 2020 would be the Year of Living Dangerously? As workplaces, theatres, bars and concert halls shut down for an indefinite period and social distancing is the new black, we may each find ourselves in home detention with time on our hands. It’s the perfect opportunity to re-acquaint – or introduce – ourselves to some of the great recordings of ‘all time’.

Phillip ScottLimelight critic Phillip Scott

You will have your own list. Here’s mine. All these recordings were the talk of the town on their first appearance, and have continued to impress pundits and public ever since. Look for them on YouTube or Spotify. (Or heck: buy them!)

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Soloists, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Georg Solti cond.
Decca 4788370

Solti Ring Cycle

Not the first recorded Ring cycle (Fürtwangler’s Italian radio version precedes it), Solti’s traversal of the four operas came along at exactly the right time. They were taped between 1958 and 1965. This was the dawning of stereo, and recording techniques were maturing at a great rate. Soprano Birgit Nilsson was at her peak, and other great artists made themselves available for the project. Nilsson sang Brunnhilde, her laser voice riding over Wagner’s rich orchestral fabric with ease. Hans Hotter, an established Wagnerian, sang Wotan (except in Das Rheingold), and casts included the young sensation Joan Sutherland (as the Woodbird in Siegfried) and the retired supreme Wagner soprano of the 1930s Kirsten Flagstad (as Fricka in Das Rheingold). Other notables were the great French soprano Régine Crespin as Sieglinde in Die Walküre, and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Gunther in Götterdämmerung.

The Decca producer was the far-sighted John Culshaw. He wanted to cast a young, untested heldentenor with a ravishingly beautiful voice as Siegfried, but the man was undisciplined and didn’t learn the part. At the last minute, Culshaw sacked him and brought in a more seasoned singer, Wolfgang Windgassen. Though Windgassen was too mature to play the Ring’s young hero on stage, he gave the performance of a lifetime on record. Culshaw talks about this in his book Ring Resounding but does not name the dismissed singer. Limelight has no such qualms: it was Ernst Kozub (1924 – 1971).

Driven by Culshaw, this Ring cycle is a technicolor spectacular: less a saga, more an event. Solti whips up excitement like a demon, the Vienna Philharmonic strings play as though their lives depended on it, and the sound and sound effects are big, bold and brassy. In terms of story telling, it is a gripping experience.

Once everyone got used to the Solti Ring and other versions began to appear on record (such as Boulez, Levine and Janowski’s complete sets), critics felt inclined to dismiss Solti as superficial. Exciting, they conceded, but failing to probe the work’s psychological depths. Then at its 50th anniversary in 2015, the recording was ‘rediscovered’ and its assets underwent new appreciation.

Bach: The Goldberg Variations

Glenn Gould p. 1955 version.
Sony 88725411822

Glenn Gould Bach Goldberg Variations

Groaning and grunting, hunched at a keyboard set at chin level, a young Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould burst onto the music scene with his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Listeners were stunned by his extraordinary clarity in counterpoint, his effortless virtuosity, not to mention his boyish good looks – and a close-up recording that made his piano sound like a close cousin to Dave Brubeck’s. Gould and Bach became the young person’s hip classical icons of the mid-1950s. Bach had been recorded on the piano before (care of Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Kempff and Rosalyn Tureck), but the master’s keyboard output was still peripheral to the romantic repertoire of concert pianists. Gould made it central, and went on to record all Bach’s major keyboard works.

Gould was highly intelligent, antisocial and nocturnal in his habits. Early on, he turned his back on live performance to concentrate entirely on recording. It’s a measure of his fame that he could make a living from it. As he aged he grew even more eccentric, and died at the early age of 50 in 1981. In his final sessions he returned to the Goldberg Variations, and put 25 years’ worth of rethinking into the performance. But… revisit the 1955 mono record to experience the knockout effect of that young pianistic freak, and the exquisite musical constructions of JS Bach.

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Christa Ludwig ms, Fritz Wunderlich t, Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras, Otto Klemperer cond.
Warner Classics 2564607598

Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, Das Lied von der Erde

Gustav Mahler was already in poor health when he wrote his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) in 1908-09, a settling of Chinese poems in German translation, for mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra. He was too superstitious to call it his Ninth Symphony (which he wrote next), and never lived to hear it. The final song, Der Abschied (Farewell), sung by the mezzo, is a mesmerisingly drawn-out adieu to life.

This recording, from 1966/67, was conducted by the crusty old German conductor Otto Klemperer, known at the time for his monumental approach to Beethoven, whose symphonies he conducted as if they were by Bruckner. But as a busy young musician in Berlin 40 years earlier he was part of a vibrant avant-garde, alongside Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill and the socialist playwright Bertholt Brecht. Even further back, in 1910, Klemperer assisted Mahler at the premiere of the composer’s huge Symphony No 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). The elderly conductor recorded Mahler’s Second and Ninth Symphonies for EMI as well as Das Lied von der Erde, and brought a very particular style to that music which has since been lost: a rough-edged rusticity in the fast sections; piercing, searching depth in the slow music. (Sometimes very slow.)

For the song cycle, Klemperer used the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig. Her warm tones prove to be a perfect match for the conductor’s autumnal approach. Strangely enough, the three tenor songs – immensely challenging but not carrying the weight of those for mezzo – are the main reason to hear this performance. A young German tenor, who had crossed over from popular repertoire into Mozart and then bigger roles, sang this music better than it has ever been done before or since. Fritz Wunderlich had it all: a rich, creamy vocal tone, wonderful breath control, reserves of power, and delicacy as well. He is superb.

Wunderlich recorded his songs first, with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, just before financial difficulties and personality clashes caused the orchestra to be disbanded. Six months later, Phoenix-like, the New Philharmonia Orchestra rose in its place (with the same players). Ludwig and Klemperer then went on to finish the recording, by which time Wunderlich was dead at 36. He tripped at the top of a flight of stairs, grabbed at the railing which was rotten and came away in his hand, and tumbled to the bottom, fatally striking his head.

Christa Ludwig is still with us, retired from singing but giving the occasional interview where she tends to be sharply critical of the people she worked with (including Wunderlich). She’s 92, so why not?

Sibelius: Six Humoresques

Aaron Rosand v, Southwest German Radio Orchestra, Rolf Reinhardt cond.
Vox CDX5116

Rosand Sibelius

…and speaking of 92, that’s how old the American violinist Aaron Rosand was when he passed away last year. A true fiery virtuoso, Rosand was a somewhat embittered man. Although he toured the US, and ended up teaching at prestigious music schools in Philadelphia and Baltimore, he was effectively locked out of New York (and, hence, international fame). Musical politics is as labyrinthine as everyday politics, but it seems the violinist Isaac Stern and his talented protégées had the New York scene sewn up, and Stern ensured there was no place in it for Rosand. Stern was no mean fiddler himself, but this recording shows that Rosand represented a worthy rival – one well worth getting rid of.

Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto is one of the glories of the string repertoire, but hidden in amongst the Finn’s high-class light music are Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, lasting about 17 minutes altogether. These pieces are packed with tunes and almost Gypsy-like decoration, with many opportunities to exploit the smoky timbre of the G-string. Rosand relishes the lot. He is recorded in close up, which does him no disservice: his playing full of character and – for want of a better word – pizzazz. He is accompanied by the Southwest German Radio Orchestra under Rolf Reinhardt (Who? Precisely!) at a time when his nemesis Isaac Stern was playing with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

This Vox recording is not easy to find. Only two of the Humoresques in Rosand’s performance appear on YouTube. A more laid back alternative exists of the entire six, reissued by Eloquence, with violinist Salvatore Accardo and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis. Accardo’s purity of line is a thing of beauty, and the coupling is a gorgeous version of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Hear them all.

Beethoven: Symphonies No 5 & No 7

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber cond.
DG 4474002

Kleiber Beethoven

In Beethoven’s anniversary year, it would be remiss not to include one of the great recordings of his music (and there are thousands). Carlos Kleiber (1930 – 2004) was a phenomenon: a conductor’s conductor, who spent aeons on detailed rehearsal, cancelled every second appearance, recorded very infrequently, and once told Herbert von Karajan he only worked when he needed money. But: I entreat you to watch him on YouTube conducting the opening of Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. His combination of accuracy, precision, excitement and emotional commitment is galvanising. No wonder orchestral musicians played their hearts out for him. In the mid-1970s Kleiber went into the studio (probably reluctantly) with the Vienna Philharmonic to tape Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. These performances have never been unavailable since… because they’re perfect.

They are not light and clipped in the historically informed style of today, but the rhythms have bite, and the Vienna strings know how to attack a phrase. They are not ponderous in the respectful way some older conductors saw them, but under Kleiber they retain their power and substance. The recording of the Fifth has slightly better sound, but both have been remastered to the latest specifications and still sound great. And what endlessly fascinating music it is. The thing that bothered many of Beethoven’s contemporaries – that his music was unpredictable – is the very feature that keeps it alive after centuries, and draws us back no matter how well we think we know it. Kleiber’s recording of these two towering works is something I could listen to non-stop all day, and again, suddenly we have time.

Finally if you simply want something to cheer you up, my suggestion would be a bunch of Rossini Overtures. Any recording will do, but you can’t go wrong with Abbado, Marriner or Karajan.