For decades I have listened to classical music every day while painting. Here are my favorite and most inspiring recordings:
No 1: Puccini, Turandot
Conducted by Zubin Mehta. Sutherland, Pavarotti, Caballe, Chiaurov, Krause, Pears, John Alldis Choir. London Philharmonic Orchestra.
This opera and recording represent one of the greatest art achievements of the 20th century. In 1925 Puccini died before completing the last act, it premiered in 1926 at La Scala conducted by Arturo Toscanini. This recording has great singers, great performances, beautifully and passionately conducted, and fresh clean sound. This recording inspired my painting of Puccini and Denouement. My aesthetic takeaway from this opera was that it integrated romance, epic setting, beautiful and exotic color/sound harmonies, gorgeous melodies, powerful chorus, the battle of the sopranos, and maintained the big picture driving towards powerful closings of each act. My painting Denouement was the result of translating this aesthetic from music into paint.
No 2: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9
Conducted by Von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, Wiener Singverein. Janowitz, Rössel-Majdan, Kmentt, Berry.
Beethoven sounds to me like the bridge between classical and romantic music. Much like the middle ground between the Classical Greek sculpture of the Charioteer with the later Hellenic Laocoon Group. This recording captures the awesome grandeur and excitement of a new era opening up to artists, less formal and more passionate, using epic structures and greater integrations of themes. Ode to Joy. Where your gentle wing’s spread wide. This work has always reminded me to dream the biggest most passionate and beautiful vision I am capable of, and make the vision a reality.
No 3: Bach, St. John’s Passion
Conducted by Karl Richter, Munchener Bach Orchester with Lear, Töpper, Haefliger, Prey, Engen.
It is a very special feeling when I listen to Bach, a balance and irresistible forward movement as if I were running effortlessly over mountains and streams. This kind of flow of energy is something I try to get in my work as if color vibrations dance from spot to spot, blithely moving through space.
No 4: Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No 3
Live performance at Carnegie Hall, Conducted by Ormandy with Pianist Horowitz.
This is the only recording I can’t paint by. I have to stop everything, turn off the lights, grab a pillow and lay down in my studio and let the sound wash over me. It sounds like love and love-making to me, waves of tenderness that drive passionately on a journey, never stopping, just growing in strength and tension until the unbearably beautiful climax. An interesting thing about discovering this work was that it triggered feelings, which I didn’t know existed before. Intense romantic feelings that would be ahead of me, but not passively waiting, feelings I had to work for and to drive towards them with absolute focus. Luckily I could channel that romantic drive through my art.
No 5: Bach, English Suite No 2, Pianist Martha Argerich
Martha was the first pianist to reach me 100%, her recordings sound so natural and right it is as if they are the direct link to the emotion of the composer. Her Bach is like an effortless race to fill space, indeed it reminds me of channeling the energy of the Universe.
No 6: Brahms, Symphony No 3
Conducted by Von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic
Stoic, monumental, and wrath-like this Brahms feels like a call to warriors to man up with integrity, justice, and impart ruthless retribution on evil in defense of the good.
No 7: Beethoven, Symphony No 5
Conducted by Szell with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Szell wrote, “Think with the heart and feel with the brain.” This is the kind of magical paradox which merges passion, science, and senses to make great art. This recording sounds alive and true to me. Szell seems to have a perfect sense of Beethovenness, a spot at the convergence of classical with romantic, not trying to be either. Rather it is like he is showing us the exact moment in which human evolution took a huge step forward.
No 8: Strauss, Four Last Songs
Conducted by Kurt Masur. Sung by Jessye Norman.
Richard Strauss was 84 when he composed these in 1948, only 3 years after WWII. They sum up beautifully the end of romanticism, with no hint that they were composed at the beginning of our dark ages of postmodernism. In this performance Norman and the conductor create an incredibly rich and deeply felt sonic universe. I am kind of shocked that this composition was only 8 years before my birth, the music seems that is both from ages away and very far into our future. I am deeply thankful that it and this recording exist.
Here are the lyrics of the last one, At Sunset by Joseph von Eichendorff:
Through sorrow and joy
we have gone hand in hand;
we are both at rest from our wanderings
now above the quiet land.
Around us, the valleys bow,
the air already darkens.
Only two larks soar
musingly into the haze.
Come close, and let them flutter,
soon it will be time to sleep –
so that we don’t get lost
in this solitude.
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the afterglow!
How weary we are of wandering–
Is this perhaps death?
No 9: Pogorelich Plays Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit
This is the most transcendental I have experienced. Very subtle melodies, sparkling vibrations, and flowing transitions from delicacy to stormy moods. It reminds me of the day I spent a day painting at the Van Gogh Asylum in St. Remy, France. With strange and quite people walking around among the literally swirling winds tousling the field’s grasses and olive tree’s leaves.
No 10: Puccini, Tosca
Conducted by Von Karajan with Price, di Stefano, Taddei
Ending my top 10 list with my favorite, the first opera I purchased in 1982 with the great American Leontyne Price. Puccini pushed the emotional range from brutal to exquisite. It is a story of the evil sadist Scarpia versus the painter Cavaradossi and singer Tosca, and Puccini gives them all great and beautiful arias. Scarpia at the entrance to a church in service sings about his evil plot to execute Tosca’s lover and trick her into sexual submission while the angelic chorus is in the background. It is a titanic aria brilliantly contrasting evil and the angelic. Yet both the good Tosca and Cavaradossi have glorious roles that are more than a match for Scarpia’s, such as Tosca’s Vissi d’arte aria.
This opera had a tremendous influence on me while I painted one of my most important works, Pursuit.
As a neo-romantic artist/painter I felt terribly alone and disgusted by Duchamp’s art world. Yet, these wonderful recordings and hundreds more kept me motivated, sane, happy, and ready to take on the greatest challenge to an artist: to celebrate personal and human evolution. Thank you.
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