Some friends and I went to a piano and string quartet the other night. I found myself giving hints and tips like “don’t clap between movements” and “watch and listen to see which instrument is carrying the melody”.
Ongoing conversations have led to this, a classical playlist with notes on each piece. I’ve compiled some old notes and added new ones to create a magnum opus of classical geekery. Here you go, Brooke! Read, listen and enjoy.
Mozart / Piano Concerto 23 in A, 3rd movement
Mozart practically invented the piano concerto and I’m a sucker for them so there are a few piano concertos in this playlist. A concerto can be best described as a conversation between the lead instrument and the rest of the orchestra (as opposed to a symphony which uses the whole orchestra without any particular soloist or ‘star’.)
The trick is to follow the main melody, which jumps around between instruments. Listen out for strings, flutes and clarinets with some horns hiding the background. The piano will play the tune for a few seconds but suddenly throw it over to a different group of instruments, then back to the piano.
Vivaldi / The Four Seasons, Concerto No 2 in G Minor (Summer, 3rd Movement – Presto)
This’ll give you a jolt when it starts but stick with it. I love Nigel Kennedy’s recording of The Four Seasons. The violin sounds so aggressive and tactile. It’s hard to choose which part of The Four Seasons to include on this playlist, it’s such exciting music. The Four Seasons is well known, but if you’ve only ever heard cheap, bland versions of it, you’ve never heard it at all. Nigel Kennedy makes it soar. (This is a more recent performance, by the way, not his famous ‘breakout’ recording where he looks like a clean cut young boy on a white album cover.)
A bit about The Four Seasons. It’s a concerto for a string orchestra (including a harpsichord which you can probably pick out in the background) and a solo violin. The whole work is made up of twelve short movements, three each to represent Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. (You probably recognise this from the National Bank ads.)
So listen for the solo violin playing against the orchestra. The solo starts 44 seconds in. Then the orchestra joins in, then at 1:28 the soloist returns. That’s what you need to follow. And don’t forget to turn it up loud!
Vivaldi / Concerto For Two Violins in A Minor, 3rd Movement – Allegro
Another one to keep you awake. Still with Vivaldi, performed by Nigel Kennedy and another violinist. There are two tricks to listening to this piece.
- You need to know that there is a string orchestra in the background, and there are two solo violins playing all the fun stuff. Try to distinguish which is which.
- Follow the rhythm. It has a basic pulse which you can hear played by the string orchestra. If you find yourself counting to either three or six each time you hear the main pulse, you’ve nailed it.
Even if you can’t follow the rhythm, just try to listen for the difference between the backing string orchestra and the soloists. The soloists kick in at 33 seconds. That’s when you’ll hear one violin doing some fast sawing, and the other doing the fast melody.
Max Richter / Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi The Four Seasons Spring 1
Max Richter is a British composer (born 1966). He “rewrote” Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s kind of a tribute, kind of a remix. He’s taking this famous music and playing around with it, but still preserving its essence. I recommend the whole album.
Anonymous / Cancionero Musical De Palacio (Royal Music of the Spanish Court)
Just to mix things up here’s a little piece of rock music from sixteenth century Spain, complete with percussion instruments. Listen to this and tell me you can’t imagine it going off on a stage, with mad string solos starting around the one minute mark. (“Rock music”, because I’m picking medieval folk bands were the rock stars of their day.)
If you feel yourself wanting to groove but find the rhythm a bit awkward it’s probably because it doesn’t conform to dance music’s usual four beats in the bar. Here’s how four beats in the bar works: if you hum ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ to yourself, you’ll find the accent happens every fourth beat; “Mary had a Little lamb, Little lamb, Little lamb…”
In contrast, this early music track mostly has five beats in the bar. That means the main pulse happens every five times. Five beats is tricky, it means there’s a kind of secondary pulse, so it goes:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 …
Don’t worry too much if I’ve already lost you, just try to find and enjoy the rhythm as much as you can. The point is that you are trying to actively listen for it.
Mozart / Requiem in D Minor K 626, 3: Sequentia: Confutatis
This is from Mozart’s Requiem, one of my favourites. He didn’t actually get to finish it before his death, but that’s another story.
The film Amadeus has a wonderful scene in which Mozart is on his death bed dictating this exact piece (Confutatis) to his rival Salieri. The scene is fictional but it is worth watching because it breaks the Confutatis down to its musical components.
The words sung by the male choir with dramatic bluster translate as follows:
When the accursed are confounded and consigned to the fierce flames…
Then the female voices come in, beautifully, with:
…call me to be with the blessed.
Listen to how the music aligns with the words, the female voices providing the graceful contrast against the ‘fierce flames’ of the male voices.
When the voices join together in a rather ominous melody, they are singing:
My heart contrite as if it were ashes: protect me in my final hour.
Actually it doesn’t matter if you don’t follow the words (and besides, they’re sung in Latin.) It’s just bloody good music.
Bach / Unaccompained Cello Suite No 3 in C Major, Gigue
Leaping backward a hundred or so years from Mozart, to Bach and his cello suites. He wrote six suites, each with six movements. This is the Gigue – or dance movement.
The important thing to remember is that this is played by one guy with a cello. There are moments when it sounds like another cello is playing in the background. Performed by Yo Yo Ma.
Mozart / Piano Concerto No 14 in E flat, 2nd movement
There’s a single note in this piece that made me cry when I first heard it. It’s a high note at 4:53. It works because at this point in the piece we think we know where the melody is going but then that high E flat comes out of nowhere. Mozart was really good at establishing a melody then tweaking it ever so slightly to create something brand new. That delicate surprise still catches me. Such a simple little thing.
Rachmaninov / Piano Concerto 3 in D minor, 1st movement
Okay, this is the big one. It’s 18 minutes long and not for the faint hearted but it rewards attentive listening. If I had to take one classical piece to my grave it would probably be this one. It is apparently one of the more difficult pieces to play as a pianist and was also featured in the film Shine. (This is NOT the David Helfgott version, which, although inspired, is technically very muddled.) In case you’re interested, it was written in 1909.
The first thing to note is the beautiful, simple piano melody. We will hear this theme throughout the piece.
1:00 At one minute we get a first taste of Rachmaninov’s busy piano style which melds into the background as the orchestra takes over the melody.
1:49 Notice the 1-2 beat of the rhythm that the piano is playing. If you find yourself nodding or tapping in time then you’ve probably noticed it already.
1:55 The same rhythm but busier now. The piano really gets busy for the next minute. Hidden in here are echoes of the musical ideas that occur throughout the piece.
3:00 Right, everything slows down. Silence is just as important as noise. Then we launch into the next majestic theme.
3:50 A pomp and ceremonious sort of moment. This same tune gets turned into something beautiful by the piano at 4:30.
5:33 Without realising it we are listening to nothing but the piano here. Then the strings join in a few seconds later. This is totally different to Mozart’s style of having the instruments chat with each other; here the piano is the main event, the orchestra provides the lush backing.
6:45 A variation on one of the themes we have already heard.
7:18 …and now we return to our main theme. This time the strings are playing something slightly busier.
7:53 A surprising, ominous build up – listen to what the bass notes of the piano are doing. They repeat this a short moment later. Then the piano gets quite busy. The melody is in the higher notes, it consists of a series of short step ups and step downs getting faster and faster toward the 9 minute mark, building to a crescendo at 9:30 which is maintained for another couple of minutes.
11:30 The beginning of a majestic piece of solo piano. Listening to this you don’t even notice that the orchestra isn’t playing. From here until the end of the piece it’s all about the piano.
12:40 Return of one of the main themes, still just the piano. We are now not even half way through the cadenza. (The cadenza is the pianist’s chance to officially show off. Rachmaninov wrote two versions of the cadenza for this concerto, one big and bold and another lighter and more playful. This is the bold version.)
14:10 End of the cadenza. The orchestra tiptoes in with a flute then an oboe then a clarinet then a french horn.
17:00 And gently back to the original theme again. The end of this movement is surprisingly low key. Even after 18 minutes it still leaves me wanting more.
Strauss / Vier letze lieder (Four Last Songs) IV: Im Abendrot
Im Abendrot is the 4th of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. It’s only eight minutes long, but what a sublime eight minutes. It opens with a minute and a half of swooping orchestra before the soprano glides in across the top.
You might freak out a bit when the singing starts. “Ew, what is this old stuff?” But give it a chance. Forget that you’re listening to something that sounds a bit like opera. Forget that there’s no music video to help you through it. Just follow the golden melody through its ups and downs and see where it takes you.
(If this did have a music video to go with it, I can imagine something as simple as a bird flying over ocean currents; the bird would rise and fall with the melody.)
Brahms/ Sonata for Cello and Piano No 1, first movement
Ah, Brahms, you slightly miserable, beautiful thing. A late edition to this playlist, and it’s another long one, but I think you’re ready for it. Again, the trick is to listen for which instrument is carrying the melody.
And now, since you’re getting good at this, if you notice that the cello has the melody, try also noticing what the piano is doing to support the cello, and vice versa. That’s where the beauty lies in music, and it’s what rewards repeated listening.
Also, check out the grunty bass notes coming from the cello.
Lauridsen/ Lux Aeterna (part 1)
Dim the lights and let this one carry you away. Morten Lauridsen is an American composer, born 1947. This is the first of his four part choral work, Lux Aeterna. ‘Choral’ means that the primary instruments are voices. Yes, this is a choir. As with any other piece of music, you can still follow who’s holding the melody. Listen to how the female and male voices share the melody to create a wash of ethereal beauty.
I first heard this live in 2015 and it totally transported me. The completed work has been my go-to ever since. I once wrote that if I could only ever have one piece of music it would be Im Abendrot from Four Last Songs, (that was after I said I’d take the Rachmaninov piano concerto, so I’m always changing my mind about music…) but Lux Aeterna is probably the winner now.