“I listen to a lot of classical music.”
Well, so do I. And the thing is, to be honest, I’m in some ways shamefully unaware of some of the most standard, well-respected works in the repertoire… but I’ve made some outstanding discoveries of names it seems most people haven’t heard of, and if you’re in the mood for something at least somewhat off the beaten path, have a look below. I’d like to organize these by like ‘a few steps off the beaten path,’ ‘within eyeshot of the beaten path,’ ‘within earshot of the beaten path,’ and like, ‘entirely lost,’ but that’s too subjective, so like the other guides, I’ll organize it by era and give the little qualifier that I know some of you will already know of these people. For a collection I’m more passionate about, go check out my The Gems guide. It’s my ‘must-listen’ list of potential unknowns, while this is a ‘you’d probably also like…’ or ‘hey, check this out’ list. There were originally some overlaps, but the below is made up of pieces I enjoy, but am not as passionate about as the aforementioned gems.
Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique– a contemporary of Chopin and Liszt, who called Alkan the greatest pianist he’d ever heard. He was a bit of a strange man, wrote a concerto for solo piano among other interesting things, but this work should give a good idea of his virtuosity, beautifully Romantic idiom, as well as his unique voice.
- Niels Gade symphony no. 6- of his eight delightful symphonies, only the first I’ve gotten to. He was a close friend of Mendelssohn, and it shows, but which came first, the similarity or the friendship? Good music regardless.
- Joachim Raff’s symphony no. 3- he wrote 11 in all, and his third and fifth are the most commonly performed. Contemporary of Liszt and Bruckner, and quite successful in his day, but all but forgotten now. Good music.
- Dame Ethel Smyth’s op. 1 string quintet– You know Dvorak’s ‘American’ works, his 12th quartet and the quintet? Have a listen to Dame Ethel Smyth’s earlier folk-sounding, almost American-inspired-seeming quintet, a work of beauty and simple elegance, even more astounding for being an op. 1. A must-hear work.
- Kalinnikov Symphony no. 1- sticking with talented composers who died too young, there’s Vasily Kalinnikov, who is apparently still played with some regularity in his Mother Russia, but hardly ever anywhere else. His first symphony is a delight, written in Crimea on a doctor-ordered getaway as part of his (eventually unsuccessful) recovery from Tuberculosis. He died at 34 years of age.
- Charles Ives symphony no. 2- if there were ever a symphony that should be labeled as ‘American’, it’s this one. It’s familiar, warm and melodic, but also kind of raucous in places, a real work of genius.
- Felix Weingartner Symphony no. 1- He wasn’t just a conductor. His first symphony is quite nice.
- Roslavets piano sonata no. 1- only the first in a series of works for piano from a composer who even now, long after his passing, is struggling to recover from bans and attempts to repress his stunning, expressive, richly colorful music.
- Myaskovsky Symphony no. 6- a contemporary of Shostakovich, Myaskovsky never relocated to the West like Prokofiev or Stravinsky, staying in and around his home country. He wrote 27 symphonies, and as he became more talented as a composer, he unfortunately also became more conservative. His biggest and possibly most daring symphony, the sixth, sounds unmistakably Soviet and is a work of great power.
- Ture Rangström’s third symphony- in one movement, quite an epic little symphony, with a pastoral Swedish flair, a strong narrative, and richly, powerfully Romantic-sounding vocabulary.
- Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet 1931– Guess when it was written. It’s a daring, innovative string work from a daring, innovative female composer, an enjoyable piece that it seems not many have heard.
- Randall Thompson’s Symphony no. 2- Also from 1931, a rugged, energetic, punchy symphony from a composer known for his choral works. It’s compact, but full of life, and references some tunes that were popular at the time. A really fun, powerful piece.
- William Grant Still’s Symphony no. 1 ‘Afro-American’- You thought Gershwin was the only one to incorporate wonderful jazz influences into ‘serious’ classical music? Think again. This symphony from the ‘Dean of African American composers’ is a wonderfully enjoyable piece.
- Egon Wellesz’s symphony no. 4- A compelling, quite modern symphony chronologically, with a sound that betrays the composer’s ties to a rich history in and talent for music.