The Gems

Sometimes something comes along that just blows you away, and part of the reason is just because you didn’t expect it. We all know Beethoven’s ninth is amazing,  the Sibelius violin concerto, Rachmaninoff piano concertos, Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky. There’s a ton of music we could go on and on about, but I think it a little bit sophomoric to try and create a list of favorites. What excites or moves or surprises or delights me or you changes from day to day, and there is obviously a long list of works that are undeniably some of the greatest, most wonderful things ever written.

But every once in a while, something comes along that no one’s ever talked to me about, that I’ve never heard, or discovered only by some obscure reference online, and it absolutely just stuns me how amazing it is. These are some of my favorite discoveries, things that make the strongest argument for “there’s more to classical music than what’s always played in the concert halls.” Forget famous names, sometimes even forget comparing recordings, because for some of these there may only be one or two. You won’t see any Beethoven here, or Brahms, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, no. Some of the composers listed below aren’t nearly as obscure as others, but to come to the world of classical music, know of A, and go for years and only later discover B that’s a contemporary of and equally as compelling as A but virtually unknown, or at least not as known, can seem surprising. Check out some of these standouts, all of which I feel to be equals to some of the most ubiquitous stuff in classical music.

  • Hans Rott symphony in E major- Where do I begin? Student of Bruckner, one-time roommate and fellow (younger) composer Gustav Mahler, who held Rott in extremely high regard. Listen to Rott’s only symphony (before he died at the age of 26) and see just how much Mahler respected this young man, who suffered at the hand of Brahms’ conservatism. It’s a little wild, a little unpolished, but a (very) compelling piece.
  • Nikolai Medtner piano sonata op. 5- a masterful piano sonata, clearly in a richly Russian style, but containing contrapuntal elements, development of themes and motifs and passion that touch on the whole of European musical tradition.
  • Hugo Alfvén symphony no. 3- Like a Swedish Strauss writing a symphony inspired by his exciting trip to Italy. It’s vibrant, exciting, full of passion and youth, but exquisitely written and wonderfully presented. A stellar work.
  • Kurt Atterberg symphony no. 2- a soaring, beautiful work, somewhat softer than some of the aforementioned Swedes, and maybe not the first work of Atterberg that many would think of (try his 3rd or 6th, to come later), but it’s a beautiful symphony.
  • Frank Bridge piano sonata- a pensive, powerful work with an emotional intensity and urgency to communicate, from the palette of the great early 20th century piano music, but still something unique. A must hear.
  • Vagn Holmboe symphony no. 5- beyond sufficient proof that Dane Vagn Holmboe is one of the greatest symphonists, not only of the 20th century, but of music. It’s a powerful, tightly-composed work, with a Beethovenesque intensity that builds, always going somewhere, until its final conclusion. He was a student of Nielsen, who mastered Beethoven’s technique of creating tension and conflict, and also of masterfully resolving it.
  • Ruth Gipps’ symphony no. 2– Student of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob, Ruth Gipps is (at least outside her native England) virtually unheard of, but her compact second symphony is a work of astounding power and force. Let this be a less to you that just because you’ve never heard of it doesn’t mean it isn’t a spectacular work. Enjoy this.
  • Robert Simpson symphony no. 1- only his graduation piece, but his first symphony is already an exciting masterpiece. If you enjoy the drama and musical intensity of Nielsen, know that Simpson does, too, and could be considered a contemporary of Holmboe, a spiritual descendent of Nielsen, while Holmboe is a pedagogical one. His first symphony (and more to come) is exquisitely crafted works of art.
  • Allan Pettersson symphony no. 7- An intense, at times hard-hitting symphony of Mahlerian, Shostakovich-esque scale and power, Pettersson’s seventh of his 16 symphonies is maybe the place to start with his works. This one-movement symphony takes a little bit of time to warm up to, but once you’ve gotten through some of its initial density, it opens up to reveal a true genius of unique symphonic writing.
  • Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach– This work, described on paper, may sound so absurd as to be either comical or frustrating, but it’s the work that started the composer’s career (or one of them), and once you listen a few times, you want to listen again, and again and again, and it sucks you in and I feel so strongly that it’s one of the most wildly beautiful things ever penned, an almost unexplainable work of genius.

Again, keep checking these here and there. I’ll be adding stuff to them occasionally. Enjoy.

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