Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Music Classical

The Essential Classical Recordings

100 CDs for Today's Listener

by (author) Rick Phillips

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Oct 2004
Classical, Discography & Buyer's Guides, History & Criticism
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2004
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Most guides to classical recordings on CD comprise thousands of brief listings. In their attempt to be comprehensive, they end up being heavy and intimidating. Phillips knows better. He sticks to what he considers to be the 101 essential CDs, and tells readers not only why each one is the best recording in his opinion, but also why this piece of music belongs in their collection and where thecomposer fits into the evolution of classical music. Read consecutively, the recommendations — from medieval Gregorian chant to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, written in 1977 — form a dazzling and concise history of classical music.

Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are here, of course, along with other beloved but lesser-known composers, such as Josquin Desprez, Anton Bruckner, and Gabriel Fauré. And popular pieces, such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Handel’s The Water Music, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, are complemented by such less-familiar but outstanding compositions as the Turangalila Symphony by Olivier Messiaen.

Connoisseurs and die-hard listeners to “Sound Advice” will appreciate having Phillips’s recommendations of specific recordings (and their catalogue numbers) between two covers at long last. And those who are just starting to explore the rich world of classical music will soon discover that Phillips is a guide they can trust.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Rick Phillips is the host and producer of Sound Advice, the weekly guide to classical music recordings that airs Saturdays on CBC Radio One and Sundays on CBC Radio Two.

Excerpt: The Essential Classical Recordings: 100 CDs for Today's Listener (by (author) Rick Phillips)

In the early seventeenth century, the English religious scholar Thomas Draxe said, “Music is the eye of the ear.” The link to sight or the visual has been something music has wrestled with for generations. Today we tend to use our hearing as a way of confirming our sight, so Draxe’s claim could easily be turned around to read, “Music is the ear of the eye.” Manufactured images today are everywhere, in films, on television and computer screens, on billboards, and in the print media. We are now very visually oriented, relying on our sight to learn, experience, and entertain, and on our hearing to enhance what we see.

Since the development of radio and the gramophone in the twentieth century, music has lost ground to the visual in its power to arrest our attention. Music is in our homes and offices, and is as easily accessible as turning on the tap or the light switch. It’s in elevators, dentist’s offices, and shopping malls. Workers in factories often have music piped in to accompany their labours, but the music ­can’t be too good, because then it can be distracting, and production targets fall. This ease of accessibility has caused us to take music for granted. We hear music constantly today, but we don’t listen to it. It’s used to fill a void, or a perceived void.

Yet music can still draw pictures and images for us. The great German Romantic writer Goethe is reported to have described architecture as frozen music. It’s a powerful language that can communicate concepts and ideas non-­visually and non-­verbally, and it can also convey deep emotion and feeling.

This book is intended as a guide for both those who are just starting to explore the rich world of classical music and those who already have a serious cd collection but want to explore other performances. It is, above all, for those who want to expand their aural senses and awareness – who want to increase their understanding and enjoyment of the highly useful and expressive language of music. All forms of music are valid and worthy, from folk songs to pop, jazz, rock, and hip hop. They can all express ideas and emotions. But this book deals with classical music – the age­old form that has experienced many rises and falls over hundreds of years, and still manages to survive. How we use music is up to each individual, but this book deals with music that was intended to be listened to, not just heard – foreground listening, not background.

Today, we hear about the demise of the compact disc – the format of recorded music that’s been with us now for almost thirty years. Downloads, MP3s, and soundfiles are the way of the future, but, as always, the medium is not as important as the music. Regardless of how we access it, it’s the music itself that will survive. Many of the classical music recordings recommended in this book are “classic,” and will always be available in one format or another. Record companies are always reissuing recordings. Every few years, they remaster the original tapes using the latest technology, repackage them with new art, graphics, and jacket notes, and re-release them. As a result, the serial numbers of the recordings can change. But the music, artists, ensembles, and conductors remain the same, and usually the record label, so that’s what to look for. And remember that any list produced is obsolete the minute it’s printed. New recordings of classical music are always coming out, but the recommendations in this book are recordings that I think have a lasting shelf life.

Although there are 101 recommended recordings, you do not have to acquire all of them to truly enjoy classical music. Used as a guide, the book can steer you to furthering your own personal musical tastes. I hope that it will also expose you to new insights and ideas about music, encouraging you to listen to music that you might not have thought you would ever enjoy. If you’re like me, you’ve sometimes been surprised at how your musical tastes have developed and changed over time, and how you’re fond of music now that you would’ve never dreamed of liking a decade ago.

I’ve attempted to supply an overview of classical music, ranging from the Middle Ages and before, to the present day. For the purposes of this book, the Middle Ages lead into the Renaissance, or the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in music. The Baroque period is roughly 1600 to 1750. The Classical period of music runs from about 1750 to 1820 or so, overlapping with the nineteenth-century Romantic Age, and leading on into the modern age of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I’ve avoided musical jargon and theoretical terms, and I don’t think that it’s necessary to be able to read music or understand musical theory or structure to enjoy classical music. They can enhance your appreciation, there’s no question. But really, just an interest and an open mind are the first requirements to a life of musical enjoyment. Music is a non-verbal language. It shouldn’t intimidate or scare anyone.

Many genres of music are here – from vocal and choral, to orchestral, chamber music, solo instrumental, and ballet. I’ve also tried to include a range of nationalities – not only of the composers, but also in the artists and ensembles selected. By no means is this a tally of the “best” 101 works or recordings. Any such list would be fruitless, given the subjectivity of art and music. It is simply an overview of classical music and recordings, and I don’t make any claim that my selection is right or definitive, or even better than any other. But, over twenty-five years in the classical music business, as a writer, broadcaster, and teacher, I’ve been following what has been recorded and released, and its worth.

Related lists