Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Eleven Number 1’s

Today is November 1, 2011 or 11/1/11. Music and numerology sometimes go hand-in-hand. The number nine seemed to be the cut point for symphonies. Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert and Dvorak all got to nine and then wrote no more. Rossini apparently suffered from triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13). Rossini also was worried about Fridays and ironically died on a Friday the 13th. He was also born on a leap year, so the numbers were always against him. 

As far as I know there are no composer phobias about number one. So in honor of 11/1/11 let's look at some of my favorite recordings of famous (and not so famous) first compositions.  Here's a list, in no particular order, of eleven favorite sonatas, concertos, symphonies and other works numbered "1."

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 1

Bach's  Brandenburg concerto no. 1 is the most richly scored of the concertos. The recording by the Akademie für Alte Musik is one of the most exuberant performances available.

Haydn: Symphony No. 1 in D major

Haydn wrote 107 symphonies and got it all started with this work in D major. The early Haydn symphonies are little treasures and these performances by the Hanover Band are filled with wit and energy.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15

Beethoven's first piano concerto was actually written after the second piano concerto, but who cares about the oddities of 18th century publishing. The first concerto is a marvelous work and this revered recording featuring Rudolf Serkin and Leonard Bernstein is a gem.

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68

For epic sweep and brawn, the Brahms No. 1 is unsurpassed. This titanic reading by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra is over a half century old and still my "go-to" recording of the symphony. 

Tchaikovsky: PIano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23

The Tchaikovsky concerto is arguably the most famous piano concerto in the repertoire. Van Cliburn's legendary recording followed on the heels of his winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 and still remains the yardstick by which other recordings are measured. 

Janácek: String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"

Leos Janácek's first quartet takes its subtitle from a story by Tolstoy. The intense and beautifully melancholy work receives a magnificent performance by the impeccable Pavel Haas Quartet.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 

Few first symphonies push the outside of the envelope like Gustav Mahler's. Technicolor orchestration, searing emotion and flat-out excitement make this a great gateway symphony for exploring the Mahler nine. Mahler and Leonard Bernstein -- nothing more to be said.

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 1, "A Sea Symphony"

Ralph Vaughan Williams cinematic setting of Walt Whitman's epic poetry is thriling. Scored for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, the symphony is a majestic work and one of the grandest firsts ever written. Sir Adrian Boult was a conductor most closely associated with the composer and his recording is as definitive as they come.

Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107

Shostakovich wrote his first cello concerto for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and it's one of most difficult works in the repertoire. Rostropovich is the soloist on this recording which also features another No. 1, the composer's first symphony. 

Britten: Cello Suite No. 1, Op. 72

Britten's cello suites are not very well known and that's a pity. The first suite is a nine-movement work with clever references to the Baroque and Debussy. Pieter Wispelwey is the magnificent soloist.

Bernstein: Jeremiah Symphony

Bernstein's Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah" is a contemplative work that focuses on the lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah and the plight of the Jewish people. Leonard Slatkin leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a revelatory performance. 

--Craig Zeichner
Editor, Ariama

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