That splendid old bruiser Michael Henderson, no stranger to Spectator readers, and as passionate about music and poetry as he is about cricket, has, as so often, a bee buzzing in his bonnet. Responding to last month’s winning entry in the ‘Olden but golden’ all-time top-ten competition, he notes that Roy Beagley included Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on his list. But which recording? huffs the mighty Hendo. ‘There are dozens, probably hundreds of Flutes. Surely the challenge you set was to select ten favourite recordings, not ten favourite pieces of music.’
Hendo is right, of course, when it comes to anoraks like me and him. The search for the best of the best when it comes to classical recordings is a time-consuming, expensive and deeply compulsive hobby, and addicts have a host of heavy, densely printed volumes to help them feed their habit, among them The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs, The Gramophone Classical Music Guide, The Rough Guide to Classical Music and 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die, the last much more impressive and scholarly than its title might suggest.
With their rosette, diamond and star ratings, consulting such reference works can prove ruinously expensive to their readers. It’s the reason that I have seven different box sets of the Beethoven String Quartets, though whether I will ever listen to all of them, all the way through, must be seriously open to doubt. And in any case, however good a recording of any piece of classical piece might be, for me nothing beats the thrill of listening to classical music performed live in the concert hall.
Less obsessive types, however, will probably be more than happy with whatever recording of classical masterpieces they happen to alight on. Very few really bad recordings are released by the major labels these days, and the budget-label Naxos maintains exceptionally high standards. When I first started listening to classical music again about ten years ago, I often just bought the cheapest recordings I could find in HMV. Most were more than acceptable, and some have struck me as being better than recordings of the same work I have subsequently purchased at a higher price. New recording almost always cost more, while older ones that have already proved their sterling worth for many years and indeed decades are often greatly discounted as the record companies try to milk a few last quid out of them. There are astonishing bargains to be found in the field of classical music and, except in exceptional cases, I think you would be a mug to pay top whack.
So lists that contain classical works but don’t specify the recording are acceptable here, though interest would undoubtedly be heightened for those like Hendo and myself if you do specify the particular recording that has got you hooked.
So having provided a theme for this week’s column it seems only fair to publish Hendo’s own top ten, compiled and described with his usual bracing confidence and brio. It strikes me as a terrific list, mixing classical, jazz, popular song, musical theatre and pure pop with panache. And though I haven’t done a complete count yet as your top tens keep rolling in, I have a hunch that one of his selections, Pet Sounds, will be the most frequently chosen album of all among Spectator readers.
Michael Henderson’s Top Ten
1. Only the Lonely, Frank Sinatra
The finest hour in the history of popular music. Sinatra in midsummer form, assisted by Nelson Riddle’s superb arrangements.
2. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Johnny Mercer Songbook
Riddle is again the arranger on this tribute to the ‘sentimental gentleman’ from Savannah, Georgia.
3. Since We Met, Bill Evans Trio
The finest of all jazz pianists at his peak, in 1974, recorded live at the Village Vanguard.
4. Judy Garland, Live at Carnegie Hall, 1961
No live album feels more alive than this blistering performance by a singer who had been told she was washed up.
5. Gypsy, original Broadway recording
Styne’s music, Sondheim’s words, Merman’s delivery. Together they constructed the greatest stage musical.
6. Noël Coward Live at Caesar’s Palace
The Master at his wittiest.
7. New Year’s Concert 1989 in Vienna, Carlos Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
No conductor has made this annual Strauss event sound so deliciously Viennese.
8. Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert, sung by Fritz Wunderlich
The most beautiful singer of the most haunting songs known to man. Within five months Wunderlich was dead.
9. Elgar’s Second Symphony, Bernard Haitink/Philharmonia Orchestra
The Dutch conductor gets to the heart of an English masterpiece.
10. Pet Sounds, Beach Boys
A pop record that will always sound fresh.
Well done, Hendo. Two CDs of your choice will be in the post as soon as you let me know your requirements.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.