Unless you grew up in a musical family, chances are you developed an interest in "classical music" late and have been playing catch-up ever since. Most of us do that through anthologies or lists: Brahms' Greatest Hits, The Essential Classical Library, etc.
In these parts, the list to beat is KING-FM's annual compilation of the music most popular with its listeners: the so-called "Great 98." It's a terrific list for a rank beginner, but it has a defect shared by most such lists: Its contents represent the average of hundreds, even thousands, of individual musical tastes, with all the idiosyncrasy, flavor, and surprise squeezed out. How can you ever find your own way when the path's been beaten so flat already?
The following list of suggestions for giving and getting is intended to help bridge the gap. The idea is if you like one or more of the first items mentioned (all long-certified by KING's "Great 98" list), you're sure to find the second item at least as stimulating, lively, lovely . . . Some of the suggestions are utterly obvious; some are obscure; but all are intended not only to provide their own musical kick but to suggest the enormous range of delight, shock, and surprise abounding in the thousand-year tradition we lump together under the feeble rubric of "classical music."
From Pachelbel's Canon in D to:
Schmeltzer's Sonatae unarum fidium. Back in the early 17th century, melody was king, and emotional expressivity through melody the ultimate aim of music. In a series of six "sonatas" cunningly balanced between seeming improvisation and deeply wrought structure, this Viennese violinist created music that seems to move with the desultory inevitability of dreaming: noble, melancholy, revealing new lights and shadows with every hearing. Recommended recording: John Holloway (ECM New Series)
From Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture to:
Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Anybody who doesn't get a kick out of Tchaikovsky's razzle-dazzle musical portrait of Napoleon biting the big one doesn't really like music very much. But for all its sheer sonic fun, the "1812" is not exactly musically nourishing. For Tchaikovsky in another vein entirely—the Tchaikovsky who worshiped Mozart and dreamed of composing music as elegant as it was expressive—try the noble, graceful, vibrant Serenade for string orchestra, a symphonic scale suite that finds more variety of sonority in pure string sound than most composers can muster with 50 winds and drums thrown in. Recommended recording: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Gramophon)
From Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies to:
Liszt's Les ann饳 de p謥rinage. Let's face it, once you've heard one of Liszt's sizzling, goulash-flavored party pieces, you've heard them all. Not so for the three "books" of musical memoirs he composed during his years of youthful wanderings in Switzerland and Italy with his adored mistress, Marie d'Agoult. There's everything here: mountain tempests and waterfalls, peasant festivals, Roman gardens by moonlight, Venice by gondola, all lovingly limned by perhaps the greatest master of the keyboard who ever lived. Recommended recording: Lazar Berman (Deutsche Gramophon)
From Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique to:
Berlioz's Harold in Italy. The most attractive thing about Berlioz's five-movement tribute to a sick love affair is its let-it-all-hang-out confessional quality. That's also what wears least well about the piece in the long haul. Building a viola concerto for the great Paganini around themes from Lord Byron's poetic best-seller, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, gave Berlioz a little distance on his generation's romantic agony, to the great benefit of his compositional craft. Recommended recording: Maazel, Christ, Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Gramphon)
From Holst's The Planets to:
Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. You want romantic? You want lush? You want contrast, special effects, sonic spectacle? Nobody ever pushed the envelope farther than the youthful Arnold Schoenberg, with this tone poem to end all tone poems about a randy king, a jealous queen, and the dove-maiden who comes catastrophically between them.
Recommended recording: Chailly, Jerusalem, Voigt, Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin (London/Decca)
From Bach's six Brandenburg concertos to:
Zelenka's six trio sonatas. Everybody knows that Bach was the ultimate master of counterpoint: the art of weaving whole musical textures out of simultaneous melodies. But in Bach's own day, the title was still unclaimed, and the Czech master Jan Dismas Zelenka was a strong contender. Newly recorded, these adventures in late-baroque instrumental scat still astonish; it's like encountering Ornette Coleman in a powdered wig and knee-britches but with the mad fire of his inspiration still intact. Recommended recording: H�ger Ensemble (ECM New Series)
From Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik to:
Mozart's Sonata in D for two pianos. Mozart always cut his musical cloth to the occasion of its hearing. Eine kleine Nachtmusik is charming, but it remains a serenade: music to accompany something not all that musical in intention. The sonata for two pianos is music to be listened to by sophisticated ears, at that. (How many parlors have two pianos, anyway?) One of the most subtle explorations of the musical possibilities of stereo, the sonata is also polished to a blinding gloss: a composer's showpiece, written for peers able to appreciate both its brilliance and style. Recommended recording: Schiff /Serkin (ECM New Series)
From Vivaldi's The Four Seasons to:
Vivaldi's Gloria. Though you'd never know it listening to the radio, Antonio Vivaldi did write something other than concertos for every instrument ever invented. A lot of what he wrote (including all those concertos) was forgotten for a century, but not his lilting, lovely setting of the "Gloria" section of the Catholic mass, for two soprano voices, chorus, and small orchestra. A simple but multifaceted outpouring of pure joy, the piece inspired Mark Morris to one of his profoundest dance works. Food for the soul. Recommended recording: Shaw, Upshaw, Atlanta Symphony (Telarc)
From Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony (no. 9) to:
Mahler's Symphony no. 3. Few composers ever aimed at such exalted musical heights as Ludwig van Beethoven; even fewer achieved what they aimed for. One of those few was Gustav Mahler, whose six-movement "symphony" for huge orchestra, women's, and children's voices delivers mysterious messages from the powers ruling earth, life, and the heavens. Recommended recording: Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Sony)
Roger Downey is a senior editor at Seattle Weekly.