Classical Music Top 100

A total of 100 short presentations of central works of classical music will be created on this page between November 1, 2022 and February 8, 2023. One work will be added every day. Have fun reading along!

Here you will find the works no. 1-30.
Continue to the works 31-50 here.

Table of Contents

1) Modest Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)

Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

In Pictures at an Exhibition, Modest Mussorgsky set to music ten paintings by his painter friend Viktor Hartmann, who died much too young. Remarkable aspects are the structure of the work with a recurring transition (the “promenade”) and the complete exhaustion of the piano sound. Mussorgsky’s composition did not become truly famous, however, until 1922, when Maurice Ravel made an arrangement for orchestra.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

2) Gabriel Fauré – Requiem (1888)

Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, James Gaffigan, Laurence Guillod, Thomas Tatzl

Gabriel Fauré wrote an unusually bright, hopeful and comforting Requiem. It is one of Fauré’s best-known compositions. I wonder what the Parisian vicar would say about it, who called Fauré’s Requiem “unnecessary” after the first performance 😉

You can find the full work presentation here:
Gabriel Fauré, Requiem Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

3) Hector Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique (1830)

hr Symphony Orchestra, Andrés Orozco-Estrada

The innovative power of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique can hardly be overestimated: Many later composers, especially Wagner and Liszt, have been inspired by the literally “unheard-of” sounds of this work as well as the use of a leitmotif – the “idée fixe”.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

4) Ludwig van Beethoven – Missa solemnis (1824)

hr-Sinfonieorchester, Wiener Singverein, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Regine Hangler, Katrin Wundsam, Steve Davislim, Hanno Müller-Brachmann

It is one of the most famous mass compositions ever: Beethoven himself described his Missa solemnis as his best work. Traditional structures and, at the time, literally “unheard-of” sound colors collide here.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Ludwig van Beethoven, Missa solemnis Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

5) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 (1875)

Anna Fedorova, Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Yves Abel

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever. And this despite the fact that its creation was bumpy: Nikolai Rubinstein didn’t think much of the piece and it took three versions and 14 years for the work to take its final shape.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

 

6) Maurice Ravel – Boléro (1928)

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim

The French composer Maurice Ravel himself was surprised (and throughout his life somewhat unpleasantly touched) by the sudden fame of his Boléro: Actually, it had only been a compositional finger exercise. Today, almost everyone has heard this unique piece, which grows louder, louder, and louder over the course of 15 minutes.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Ravel, Boléro Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

7) Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 2 (1902)

WDR Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste

The optimistic underlying tone of the Symphony No. 2 by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is all the more astonishing when one knows the circumstances under which this work was written: Sibelius had just lost a daughter, and another daughter was ill with typhoid fever.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

8) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – "Turkish March" / Rondo alla Turca (1784)

Lang Lang (piano)

In his Rondo alla Turca, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart imitated the Turkish military music of the time – or at least what was thought to be the case in Vienna. The tempo range of the numerous recordings of this piece is remarkable: it lasts (with all repetitions) between 02:30 minutes and 04:00 minutes.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Mozart, Turkish March (Rondo alla Turca) Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

9) Johann Sebastian Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor (1703/1707)

Leo van Doeselaar (Organ)

For me, Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the composers of whom one cannot imagine that he was also once young. But he was 🙂 For example, when he wrote his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The work is stylistically so peculiar that Bach’s authorship has been doubted several times.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

10) Robert Schumann – Kinderszenen (1838)

Cyprien Katsaris (piano)

Robert Schumann depicted an idealized childhood in thirteen short piano pieces: Kinderszenen is the name of the famous cycle. Schumann also touches on other “typically romantic” themes such as longing, personal withdrawal and melancholy.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Schumann, Kinderszenen Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

11) George Frideric Handel – Water Music (1717)

Akademie für alte Musik Berlin

George Frideric Handel’s Water Music was first performed when the English King George I took a pleasure cruise on the Thames. King and people were so enthusiastic about the work that Handel later reworked it for the concert hall.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Handel, Water Music Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

12) Claude Debussy – La Mer (1905)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

The French composer Claude Debussy was well acquainted with the sea, because his father actually wanted him to become a sailor. Although this did not work out, Debussy at least dedicated a musical homage to the sea with La Mer, which today is one of the milestones of Impressionism.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Debussy, La Mer Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

13) Bedřich Smetana – Moldau (1875)

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Antoni Wit

In Moldau, Bedřich Smetana musically traced the course of the river of the same name – and thus created “in passing” not only one of the most important works of program music, but also the basis for the Czech national style.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Smetana, Moldau Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

14) George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

Michel Camilo (piano), Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), hr Symphony Orchestra

George Gershwin “had” to write his Rhapsody in Blue in only 5 weeks – the bandleader Paul Whiteman had simply announced the composition in the newspaper, although Gershwin had not even accepted! The result is a fascinating mixture of jazz, blues and classical music, often called the first “American symphony”.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

15) Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection") (1895)

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Ricarda Merbeth, Bernarda Fink, Netherlands Radio Choir

Not only audiences and critics, but also most of Gustav Mahler’s composer colleagues were overwhelmed by the huge dimensions of his Symphony No. 2. Today, however, it is one of Mahler’s most popular works and is played relatively frequently by the world’s leading orchestras.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Mahler, Symphony No. 2 („Resurrection“) Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

16) Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy – Violin Concerto in E minor (1845)

Julia Fischer, Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

The lengthy and laborious composition time (6 years!) is not noticeable in Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Violin Concerto in E minor: This work is full of life, radiant and positive. The violinist Ferdinand David, a close friend of Mendelssohn, played the premiere in 1845.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto in E minor Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

17) Joseph Haydn – The Creation (1799)

Gaechinger Cantorey, Hans-Christoph Rademann, Katharina Konradi, Julian Habermann, Tobias Berndt

Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation was a huge success from the very beginning: the premiere had to be interrupted in 1799 because the audience could no longer be contained. Only a few years later, the work, which musically traces the creation of the world, was already being performed throughout Europe.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Haydn, The Creation Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

18) Johann Sebastian Bach – Air (from the 3rd orchestral suite) (before 1723)

Netherlands Bach Society, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Air from the 3rd orchestral suite is one of the best known single pieces of classical music, and this despite the fact that its genesis is almost completely unclear. The only certainty is that Bach’s orchestral suites were performed in a Leipzig coffee house from 1723 onwards – Bach was known to be a coffee fan 😉

You can find the full work presentation here:
Bach, Air Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

19) Frédéric Chopin – Préludes (1839)

Yuja Wang (piano)

Frédéric Chopin wrote his 24 Préludes based on a great model: the Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. The result is a multi-faceted collection of short piano pieces covering all moods and levels of difficulty.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Chopin, Préludes Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

20) Johann Sebastian Bach – Mass in B minor (1749)

Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, Choir and Soloists, Thomas Hengelbrock

Johann Sebastian Bach created his Mass in B minor over a period of 25 years. The monumental work was composed in several stages and goes far beyond the scope of the usual liturgy of the time.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Bach, Mass in B minor Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

21) Franz Schubert – Symphony in B minor ("Unfinished") (1822?/1824?)

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer

Franz Schubert’s Symphony in B minor (“Unfinished”) remains a puzzling work to this day: why did Schubert, who desperately needed the money, put the unfinished work aside? Even the two completed movements have numerous peculiarities.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Schubert, Symphony in B minor („Unfinished“) Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

22) Johannes Brahms – Clarinet Quintet in B minor (1891)

Andreas Langenbuch (clarinet), José Maria Blumenschein (violin), Cristian-Paul Suvaiala (violin), Junichiro Murakami (viola), Simon Deffner (violoncello)

Now that’s what I call a special piece: not only had Johannes Brahms actually already given up composing when he wrote his Clarinet Quintet in B minor, but the world premiere clarinetist and dedicatee Richard Mühlfeld was also self-taught on the clarinet! Nevertheless, he became the most important clarinetist of his time, and Brahms’ piece played its part in this: Mühlfeld achieved his international breakthrough with the premiere in Berlin in 1891.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Brahms, Clarinet Quintet in B minor Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

23) Franz Liszt – B minor Sonata (1853)

Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

As the most important piano virtuoso of his time, Franz Liszt mastered all Beethoven piano sonatas by heart. In his own sonata, he wanted to go one step further. The result was the Piano Sonata in B minor (often: “B minor Sonata”), which is a remarkable and very difficult construct to play.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Liszt, B minor Sonata Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

24) Erik Satie – Gymnopédies (1888)

Paul Barton (piano)

A piece like an autumn day – that’s the Gymnopédies by Erik Satie. With the same rhythms, time signatures, and mild harmonies, the music just seems to wander aimlessly – in keeping with the symbolist/impressionist aesthetic.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Satie, Gymnopédies Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

25) Carl Orff – Carmina Burana (1936)

WDR Symphony Orchestra, WDR Radio Choir, Cristian Măcelaru

Carl Orff sets texts from the medieval text collection of the same name to music in his scenic cantata Carmina Burana. Orff himself was so convinced of the result that he wrote to his publisher that he could tamp down everything Orff had written before Carmina Burana. To this day, the powerful opening and closing chorus (“O Fortuna!”) enjoys great popularity.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Orff, Carmina Burana Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

26) Franz Schubert – String Quintet in C major (1828)

Gustav Frielinghaus (violin), Lena Sandoz (violin), Mareike Hefti (viola), Yves Sandoz (violoncello), Jens Peter Maintz (violoncello)

Franz Schubert, who was seriously ill, wrote the String Quintet in C major a few weeks before his death. With it he has left us an unusually long, mature and in places enigmatic work of chamber music.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Schubert, String Quintet in C major Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

27) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Nutcracker Suite (1891)

Sinfonia Rotterdam, Conrad van Alphen

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky compiled eight numbers from his popular ballet The Nutcracker into a Nutcracker Suite – creating a work that is possibly better known today than the actual ballet itself. Components of the suite are, for example, such “evergreens” as the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Waltz of the Flowers.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker Suite Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

28) Claude Debussy – Clair de Lune (1890)

Lang Lang (piano)

In his piano piece Clair de Lune, Claude Debussy creates a gentle, floating mood that fits perfectly with “moonlight” – so the title says it all. The effect is so convincing that Clair de Lune is often heard outside the concert hall – for example as film and even video game music.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Debussy, Clair de Lune Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

29) Johann Sebastian Bach – Goldberg Variations (1741)

Kimiko Ishizaka (piano)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a masterpiece of baroque variation art: Bach builds 30 variations from the same basic material, which could not be more different in style and character.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Bach, Goldberg Variations Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

30) Ludwig van Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata (1801)

Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

Even during Ludwig van Beethoven’s lifetime, his Moonlight Sonata was one of his most popular works. However, the sonata was known by a different name: “Arbor Sonata”, because Beethoven is said to have improvised the first movement in an arbor.

You can find the full work presentation here:
Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata Explained (5-4-3-2-1 Method)

Continue to works 31–50...