Thursday, February 02, 2012

The ten best-sounding classical recordings of all time!

Today I´m gonna describe my personal selection of the ten best-sounding classical recordings of all time to you, dear reader. But first let me be clear about one thing: I´m not gonna list the usual suspects from magazines or people twice as old as I am... you won´t read about some ancient RCA Living Stereo recording here. Your typical audiophile may adore them; they sound well for their age (roughly 60 years) but like - sorry - crap when keeping present-day recordings in mind. You see, several recordings declared to be "reference recordings" are sometimes nothing more than recordings people dearly love because A) they were the first recordings actually sounding any good at times when none other did or B) people grew up with them and listened to them while they were teenagers and were developing their sonic taste. Or people attach some personal experience with them, I don´t know. You won´t find recordings like that on my list (except one). Naturally I myself have recordings I dearly love, recordings I bought when I was 14. Nevertheless, most of them do not sound very good even though my musical and sonic taste was developing at that time: even then I knew how to differentiate good from bad sound. I will continue this list with the ten worst sounding classical recordings, the ten best / worst souding organ recordings and the ten bestworst filmmusic recordings. But today I´m going to show you my personal selection of classical recordings... oh, before I forget: in case of SACDs I will only mention the 2-channel-high-resolution layer because I don´t listen to multichannel.


My most loved recording: it´s crisp, boasts an impeccable dynamic with correct and impressive timbre, the staging is most lovely. It was recorded in 2007 at the Woodruff Performing Arts Center in Atlanta by Michael Bishop. From what I´ve read this revenue is sonically extremely unsuited for an orchestra (!) so it´s especially surprising that this recording sounds THAT well. There isn´t much difference between the CD and SACD layer even though the SACD layer sounds a bit less harsh and grainy with improved staging. I dare not say anything about the interpretational qualities since this is the World Premiere Recording of Gandolfi's work - I can only say that I love everything about this recording, the music and its sound!


Again the same concert hall as above, again recorded by Michael Bishop ten years prior. The interpretation of "The Planets" by Yoel Levi of this well loved work by Gustav Holst isn´t the best but that doesn´t matter because I´m concentrating on the sound only - and the sound is marvellous! Dynamic differences (the loudest fortissimo vs. the lowest pianissimo) are roughly 50 dB (40 dB are already considered overkill for most people), your loudspeakers literally explode with energy when the orchestra unleashes its full force. Beside the dynamics the sound is a bit more voluptious at deeper frequencies compared to the recording above but the rest is on roughly the same level: crispness, precision, staging and timbre are all top-notch.

Of this lovely work by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams this is the only recording I personally know. The dynamics are similar to the CD above - without the natural bass dynamic of a typical TELARC recording of course. Balance is a bit on the crisper side but very pleasant, staging is wide and deep. Perfectly natural sound. Recorded in 2001 at All Saints Church in Tooting, London. Sadly I don´t know the CD number since I bought this in high-resolution on HighResAudio.


Marvellous, almost perfect and pristine. Staging is a wee bit small but instruments are at their correct size, dynamics are good, sonic balance generally is more on the warm side which supports the colourful orchestration of these famous Stravinsky works tremendously. The interpretation of "The Firebird" is one of the best and most powerful I know. This particular CD is the reason I fell in love with Paavo Järvis' conducting style. Recorded by Jack Renner in 2002 at Cincinnati Music Hall.

The compositions on this CD have been called 'cheap' or 'tacky' so many times that one cannot count this. Ottorino Respighi was regarded as a controversial composer during his time, many critics accused him of being too simple and ecclectic, especially when describing the highly erotic "Belkis, Queen of Sheba". Whatever they say, I love the music... and yes, you can call me tacky, I´d like that (I´ve actually played enough whores and femme fatales in order to be proud about that label). I also love the sound: it´s perhaps overly crisp (as always with Mr. Johnson's recordings) yet impressively dynamic. As usual with recordings from RR the timbre of this recording is breathtakingly colourful, you won´t find this on many other recordings. Conducted by Eiji Oue, released in 2001 first as an HDCD and finally on HDTracks - which is the version you should buy.

This is one of the first classical CDs I bought some 20 years ago (and the exception I mentionend in my introduction). The recording on this CD was done in 1976 and regarding its age it sounds fabulous and even when reviewed from today this CD holds up extremely well. The sound quality is not as good as Levi's recording of "The Planets" up above but it´s better then 90% of everything else that´s out there. Staging is wide, deep and natural, bass reaches extremely deep frequencies and dynamics are mindboggling for a recording this old. Timbre could be a bit better though but even then it´s crisp, defined and presents a huge range of sonic colours. BTW, the Enigma Variations on this disc doesn´t sound very good, they were made some years prior in much worse quality. Recording was done at Abbey Road Studios in London; sadly not many recordings made there hold up to the promise its reputation suggests. But this one does, it´s the exception from the rule. It´s also the definitive recorded performance of Holsts' massive work when viewed from an interpretational standpoint. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the premiere of "The Planets" when he was still a young man and he did the same many years later for this release. The orchestras' timing is impeccable, Boult is neither too fast nor too slow and he is able to master the works' extreme mood swings with flawless ease - this one for sure is an all time high in the history of recorded classical music.


An almost perfect recording. Made in 2002 (again in Atlanta) with engineering done by Jack Renner it is perhaps a tad too harsh, there is a hint of unpleasant or stiff sound to be observed. Still, dynamics are wonderful, staging is perfect (again). The music... well, it´s not for everyone. Jennifer Higdon for example sounds a bit stiff most of the time - combine this with an equally stiff sounding recording like this one and you´ll get a very demanding SACD. The SACD-layer makes everything a bit softer while keeping the definition, shows less "grain" and improves the stage impression (admittedly sounding a bit flat on the CD layer).

The only release from German institution Deutsche Grammophon in my list (most of the time recordings from the DG are o.k. but not mind-boggling, their sound is very "German", meaning a bit brittle). This one here shows the same overall frequency balance typical for DG recordings but combines this with lovely sonic colour, dynamics, timing and precision - and possibly the most superior performance of the 7th symphony by Beethoven ever preserved on tape. It´s one of those rare recordings done by Carlos Kleiber (who usually preferred a live audience instead of a recording venue) and it´s a true gem. I bought this version here on HDTracks which is the version you should buy also - the available CD doesn´t sound remotely as well as the high definition master experienced here.


Oh, this one is a very famous recording. One of the first digital recordings ever the 1812 overture introduced TELARC to the spotlight with a bang in 1978 - literally! It features real cannons and in true TELARC fashion they were recorded without being dynamically compressed. Back in 1978 TELARC was forced to release their recordings on vinyl, the CD was not yet available. The wish to avoid dynamic compression on the cannons with their brutal signal peaks not only prompted problems for cutting the vinyl master, it also caused the needle of the turntable to jump when it encountered these peaks upon playback. If that didn´t happen there was a high probability that the listener wrecked his/her loudspeakers: the amplifier couldn´t handle the extreme jumps in dynamics and was driven into harsh clipping which in turn destroyed the loudspeakers. As you might have already guessed, the dynamics are great throughout, the staging is wide and correct (depth could be a bit better though) while sonic colour and timbre could be a bit better (compared to the more recent recordings it seems to lack a tiny bit of colour). The overall sound however is so well rendered that this recording is still able to compete against present day recordings. As I said, this release was done digitally in 1978 with the gorgeous Soundstream recorder with engineering by Jack Renner at Cincinnati Music Hall. I also advise you to have a listen to "Wellington's Victory" by Beethoven - even though critcs hate it it´s still good fun: you´ll find lots of cannons, pistols and muskets firing in this piece and yes, that may be a bit distracting but Beethoven actually intended it that way (as proven by the works' orchestration). To my knowledge this is the only recording of Beethoven's piece in existence done the way the composer intended it to be performed. Both works have been interpretated better before, as typical for the wonderful Erich Kunzel the overall result sounds a bit bored. Nevermind, this is an extremely well sounding recording to scare your neighbours with. Released as two separate CDs before (CD-80041 & CD-80079).


The last recording of the Mozart-symphony-cycle Mackerras did for Telarc is the one with the most superior sound. Voluptious, relatively forward but not very crisp. On mediocre equipment it´ll sound mellow, boring and dull. But on good equipment it will sound crisp with a lot of microdynamics and impeccable staging (some instruments seem to be too big, this could be attributed solely to the fact that only two mics were used). Dynamics aren´t much of an issue here since it´s 'only' a chamber orchestra. Still, some pieces require short reaction times by the playback equipment, necessitating perfect microdynamic capabilities. Recorded in Prague by Jack Renner in 1990.

As you can see I adore many recordings released by TELARC. Most of them seem to have the most natural dynamic or frequency balance of all recording companies. When they entered the business in the late '70s they weren´t exactly loved. Reviewers 30 years ago accused them of preferring sound quality over interpretation and that their recordings had too much bass. Too much bass? That was indeed the major criticism about their sound: a preference for deep frequencies. The reasons were of course very different because at those times other companies were diminishing deep frequency power in order for the music to be able to easily fit the numerous limitations of the carrier medium vinyl. Therefore the then usual analogue recordings were engineered that way from the start with the result that people became accustomed to that tinny sound. TELARC did not adhere to peoples' expectations, effectively producing discs with then unheard dynamics and a (natural) sonic balance many were not accustomed to. Engineering especially for vinyl is also the reason why early CDs sounded so awful - only because companies used the very same masters for technically perfect CDs - even when they were originally intended for countering numerous defects of vinyl media only. It took the classical majors and their engineers a few years for adjusting their sound, in the '70s and '80s they hadn´t seen the advantages of CD yet, they were still compensating for the flaws of vinyl. TELARC was different however: they recorded digitally from the start (with a handful of exceptions) and they always strived to get the best out of the new technology.
Sadly, those days are over. TELARC was acquired in 2005 by the Concorde Music Group and in 2009 their staff was reduced, many people (including their engineers) were laid off. Contracts with the Cincinnati Symphony / Pops Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony were cancelled or not renewed, they focus mostly on Jazz recordings now (which is what Concorde mostly deals with). Today TELARC exists in name only, the company that challenged the majors and had the best sound is all but gone. Jack Renner has retired from engineering but Michael Bishop continues to record. But the above recordings still exist and they will do so for quite some time - although not on SACD: I recommend buying their SACDs now that they are so cheap and before they are completely phased out. Grab all those CD/SACDs on Amazon, you won´t regret it. Or go buy some releases on HDTracks - you won´t regret that either (No, I´m not getting any compensation for this :)).

Last update: 01.12.2012


  1. What about the greatest ever classical recording - Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould 1955 recording. May not have the greatest recording quality, but easily the best piano playing ever.

    1. For the most part I haven´t concentrated on the interpretations but on the sound. As I´ve never heard the Gould-recording of the Goldberg Variations I can´t comment on either of them.

  2. Nice list. I've recently been trying to expand my classical music horizons and this list looks like a great place to start. Thanks!

    1. Are you experienced with classical music? If so, I recommend 'Garden of Cosmic Speculation' and 'Rainbow Body' - both are contemporary classic music and well suited to expand your horizons :)

  3. Wow, thank you for info. I just spent a small fortune on a state of the art SACD and I'm looking to buy SACD, not for the sake of buying, but for the quality of it's recording and playback. Some of my poor SACD' play worse than my top CD's and vice versa. Currently, I am on the hunt for SACD that are dynamic, 3D, and accurate. Your input is much appreciated. I have bought five of your recommended. The others I could not find, yet.

    1. Well, most of the SACDs I posted also sound very, very good on their CD layer.

  4. Yes, I agree. I have some that are hybrid's and when played in CD mode sound very impressive. I looked thru my collection and found that I have the exact version of Tchaikovsky: 1812 that you commented on above. It has always been one of my favorites, and after reading your comments, I understand why. Did not know it was in high demand!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

The Socials