Classical music: It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But there are certain performances that have appeared on YouTube that receive special attention from a wider audience. This is a list of those such performances as selected by me.
Before founding Listverse I was studying to be an opera singer at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London. While I ultimately started a business focused mainly on writing and the internet (hooray!), my foray into the world of opera and classical music generally, continues to bring me great joy to this day. I hope you enjoy this small selection from me . . . with love to you.
Top 10 Truly Disturbing Classical Pieces
For the sake of clarification, I will say that the title here refers not to the “Classical Era” of classical music (from roughly 1730–1820 and comprising the work of Mozart, early Beethoven, and Haydn), but uses the term in the broader sense in which it is most well known: music based upon the forms, instrumentation, and styles of the great eras (Classical, Baroque, Renaissance, 20th Century etc.)
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10 Spontaneous Audience Eruption
Let’s start with something unexpected and exciting! Classical music is rather structured in form and audiences tend to behave in a certain expected manner. But here, in this live performance by the astonishing virtuoso Cecilia Bartoli, the audience is so awestruck by her opening bars that they erupt into a totally spontaneous applause garnering an adorable reaction from Miss Bartoli which is extremely pleasing to watch. It is a very human moment.
At 34 seconds we hear what may perhaps be a recording of one of the most perfect sounds produced by a human being. For further listening here is a moving rendition of Voi Che Sapete from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
9 Spiegel im Spiegel, Arvo Pärt
This piece requires metronomic perfection from the piano and intense concentration from both performers. It may seem basic but the highly exposing nature of the composition makes it incredibly difficult. Here we see a stunning rendition. Arvo Pärt, the composer, is from Estonia and uses a minimalistic compositional style that calls to mind much religious music of the Renaissance era. The title means “mirrors in the mirror” and refers to the myriad reflections seen when one reflects a mirror in another mirror: this is represented in the music by repetitive rising and falling tunes. Spiegel im Spiegel has proven to be incredibly popular with film makers and it has been used dozens of times in that setting.
8 Adagio for Strings
Okay now for something a little sadder. This is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and it was played at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, the announcement of which we covered on our list of amazing audience reactions as a bonus item (thanks HM8432). It is one of the most widely loved and played classical pieces in the world and is particularly popular music for funerals. Its popularity can be seen in the many tens of millions of views that the various recordings of it have on YouTube. It is transcendent in its beauty. This is a week of birthdays of the departed and death anniversaries for me, so I am including this entry especially in memory of my late mother Lois, my late father Adam, and my late brother Stewart (Kiwiboi on Listverse).
7 Rosenkavalier Trio
Behold one of the possibly worst dresses ever to appear on the stage of the Metropolitan opera in New York! What was Frederica von Stade thinking in that chocolate-box getup? It may have been the eighties but that’s still no excuse! Anyway, this song is not here for the fashion. These are three of the greatest voices of the twentieth century performing together at an anniversary concert for one of the greatest opera companies in the world . . . with one of the greatest conductors of opera in our time. This trio by Strauss from his opera The Rosenkavalier is beautiful in its own right, but the combination of talent here takes it to a whole other dimension. It is, in a word, Angelic.
An interesting sidenote on this one is that the black singer above, Kathleen Battle, was (and maybe still is) such a difficult woman to work with that she was fired by the Metropolitan opera for bad attitude and very publicly chastised by the company. It was a great shame as Battle, originally an elementary schoolteacher, shot to opera superstardom with her incredible vocal talent.
6 International Accord
Pandemics, economic disasters, and geopolitical tensions are on all of our minds at the moment. Here is a performance that can give us some hope for the future. Here we have my personal favorite baritone, the late Dmitry Hvorostovski (with the white hair), singing the famed Pearlfisher’s duet with the accomplished tenor Kauffman. Why is this so special? We have a German and a Russian man singing a duet by a Frenchman. It also happens to be one of the most loved pieces of classical music outside of the classical music world (I guarantee you’ve heard this song).
For additional pleasure you might like to listen to Hvorostovsky performing Rodrigo’s Aria at the Singer of the World Competition (which he won) in which he demonstrates what I would consider one of the most perfect vocal breathing techniques ever. Watch here.
Top 10 Horrifyingly Difficult Opera Arias
Sung in Ancient Egyptian, this minimalist opera by the great Philip Glass is really the single best opera in the modern minimalist style. Watch for yourself: it is hard not to love it. Gentle tunes repeat over and over while slow delicate movements are performed in time by the singers. It is hypnotic. Akhnaten is the third in a trilogy of operas with the first being based on part of the life of Albert Einstein (we featured that, amusingly, on our recent list of Truly Disturbing Classical Pieces,) and the second being the South African portion of the life of Gandhi. Minimalism is often the closest thing we get these days to a truly harmonic sounding classical style. What is particularly beautiful in this section of the opera is the way the male singer often has to sing a higher part than the female playing his wife. It makes for an unusual but attractive sound.
4 In Paradisum, Fauré Requiem
A Requiem is a musical setting of the Catholic funeral mass. It has set pieces that are included in all requiems and while they are primarily for public performance, they do occasionally get used in actual Catholic funerals. The most famous requiem is probably the setting by Mozart featured prominently in the film Amadeus. Verdi also wrote a very famous requiem and his Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) is known by most people from movies or TV programs. But the most beautiful, I think, is the Requiem of French composer Gabriel Fauré. You will probably recognize the part I have selected to show here, In Paradisum, as it was used as part of the soundtrack to the zombie film 28 Days Later. It is glorious and the music reflects the words: “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once (a) poor (man), may you have eternal rest.” For your edification I have included the entire Requiem, just drag the player position to 0 to start it over.
3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
This piece (Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s third symphony) actually hit the pop music charts it was so internationally loved. It may have even been the first piece of classical music to do that since the popular music charts were invented. It is a set of three songs in the form of a symphony and this one (the most popular) is the second song. It is sung in Polish and the text is a prayer to the Virgin Mary inscribed on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II. The words being sung are: “Oh, Mamma do not cry. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, support me always.”
2 I hate and I love
Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer of this piece died in 2018 at the age of 48 from an overdose of cocaine and cold medicine. It is a profound loss to classical music and the film industry (he wrote most of his music for films including the most outstanding recent science fiction movie Arrival which you have to see if you haven’t already). I may be taking a small liberty including this on a list about classical music, but my reason is that it includes a vocal part and lyrics, albeit performed by a computer, and was not intended specifically as film music. To complete the very modern take on classical music, it is written for strings and tape recorder and the ensemble includes a synthesizer and electric guitar. Jóhannsson himself is seen in this live performance controlling the vocal recording, conducting, and playing the piano.
The lyrics are by Catallus who wrote the famous sexual poem (known as Catullus 16 bearing the famous opening line: “I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,”) we have covered before. Odi Et Amo is the first line of his two line poem Catullus 85: “I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask. / I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.” The setting of this Latin lyric is profound, beautiful, and out of this world. If you wish to hear another beautiful piece by this composer, I recommend his haunting “The Sun’s Gone Dim” with Lyrics by the indomitable Dorothy Parker from Jóhannsson’s 2006 album entitled IBM 1401, A User’s Manual.
1 Ombra Mai Fu
I want to end this list with a performance that is both surreal and beautiful. Beautiful because the piece “Ombra man Fu” is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful pieces of vocal music ever written, and surreal in that the male singer is a counter-tenor, which means he sings in a feminine register. His rendition is certainly one of the best. The piece is from Xerxes by Handel. In this day and age its words speak beautiful to us. Yesterday we published a list about entering a new dark age, let us look at these words now while listening to this beautiful aria and remember that the world is full of wonder. They may be 300 years old, but I sincerely wish these words upon all of us today.
“Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never disturb your dear peace,
nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.”
Top 10 Classical One Hit Wonders
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