This is not a list of the "best" or the "most essential" classical music recordings. There are already many of those lists available, and perhaps with a few exceptions the selections that follow probably don't appear on most of them. Instead, this is a list of 10 recordings that caught me by surprise in some way, and which have remained surprising, and deeply rewarding, each time I have encountered them since—in some cases, for more than two decades. If you don't already know these recordings, I hope they offer you a similar sense of discovery.
1. Guillaume Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame. Ensemble Organum, Marcel Pérès, director.
Ensemble Organum incorporates vocal embellishments from the Byzantine church into their renditions of Western medieval polyphony. Whether or not this approach is "authentic," its dark, mysterious quality suggests the awe with which our ancestors must have encountered the sacred. "Gloria," from the Notre Dame Mass:
2. Nicolas Gombert: Music from the Court of Charles V. Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel, director.
Gombert's emphasis on low voices and dark timbres is hauntingly realized by the Huelgas Ensemble. In "Regina coeli," a hymn to the Virgin Mary, Gombert musically foregrounds her sorrow and pain:
3. Various composers: The voice of emotion. Montserrat Figueras; Hesperion XX/La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Jordi Savall, director.
As I wrote in my post on Montserrat Figueras on her untimely death in 2011, "Once heard, Montserrat Figueras' voice could never be forgotten. It was rich and dark-hued, and at the same time could suggest fragility and suppressed tears." Tomas Luis de Victoria, "Salve, Regina":
4. Handel: Opera duets. Sandrine Piau, Sara Mingardo; Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini, director.
The brightness of Sandrine Piau's soprano contrasts beautifully with Sara Mingardo's contralto in these lovely duets from Handel operas. Both Piau (Handel, Mozart) and Mingardo (Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Handel) also have wonderful solo aria recordings. "Caro, dolce, amico amplesso" from Poro, Re dell'Indie:
5. Mozart, Haydn, Gluck: Opera Arias. Anne Sofie von Otter, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, director.
I first encountered Anne Sofie von Otter singing "He was despised" in Trevor Pinnock's recording of Handel's Messiah. I was to discover that she imbues everything she sings with similarly deep feeling, as in "Oh, del mio dolce ardor" from Gluck's opera Paride e Elena (the aria ends at 3:15, although the clip continues silently for another minute or so).
6. Haydn: Le sette ultime parole del nostro Redentore in croce, Quatuor Mosaïques.
The inwardness of Haydn's meditation on the last seven utterances of Christ on the cross is superbly matched by the introspective playing of the Quatuor Mosaïques. "Introduzione: Maestoso ed adagio" ends around 6:13, but you may find yourself unable to stop listening:
7. Richard Strauss: Vier Letzte Lieder. Gundula Janowitz; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, conductor.
Strauss wrote these final songs as he faced death. Janowitz's pure, soaring soprano expresses the sense of serene acceptance that suffuses "Im Abendrot":
8. Reynaldo Hahn: La Belle Époque. Susan Graham; Roger Vignoles.
As I wrote in my earlier post on La Belle Epoque, "'Exquisite' is a word often applied to Hahn's music, perhaps derived from his delicate treatment of mood in 'L'heure exquise' (The exquisite moment); it's an adjective that can certainly be applied to the performances of Graham and her pianist Roger Vignoles on this recording." "À Cloris":
9. Federico Mompou: Música Callada. Herbert Henck.
As I wrote in my post on Música Callada, these pieces "create an atmosphere of stillness and inwardness." Mompou himself playing the first piece from Book 1, marked angelico:
10. Shostakovich, Quartet No. 15; Sofia Gubaidulina, Rejoice! Gidon Kremer, Daniel Phillips, Kim Kashkashian, Yo-Yo Ma.
Haydn's Seven Last Words consists of eight consecutive slow movements; Shostakovich's Quartet No. 15, one of his last works, is composed of six consecutive adagios. In the opening movement, "Elegie," the sense of grief is palpable: