Einojuhani Rautavaara: Piano Concerto No.3 “Gift of Dreams” (1998)
Rautavaara's third piano concerto; a modern concerto that feels like a hazy memory, nothing is clear but not unrecognizable.
Andrew Norman: Sustain (2018)
Premiered in 2018, Norman’s sustain is a post-minimalist masterpiece for full orchestra and in my opinion one of the best pieces to be written in the 2010s. It features vast landscapes of sound textures throughout and takes the minimalist school of composition and takes it to its limits. One of my favorite passages in contemporary classical music takes place around 12 minutes in, and is unforgettable - it is like staring up at skyscrapers from below.
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1913)
Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring changed the world of classical music when it premiered in 1913. I must’ve listened to the whole thing maybe 30 times since I discovered it 3 years ago. It changed how I viewed music and was what got me into the world of classical music; the harmonies are something special that hasn’t been replicated in more recent pieces since. The Rite of Spring is essentially about an ambiguous pagan society that sacrifices a young virgin girl to the gods of spring in order to bring good omens for the survival of the tribe. Stravinsky imagined the idea of this piece during his composing of The Firebird, and only after the Firebird was completed did he begin to work on a piece that would alter the influence of atonality and polytonality in music. The piece premiered at the theater of Champs-Élysées in Paris, France in 1913 to an audience of French elites and french impressionist composers. From the very beginning of the introduction, uproar in the seats of the theater began to fester in response to what they were hearing and began to yell various comments in a state of confusion ridiculing and joking the music. By the time the Augurs of Spring began, things got out of control as the yelling drowned out the orchestra which interfered with the dancers’ ability to sync with the music on stage. The performance managed complete despite the audience reaction; contrary to popular belief, a riot did not break out during the premiere, there just isn’t evidence suggesting it’s validity. The piece was made too early; perhaps, it would be accepted after WWI, or if not then for sure after WWII when composers like Shostakovich and other post-modernists were around. This piece is such an exploration of savagery and human instincts. The complexity and variety of time signatures and rhythms are also a large aspect of the Rite of Spring’s distinct appeal, the piece at times extends into polyrhythmic territory.
Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto (2017)
A modern concerto composed 4 years ago. I think Marsalis' Violin Concerto will become a great repertoire piece for future violinists akin to Tchaikovsky and Sibelius’ violin concertos. Every bit of this piece is exploratory and it's one of my favorite concertos.
This video is of just Movement I, the full playlist can be found here.
Thomas Adès: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2019)
Another contemporary concerto from recent memory that is reminiscent of American composers like Charles Ives; Adès' use of dissonance I find to be captivating and in a uniquely American approach. The melodic overture to each movement is largely undefined and with irregular rhythms but played with passion that makes this piece stand out.
This video is of just Movement I, here is a link to Movement II and here is a link to Movement III.
Henryk Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No.1 (1853)
Another great violin concerto from a virtuosic composer; the 1st movement is a treat.
Qigang Chen: Reflet d’un temps disparu (1996)
Another modern piece which incorporates unique extended techniques that add beautiful textures. Chen's incorperation of faded musical textures that appear and dissapear over time, as well as the use of extended techniques makes this piece my favorite cello concerto.
John Adams: Violin Concerto (1993)
One of my favorite pieces of John Adams', this piece conjoins interesting harmonies with rhythms that take influence from minimalist composers. This piece also features synth and works really well in supporting the strings and percussion; my favorite movement in this concerto is the 3rd, one of my favorite fast movements in a violin concerto.
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Angels and Visitations (1978)
A short symphonic piece by Rautavaara with possibly the most tonal variation of any of his pieces; there are moments in this piece of pure serenity which quickly devolve into demented screams of terror. For me, this piece has me visualize narratives and vivid scenes of a post-apocalyptic appalachian-esque setting; this piece in particular I find to be his best short-from piece.
Christopher Rouse: Symphony No.3 (2011)
A contemporary symphony composed and premiered in 2011, this symphony combines an atonal style with a uniquely american take on the symphonic structure. The piece itself reminds me of American painter, muralist and printmaker Thomas Hart Benton in terms of style and influence.
Alberto Ginastera: Popol Vuh (1983)
Popol Vuh is the story of Mayan Creation, and Ginastera conveys this story in a soundscape that is defined by his particular style. The beginning reads similarly to Strauss' Sonnenaufgang in Also Sprach Zarathustra, with a quiet beginning followed with a loud burst of energy as the world is manifesting. I like the second movement a lot for its energy especially during the part with the brass and percussion play those marched and hurried cluster chords... pure gold.
Olivier Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony (1948)
Messiaen’s Turangalila is unlike any other symphony and is an enigma to describe, but is unique in its style in a way that is captivating to listen to. The scale of this piece is unmachted by any other symphony in my opinion, a celebration of adoration and unrequited love. The symphony is somewhat a spiritual retelling of Tristan and Isolde and each of its ten movements poetically embody the story it is loosely based from. From the dissonant lullaby of the sixth movement to the stabs and screams of the tenth movement, this piece definently explores a wide range of emotions. Turangalila features the Ondes Martinot, an early electronic instrument akin to the theremin, which is able to create these landscapes of sound that voice over any register.
Here is a link to an even better recording with all of the movements in a playlist.
Iannis Xennakis: Jonchaies (1977)
Xennakis' music shows a more mathematical and objective point of view that is truely unique; Xennakis, a pupil of Messiaen, embraced his experiences during WWII in Greece, his love for architecture and mathematical equations to create music that is out of this world.
Ones in yellow are my recommendations (although all are great)
WARNING, these symphonies are long as hell.
Mahler’s symphonies are the peak of German romanticism in music, and there are five I believe to be his best. No.2, his most famous work is an immense soundscape with a full orchestra acompanied by a full choir featuring soloists. No.5 which sports iconic motifs and a wide range of moods from chaotic to serene. No.8 (similarly to No.2) is a sonic landscape of musicality based off of the gregorian chant “Veni Creator Spiritus”. I think the ending to this symphony is the most beautiful ending to a piece of music I've heard. Following the 8th in order to escape the curse of 'the ninth', Mahler wrote Das Leid, a song cycle which is essentially a symphony. Afterwards, he wrote his ninth symphony and succumbed the curse and died before his 10th was finished, although the first movement of which is complete and begins to venture into polytonal territory. The 9th also sports a beautiful ending which goes from quiet string passages to complete silence for about five minutes.
Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathurstra (1896)
A tone poem based off of Friedrich Nietzsche's novel of the same name; the Sonnenaufgang has been heard even by people who don't listen to classical music. However, the rest of the piece is just as powerful and is what I believe is Strauss' best work.
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Symphony No.7 (1994)
One of my favorite symphonies of Rautavaara's, it is a work that seems to live up to the legacy of Sibelius' 7th Symphony in many ways; this piece has a beautiful third movement with yearning harmonies produced by the strings in the begining. To me, this piece is the pinnacle of post-modern classical music that reminds us of the legacy of earlier composers which still lives on in newer works, especially in the case of Rautavaara who was overshadowed legacy-wise in Finland by the musical titan that was Sibelius. I consider Rautavaara's work to be the last before the beginning of the contemporary period (199X - ) in which the vast majority of composers now are too young enough to have met the greats of the 20th Century.
John Adams: Harmonielehre (1985)
John Adams' Harmonielehre is a love letter to minimalism; the piece is a response to Arnold Schoenberg's teachings of tonality and encompasses the very best of minimalist harmony. The perpetual rythmic passages in the first movement and the joyous and energetic ending makes this piece one of my favorite contemporary symphonies.
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (2013)
Not to be confused with John Adams, JLA's Become Ocean is post-minimalism's answer to Debussy's La Mer; in many ways, this piece embodies the movement of the ocean in a way only roughly explored in La Mer. The sonic landscape this piece makes me imagine roaring waves as seen from beneath a vast open sea.
Christopher Rouse: Trombone Concerto (1991)
A concerto written for an instrument that isn't often featured in most concerto repertoire, this piece is written as a requiem for Leonard Bernstein who died a before; it features various textures and moods throughout. The second movement is my favorite with its demented scherzo with the trombone blaring over the orchestra that makes perfect use of the instrument's range.
Olivier Messiaen: L'Ascension (1933)
One of Messiaen's earlier pieces, first composed for a full symphonic orchestra, and an organ version composedd later; both capture Messiaen's unique style of limited modes.
André Jolivet: Ondes Martenot Concerto (1947)
A concerto written for the Ondes Martinot, an early electronic instrument most popularly showcased in Messiaen's Turangalila, this piece captures a similar harmonic structure as Turangalila, but now with the Ondes as the centerpiece. The range this instrument provides is spectacular and large intervals are able to be played in a short amount of time; this concerto captures this energy in my opinion. Also that ending...
Nikolai Kapustin: Piano Concerto No.2 (1973)
A piano concerto with influences from gershwin era jazz ensemble works with the most groove I've seen from a classical piece. Kapustin really explores rhythms in this piece and it one of my favorites along with his Eight Concert Etudes.