The Top 10 Best (and Cheap!) MP3 Classical Downloads from Amazon

When I was younger I couldn't afford to explore and collect classical music as I might have wanted, so I relied on my local library (which luckily had a fine media department).  Unfortunately, the technology to copy CDs was a few years away, so I had to cram my favorite finds on tapes, which was awkward and often impossible for 2/3 disc recordings.  These problems all seem laughable now, when you can download all of Beethoven's Cds in one go--for a few bucks.  Of course, the irony is that less people probably care about classical music and the only place you can find it nowadays is on-line.  Oh well, when one civilization crumbles another is born--no need to lament the lost world of records, tapes, and Cds (I guess).  So with this spirit in mind, I wanted to offer what I think are the best MP3 downloads currently available on Amazon in terms of quality (both of recording and ensemble/performer), quantity of music, and price.  I spend hours a week scouring Amazon for the best deals, and not much makes it through my net--though if you've found something, please let me know!  Here is my top 10 for 2013 (in order of price, least to greatest):

Click below for the list...

1.  (99 cents) Mozart, Complete Symphonies: Kehr and Mainz Chamber Orchestra (along with Maag and Philharmonica Hungarica for Nos.35-41)

Years ago, I bought the Vox Box set of part of these symphonies for $9.99 (the physical manifestation of each set goes for about $15 a piece now).  Kehr is a stunning interpreter, and his run-through of the early symphonies (Nos.1-17) is electric, making you appreciate their ingenuity and simple power.  However, I truly believe his performances of the more mature works, Nos.18-34 are among the best, with Nos.21, 25, 30, 33, and 34 among the very, very best.  I have many versions of these symphonies (Mackerras, Marriner, Graf) but he offers a direct, sensitive interpretation which is neither big-band nor period, but somehow just right.  My only proviso is the recording of Nos.35-41 by Maag, who, though a great conductor, suffers from a poorer recording and ensemble.  I love the Philharmonica Hungarica, who truly shone under Dorati in their complete survey of Haydn's symphonies, but here they sound a bit ragged and unpolished.  But you probably have other versions of these symphonies, anyway.  Buy it for the Kehr symphonies, which include Nos.1-34 as well as some early, unnumbered ones which are astonishing works.

2. ($2.99) Chopin's Piano Works (Virtually Complete), Simon, Klein, etc.

Wow, this is something else--pretty much everything Chopin committed to paper: the Ballades, Scherzos, Nocturnes, Etudes, Concertos, Waltzes, some Mazurkas and Polonaises, etc.  141 tracks!  These are all from old Vox Box recordings, so the sound is good if not amazing, but the performers are all top-notch, especially Klein, who is famous for his complete recordings of Mozart and Schubert's piano works.  You really can't go too wrong here and you can spend years exploring this repertoire.  Enjoy!

3. ($2.99) 100 Rachmaninoff Piano Favorites, Lugansky, Rodriguez, etc.

Confession: this used to be 99 cents when I bought it!  What a shameful bargain--all this music, by some of the best pianists around, for a dollar?!  Lugansky, well-known for his Rachmaninov, plays the two sets of Etudes-Tableaux, while Rodriguez does the Preludes, Piano Sonatas, and the early Morceaux de fantasie.  The other works are recorded by lesser lights in poor sound, so you can ignore those.  It also, as a curiosity, features famous historical recordings by Richter and Horotiwz in atrocious sound, but hey, it's Horowitz!  Lugansky and Rodriguez are masters of their craft and you won't want another version anytime soon after hearing these.  Best of all, Rodriguez makes a great case for the criminally ignored Sonata No.1, which I had never even heard before.

4. ($3.99) Rachmaninov, Complete Symphonies, Hughes and Scottish National SO.

There are many versions of Rachmaninov's Three Symphonies, all of them worth your time.  But this is really worth your time--great versions at an incredible price.  Hughes plays each work with tremendous spirit and sensitivity, making the most of Rach's melodies and glorious sprawl.  The set also includes three bonuses: the early, unfinished symphonic movement known as "Youth symphony," the early tone poem Prince Rostislav, and the ever-famous Vocalise.  The Youth symphony is gorgeous--a lot like The Rock, as is Prince Rostilav, which sounds like a lost work by Rimsky-Korsakov, though far more brooding.  Another BIS release, so the sound is exceptional.

5. ($.4.95) Sibelius, Violin Concerto, The Bard, The Wood Nymph, Zimmerman (violin), Storgards (conductor), Helsinki Philharmonic.

Sorry to offer two Sibelius releases, but this one is extraordinary.  First of all, a remarkable, unique version of the famous Violin Concerto which blew me away--so much better than the version in the Lahti anthology below.  But this aside, you get a gorgeous rendition of his poetic tone poem, The Bard, and an exciting version of his almost never performed, sprawling early work, The Wood Nymph (almost 30 minutes long!).  It sounds like a cross between his early symphony/poem Kullervo and En Saga, but it's shockingly original and catchy.  What a bargain!

6. ($5.99) De Machaut, Mass and Secular Songs, Ensemble Binchois.

For early music lovers, this is an extraordinary feast--over 40 tracks culled from Machaut's secular songs and famous Mass (the earliest complete mass we know of), all of them beautifully performed in gorgeous sound.  These works take you back to another time, evoking the walls of soaring cathedrals and courtly love. I've learned so much from this great recording and come back to it again and again.

7. ($5.99) Glazunov, Complete Symphonies, Otaka and BBC Wales SO:

I bought many of these when they were released as CDs years ago, coupling 1 or 2 symphonies per disc.  I was astounded to find all 7, plus the extras, .for such a measly price!  These are such hidden gems of the forgotten Romantic repertoire, though they were once the toast of Russia and Europe.  All 7 are magnificent works, very much in the vein of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and early Tchaikovsky, though they also sound a bit like Gliere and Arensky.  The masterpieces are No.2, which shares a lot in common with Borodin's 2nd, No. 4, a beautiful, pastoral work, No.5, somewhat in the vein of Tchaikovsky's 4th, and No.7, another haunting pastoral essay.  Otaka really has the measure of the pieces; he convinces you that they're first-rate works, and invests so much poetry and drive into their occasionally rambling structures.  Many other conductors have had a go at these works, notably Jarvi, Butt, and Svetlanov, but I think Otaka is the way to go, especially for the price.  Plus, like the Sibelius symphonies below, this is a BIS recording, so you get top-notch sound.

8. ($5.99) Albinoni, Complete Oboe Concertos, Stuggart Chamber Orchestra, Schilli (oboe) and Matt (conductor)

60 tracks covering all of Albinoni's bright, tuneful, dance-like concertos, which in some way rival Vivaldi's for sheer joy and diversity.  The oboist is exceptional and the orchestra perfectly in tune with Albinoni's idiom.  While you might not want to listen to all of them in one go, it really does make rewarding listening, and there is enough variety in each one to make you appreciate Albinoni's genius; he certainly deserves more credit than the posthumously cobbled-together Adagio which has made his name!

9. ($6.99) Tchaikovsky, Complete Symphonies and Assorted Orchestral Works, Jarvi, Gothenburg SO.

This set offers mind-boggling value: all the symphonies, plus most of the tone poems (minus The Tempest and Hamlet), the Serenade for Strings, and many opera excerpts, including a few pieces from the incidental music for The Snow Maiden.  Another BIS release, so you get exceptional sound quality and great performances from the Gothenburg Symphony, which Jarvi has recorded with for decades.  True, some versions aren't the absolute best--No.4, though very good, has an oddly slow finale, and other movements of the symphonies lack the fire that some composers can bring.  Yet the early symphonies (1-3) are among the best I own, making the best possible case for their originality and sound world.  The biggest reason to own this, however, is all the obscure extras: The Overture on the Danish National Anthem, a kind of miniature 1812 overture, The Storm and Overture in F Minor, and the enchanting Dance of the Chambermaids from the opera, The Voyevoda.  Not the only symphony set for your collection, but not one that will leave  you too disappointed.

10. ($7.99) Sibelius, Complete Symphonies, Vanska and Lahti SO:

This is a ridiculous bargain--all the symphonies, including several tone poems (En Saga, Tapiola), the Karelia Suite, Lemminkainen Suite, Violin Concerto, as well as some rarities: a wonderful masterpiece called Snofried, for speaker, chorus and orchestra, the early unpublished Overture,  and the first version of the 5th symphony.  These are culled from BIS' complete Sibelius cycle which retails individually at full price.  The recordings are excellent and the interpretations among the very best, since the Lahti SO is a Finnish orchestra and Vanska specializes in this repertoire.  He offers a tremendous version of Symphony No.1 (which is faster in parts and very slower in others--never heard it like this before), No.3 (with a very slow slow movement--magical), a powerful Lemminkainen suite, and great tone poems.  The Violin Concerto's performance is a bit quiet and tame for my taste, but that's just quibbling; also, aside from its curiosity factor, I don't enjoy listening to the original version of the 5th symphony.  Still, this is a tremendous find and worth buying at any price!