10 Best Classical Music Pieces for Stereo Listening

Give both your audio system and your ears a workout.

Hardcore metal-heads, hip-hop loyalists or EDM lovers might think, “Classical music? I don’t want to listen to that old stuff.” But whether you realize it or not, you’ve been listening to classical music all your life. Movies, commercials, TV shows, you name it. Whether they are using the music of iconic composers or the work of more contemporary classical artists (think John Williams, Yo-Yo Ma and others), the influence is everywhere.

Even if you’re not especially a fan, listening to classical music is a worthwhile pursuit, as it gives both your Hi-Fi system and your ears an interesting workout. For one thing, because all the instruments are acoustic, there is an “absolute sound,” so to speak. A piano can only sound like a piano, after all, and stringed instruments like the violin and cello are especially tough to reproduce properly. If you’ve heard a string quartet or symphony orchestra live, you know what I’m talking about.

But where to begin? If you are a vinyl lover, you know the different variations in pressings, and the challenge that presents. My advice? Just dig in and ignore those who will (always) insist that you’re listening to the wrong performance or the wrong pressing. It’s music and it’s supposed to be fun.

Here, in no particular order, are ten of my favorite classical music selections. They may be diverse in terms of musical approach, but they all have one thing in common: They’ll give you hours of enjoyment when listened to on a quality two-channel stereo system. And if you happen to get bitten by the classical bug, there’s this bonus: You’ll never look at your favorite TV shows, movies, and cartoons the same way again.

1. The Soundtrack from Seven Days in Tibet: Track 6 – “The Invasion”

John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma

Available on CD and via streaming

Let’s start out with one that has it all. This track starts out small, with some faint drumming, percussion and stringed instruments. The sonic landscape is big, open, airy and twinkly. At about 2:40, the hard-core drumming starts in earnest and this will tax your system to the maximum. The first time through, keep the volume control down a bit so you can get a feel for how loud you can turn your system up without damage. Yeah, it’s that good.

2. Dvorak Piano Trio Op.65

The Jung Trio

Available on SACD and vinyl.

This is one of my favorite records of all time, with an exquisite piano/violin performance that’s utterly relaxing. There’s no one standout track: just play it start to finish. Note that, if you get the vinyl version, it comes on two 45 rpm discs, with one track per side — but we can all use some extra exercise, right?

3. Beethoven Wind Music: Octet Op. 103, Sextet Op. 71, Quintet, Rondino 25

The Netherlands Wind Ensemble

Available on vinyl only.

Beethoven is not exactly known for his wind ensemble pieces, but there’s so much delicacy in this recording, if you turn it up just a little bit (but not too loud) you’ll hear an expansive soundstage with an especially “you are there” realism. In fact, in the quietest passages, you’ll even be able to hear the players depressing the buttons on their instruments. This is an incredibly soothing record, and another to just play from start to finish.

4. Bax: The Symphonies Symphony no. 4

The BBC Philharmonic

Available on CD and via streaming.

This piece is considered to be Sir Arnold Bax’s most extroverted work. Movement 1, “Allegro Moderato,” eases you into the mood, building you up through the third and final movement. What makes this recording so exciting is its sense of pace and dynamics, going from a solitary oboe one second to full-blast orchestra the next. If you have a system with a lot of reserve dynamic power, you can feel the music swell and recede in your room with ease.

5. The Soundtrack from Memoirs of a Geisha: Track 6 – Becoming a Geisha

Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, John Williams

Available on CD and via streaming.

This record has Yo-Yo Ma’s imprint all over it. It may not be quite as dynamic as “The Invasion” (see #1 above), but this is still a hugely expansive piece that will make you wonder where the surround sound speakers are hiding when listened to on a quality two-channel audio system. The drums are distinctly in the forefront, with the piano set way back and everything else folding in and out as the music plays — great to listen to with the lights down low.

6. Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini

Available on CD and streaming. (Original vinyl: 1976 Deutsche Grammophon)

This is as big and bold as it gets. The beginning Promenade starts slow, as you might expect from a Russian composer, but at precisely 2:09 into “Gnomus,” the music stops with a baton thwack and then heads to a thundering climax 20 seconds later that will totally grab your attention … especially if you’ve got the volume turned up.

7. Wagner: Die Walkure

(Any performance)

Available in all formats.

This German opera features probably one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music ever: “Ride of the Valkyries.” Trust me, even if you claim to never listen to classical music, you’ve heard this piece (or portions of it) many times before. But don’t stop there, because the entire opera is nearly three and a half hours long, and it’s all worthwhile. Not casual listening by any stretch, but the better recordings have a massive sense of scale, especially when the vocalists take over.

8. Verdi: La Traviata, from the Sempre Libra disc

Anna Netrebko with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Available in all formats.

The Italians invented the opera around 1600, and while many might argue that Maria Callas (considered by many to be the ultimate opera diva) was the definitive vocalist for this piece, I prefer the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. Netrebko has a softer, silkier voice, which might just be a lot more approachable for those new to opera. This recording only has some excerpts from the entire performance, but it’s enthralling nonetheless.

9. Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite

(Any performance)

Available in all formats.

Here’s another piece that you’ve been hearing since you were in diapers — it’s been used in dozens of movies, even an episode of The Simpsons. Like “Ride of the Valkyries,” it’s a great introduction to classical music because it’s not unfamiliar — and so you may be surprised at how much you like this piece even when it’s unaccompanied by a visual.

10. Frank Zappa: 200 Motels: The Suites

Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale

Available in all formats.

Okay, this one is more rock fusion, but the late Frank Zappa always had a passion for classical music, and it shows here. Less than a minute into this 2013 Disney Hall performance, you start hearing the complex time signatures that Zappa was so famous for. It’s an especially densely packed recording — a friend of mine calls it “Difficult Listening Hour” — but, personally, I think it’s well worth the challenge.

 

Check out these related blog posts:

Dialing in the Perfect Two-Channel Experience

Hi-Fi Starter Guide

The History of Hi-Fi

Top 10 Vinyl Albums For Audiophiles

10 Hip-Hop Albums That Sound Great On Vinyl

 

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