It’s our favorite time of year: celebrating winter’s wonder with every beautiful note we hear.
From Solstice to Kwanzaa, and Christmas to Hanukkah, or whatever you choose, if your celebrations include gift giving, start here. These selections of listenable music, great reads, and tiny treasures are sure to please classical music fans, or that special someone who is curious about classical music. (Yes, we encourage gifting yourself, too.)
Hilary Hahn Plays Bach
Three-time GRAMMY Award-winner Hilary Hahn revisits Bach’s solo violin music 20 years after she made her first recording (also wonderful). There is no better Bach violinist today — the clarity of Hahn’s tone distills each piece into its purest form, infusing it with light and grace.
Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf
This album is not a new release, but it is a revelation. The Danish String Quartet is one of the best quartets in the game, and their masterful playing makes these Nordic folk tunes — some more than 1,000 years old, translated from runes — electrically exciting.
Yo-Yo Ma: Six Evolutions
One of the best things about Bach is his origami-like listenability – the pieces are magnificent on the outside, but it’s the details, which keep getting more intricate the closer you look, that make his solo cello suites a never-ending journey.
There’s also something very special about a one-on-one, musician-to-listener experience, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma makes that connection like no other. Yo-Yo embraces the human spirit in Bach’s music with as much passion as he embraces the cello itself.
Stephen Hough: Debussy: Piano Music and Dream Album
There’s really nothing quite like watching the snow fall outside and letting Debussy whisk you away to magical landscapes, both fictional and real. Not only does this classical piano album contain the complete Images, each piece a dreamlike watercolor vignette, but also the transportive Estampes, globetrotting through the pagodas of East Asia to the late-night parties of Granada.
What a great collection. Dreamy classical piano rarities, like Albeniz’s Capricho Catalan, and some of Hough’s own compositions – all of it perfect music for late-night listening!
Boston Symphony Orchestra: Shostakovich Symphonies 4 & 11
You may or may not believe that Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony is his most emotionally powerful, but in the ongoing series of releases of the Soviet composer’s works by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons, it is, so far, the zenith. It’s also the most recent release, indicating that there may be even greater heights to come in this collaboration. Nevertheless, there’s no reason to wait; this is an utterly devastating performance, paired with an equally persuasive performance of the terrifying 4th Symphony.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Inspiration
It doesn’t matter what the piece of music is or in what musical style: Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays it with a profound understanding of what the composer wanted the listener to feel. This young cellist is already polished. Perhaps it comes down to this: everyone on your gift list needs to hear his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and feel something again.
Joyce DiDonato: Into the Fire
Joyce DiDonato’s most recent release, “Into the Fire” Live at Wigmore Hall, if for no other reason because you must hear her performance of Jake Heggie’s eponymous cantata Camille Claudel: Into the Fire! The album is a collaboration with the Brentano Quartet, and it’s really, really good.
The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge: 100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols
The legendary boys choir of Cambridge released one of the finest-ever double-CD sets of Christmas lessons and carols. In addition to traditional favorites, listen for contemporary carols and new arrangements by current composers. If you haven’t heard this incredible set yet, what are you waiting for?
Anderson: Symphony for the City of the Dead
M. T. Anderson’s “Symphony for the City of the Dead” is a riveting portrait of Soviet Russia during World War II and a fascinating biography of Dmitri Shostakovich all in one.
Ross: Listen to This
Alex Ross’s “Listen to This” is not a brand new book, but it’s his latest, and he’s such an insightful thinker about music – (he hates the term “classical music,” by the way).
Waleson: Mad Scenes and Exit Arias
Whether opera is important to you or not, this book should be. A cautionary tale that has only a little to do with the art form and a lot to do with the management and governance of the non-profit world, Heidi Waleson’s “Mad Scenes and Exit Arias” adds a critical, blessedly non-gossip-soaked narrative to the ongoing discussion of the health of a vital sector of the American economy and culture.
Tommasini: The Indispensable Composers
What happens when fans and critics whittle down the “definitive” list of best classical composers of all time? Just ask Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of The New York Times (he already tried). His questioning of canonical works, who decides, and an engaging approach with readers, informs his new book, a personal guide to “The Indispensable Composers.”
Walker: Fryderyk Chopin
The immensely gifted writer and scholar Alan Walker (whose three-volume biography of Liszt is acknowledged as the definitive source on that vast subject) has taken on the life and times of Chopin, giving deep and gorgeously written historical context, and enlightening us with rich detail and insight on the lives of the people who shaped Chopin’s life. He has written a “Life and Times” that will make you feel as if you knew Chopin.
Gramophone may be the most comprehensive classical music magazine around: It does a great job of highlighting current trends, as well as the more obscure corners of classical music.
Pocket Music Dictionary
You’ll love having Hal Leonard’s Pocket Music Dictionary when you need to confirm what a tempo marking means, or can’t remember how to say “viola” in German.
This Moleskine staff paper music notebook is a must have for any budding musician or classical fan. It’s lovely.
Mugs or novelties
This mug pairs well with hot cocoa, this one with mulled cider, and both with fireplace chats. (Or so we’ve heard.) If your classical music fan enjoys warm beverages, consider any one of many, music-themed mugs and novelties.
What do you recommend? Add your favorites
We hope this list inspires you to enjoy more great classical music. Do you have a favorite we left out? We love to hear from our readers. Tweet us @classicalorg, message us on Facebook, or email us. And, thanks.
Keep making and listening to music, wherever you are.