Lovely Recordings Hosted by John Marks

David Hancock was the legendary engineer responsible for the famous 1967 Donald Johanos/Dallas Symphony Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances LP, as well as Arturo Delmoni & Meg Bachman Vas’ Songs My Mother Taught Me. What many audiophiles don’t know is that David also was a Juilliard-trained classical pianist.

David had strong opinions about modern music. David once asked me, "John, do you know why they call it ‘contemporary’ music?" When I answered that I did not, David said, "Because most of it is a con, and all of it is temporary."

I do not agree. Not all music that is modern is destined for the trash heap of history. I think that many (but, of course, not all) audiophiles are denying themselves a lot of great music because of a mistaken prejudice along the lines of, "If it was composed in the 20th century and is not a film score, it probably is difficult and unrewarding to listen to."

I will be the first to agree that strict academic 20th-century 12-tone (serial) music can be rough sledding—especially upon the first hearing. However, there are countless pieces of music written by 20th-century (and later) composers that are very accessible, listenable, and rewarding.

As an arbitrary starting date for my mini-survey, I chose 1950. In terms of selecting pieces, I avoided out-and-out retro or neo-Romantic compositions such as Howard Hanson’s Symphony 2.

Naturally, I chose pieces that have personal resonance for me. My own taste in music runs to compositions that take themselves seriously—in other words, my taste is the complete opposite of the music offered by most classical FM stations during morning drivetime. I have little interest in music that is bright, perky, tuneful, undemanding, and for the most part utterly predictable.

So here is an impressionistic, and therefore by definition incomplete, very personal (and brief) chronological survey of more than 50 years of modern compositions that I surmise many audiophiles have not yet heard. I believe they will enjoy the music immensely. To repeat, this list is not an exercise in eating spinach because it is good for you; these pieces are just good music, period.

All these recordings are available on Tidal’s music-streaming service. (I am sure that most of them are available in lossy formats from iTunes.) I note downloads only for better-than-CD-Quality offerings, or when there was no physical-medium release. Of course, for each work, there are recordings other than the ones I recommend (in some cases truly excellent alternatives to discover).

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony 2, "Mysterious Mountain" (composed 1955; this recording, RCA 1958)

In 1940, in what I think was quite obviously a gauntlet-tossing-down in the direction of academic serialism, Alan Hovhaness set forth his personal artistic manifesto:

It is not my purpose to supply a few pseudo-intellectual musicians and critics with more food for brilliant argumentation, but rather to inspire all mankind with new heroism and spiritual nobility. This may appear to be sentimental and impossible to some, but it must be remembered that Palestrina, Handel and Beethoven would not consider it either sentimental or impossible. In fact, the worthiest creative art has been motivated consciously or unconsciously by the desire for the regeneration of mankind.
Hovhaness’ music was informed by his studies of not only the Christian tradition of Chant, but also of Indian and Asian music. Hovhaness’ earliest success in symphonic form was his second effort, "Mysterious Mountain," which was fortunate in its early champions Fritz Reiner, the Chicago Symphony, and RCA records.

"Mysterious Mountain"’s spare architecture of modal elements wrapped in exotic sonic textures rises to an austere majesty that owes not much to the 19th-century European symphonic tradition, and which owes nothing to the Second Viennese School.

Available from Archive Music

Benjamin Britten: Nocturnal After John Dowland (composed 1963; this recording, Azica 2011)

Benjamin Britten’s inspired reworking of John Dowland’s Renaissance lute song "Come, Heavy Sleep" fell like a thunderclap across the world of classical-guitar music (and the world of modern music in general). Nocturnal is generally regarded as one of the most important (and is often called the single most important) pieces for solo classical guitar written in the 20th century.

Britten inverts the usual virtuoso-variations form. He starts with a deconstructed version that is farthest from the original. With each successive iteration, the music moves closer to the uncomplicated pathos of Dowland’s yearning for the sleep that is death. David Leisner’s performance is direct and un-self-conscious, and the quality of the recorded sound is first-class.

Available from Archive Music

Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel (composed 1971; this recording, Hänssler Classic 2014)

Morton Feldman wrote a piece specifically for one room: a privately-funded interfaith chapel in Texas that had been designed to house and display massive paintings by the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. Feldman’s Rothko Chapell, for soprano, alto, choir, percussion, celesta, and viola is one of the most organically magical pieces of modern music.

Just as Britten’s Nocturnal deconstructs toward simplicity, Feldman’s Rothko Chapel moves toward an encounter with what Feldman (in a related context) called "[a] very few essential things."

Rothko’s huge dark canvasses remind me of a particularly Spanish form of Catholicism (or at least, of a particularly Spanish form of Catholic art). Rothko Chapel similarly conveys a sense of mourning, but also a sense of being outside time. I know of nothing else like it.

Available from Archive Music

Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (composed 1977; this recording Chandos 2005)

Britten’s spare and unornamented music made Arvo Pärt believe he had found a kindred spirit. So, Pärt was confounded that Britten died before he could meet him.

Pärt composed, as a memorial, an elegy for string orchestra and a single bell. The bell is tuned to A, and the entire piece is based on a slowly descending natural-minor scale that is also in A.

65 measures in, the first violins stop playing the A-minor scale, and hold the note C for more than 250 beats—a gesture that calls to mind the vibraphone ostinato toward the end of Rothko Chapel. Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is one of Pärt’s most popular pieces, and deservedly so.

Available from Archive Music

Toru Takemitsu: From Me Flows What You Call Time (composed 1990; this recording Yarlung Records 2013)

Self-taught Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu was influenced by the music of Olivier Messiaen as well as (belatedly) by traditional Japanese music. Takemitsu’s From Me Flows What You Call Time is essentially a concerto for five percussionists and orchestra.

But rather than being a Louie Bellson bash-fest, over the course of its 25-minute running time From Me Flows What You Call Time is often sparse and understated—almost to the point of being "ambient" music, but with more structure, as subtle as that structure and the sound are.

From Me Flows What You Call Time was commissioned for the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall. The featured recording is of very high audio quality, and also musically inventive—in between other pieces are brief numbers from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vespers, arranged for percussion.

Available from Archive Music

88kHz/24bit download: HDtracks

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae (composed 1997; this recording Chandos 2006)

The title is Latin for, "The Song of Maritime Calamity." In 1994, an Estonian passenger ferry took on water and sank with the loss of 852 lives. One of the texts set in this astounding work for chorus and soloists is a transcript of a Latin-language Finnish radio news broadcast on the sinking.

However, it is the opening of the piece that is sublime—in the sense of terrifying. After a choral sigh and whispered invocations of the Requiem text, the soprano soloist sings a wordless folk-style lament.

The whispers are indistinct—they may be a tone painting of the sounds of the water against the hull, or of the whispered prayers of the passengers. The tenor declaims the news story in Latin, creating an eerie echo of The Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. The words move on to Psalm 107 ("They that go down to the sea in ships...").

Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae is a tremendously serious work, imaginatively conceived, and performed with dignity and compassion.

Available from Archive Music

John Adams: The Dharma at Big Sur (composed 2003; this performance DG 2010)

John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur could have been a dog’s breakfast of what I refer to as "Good Career Move" music, but: It is not. It’s the real thing, a virtuoso violin concerto (albeit for six-string electric violin) such that, if Paganini were around today, I think he’d be a bit envious of both composer and performer.

The The Dharma at Big Sur was commissioned for the opening of the Walt Disney Hall. Its two parts are respectively tributes to the melodic inventiveness of Lou Harrison and the insistent rhythms of Terry Riley. The soundscape is an engaging cross of ambient, even trancelike orchestral backgrounds with an increasingly demanding violin part that moves ever-closer to a huge tonal resolution.

Tracy Silverman premiered the piece, and he later recorded it with the composer and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. However, Leila Josefowicz’s 2010 live performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is even more propulsively energetic.

Josefowicz’s performance was not released on physical media, but it can be heard over Tidal, and CD-quality downloads are available here.

Available from Presto Classical

John Marks has produced recordings by Nathaniel Rosen, Arturo Delmoni, Harry Allen, Guy Klucevsek, and others. Since departing from Stereophile magazine, John has busied himself with his new audio company Esperanto Audio and his blog The Tannhäuser Gate.

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Alex Halberstadt's picture

Awesome list and commentary, John! Will ferret these out. Thank you!

2_channel_ears's picture

A different twist on some familiar composers, and works. I have them queued up and can't wait to "Roonize" them for additional explorations.

CarterB's picture

Thanks for the selections, John.

Note you can get Smoke & Mirrors in up to DSD256 on

EliaGar's picture

I've been looking forward to exploring more modern classical and this looks like a great list to work my way through! My father, too, disliked modern classical and played little that was written beyond mid-late 1800s. Thank you for the new sounds!