Lovely Recordings Hosted by Neil Madsen

It’s 1996, well before iPods, smartphones and easy Internet access. My employer is sending me from New York City to Sydney, Australia for a 1-year work assignment. My wife and two little kids are coming too. We can bring whatever fits into allowable checked luggage and carry-ons, plus a small “barrel” of other personal items (mostly toys & clothes) that will follow by cargo ship a few months later. We’ll be living in a very small apartment, so most of our possessions will be staying behind (or being sold at garage sale, in the case of my vinyl collection) including everything from our pets to our musical instruments, the hi-fi system and most of my recorded music library. We have two months to get organized. I designate a small cardboard box for CDs to bring along. The ones I choose to fit in that box will have to do me for a year, and I’ll be playing them on a boom-box to be purchased once we arrive. Not the happiest thought for an audiophile, but to be honest there are more pressing things to think about.

I don’t remember agonizing over which CDs to bring. My all-time favorites must have seemed fairly obvious at the time. Looking back, though, it truly was a “desert island” kind of decision that said a lot about the music that was important to me in 1996. Although my musical tastes (and library) have expanded considerably in the ensuing 20+ years, I still own, treasure and listen to all of the CDs that made the trip. Here are the ones that are still available as CD-quality downloads, thus qualifying for this column (and I’m really sad I can’t share the others – they’re beauties too)…

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major 'Titan' (EMI, 1984)
This was the very first CD I ever owned. I graduated from music conservatory in the 1980s as a full-blown Mahler fan (before Mahler was cool, I might add), and I figured this was the way to start my CD library. From the glimmer of the opening strings to the raucous romp of the double basses in the second movement, to the echoes of "Songs of a Wayfarer" throughout, this recording remains a treasure.

Available from Presto Classical

Schubert: Impromptus D899 & D935 (Sony, 1984)
This was my second-ever CD. My brother-in-law, a talented pianist, had played the Impromptu Op. 90 D. 899 #2 in E-Flat (amongst other things of course) at my wedding reception. I had seen & enjoyed Murray Perahia in concert a year or two beforehand, so this seemed like the recording to get. I recall the disc I originally purchased had a defect causing it to skip when I bought it. The record store (remember those?) cheerfully arranged for an exchange but had to special-order it. The music moved me then and it still moves me today.

Available from Presto Classical

Handel: Messiah (Decca, 1980)
My wife bought this 3-disc set as a gift on our very first Christmas together. Truth be told, she had actually gotten a different recommendation from a music librarian (and mutual friend), but found it was out of print. The music store clerk pointed her to this one instead, and what a beauty it is. The purity of the opening tenor singing “Comfort Ye My People” and the light choral treatment throughout has become my personal reference standard – the way The Messiah “should” sound. Nearly 30 years later, this still gets heavy play at Christmas and Easter.

Available from Presto Classical

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 & Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (Sony, 1989)
The plaintive, haunting concerto seems permanently pressed into my brain, and will begin playing inside my head whenever my mood darkens even a little bit. This is one of those recordings that still, once or twice a year, I give in and play from start to finish in a dimly lit room with no distractions except maybe a scotch.

Available from Presto Classical

Mozart: Piano Quartets (Philips, 1990)
This was probably my first chamber music CD. I love the intimacy of the players (you can even hear them breathing), and the textures of the bows on the strings. Believe it or not, this was the recording that ~15 years later would reveal (and maybe even cause) an actual hole torn in one of my aging Polk Audio speakers, triggering the need for new speakers which of course eventually led to a whole new hi-fi system. (You know how that goes.)

Available from Presto Classical

Chopin: Nocturnes Nos. 1-21 (complete) (Deutsche Grammophon, 1988)
Is there a body of more restful music? I think not. For many years this 2-CD set (sans some of the more energetic nocturnes) has been a fixture on my “airplane sleeping music” playlist for overnight flights.

Available from Presto Classical

Boyce: Symphonies Nos. 1-8, Op. 2 (Editions de L'Oiseau-Lyre, 1994)
I discovered this recording in LP form in the 1980s while working as a classical music announcer at my college radio station, where it was quite handy to have complete 7- or 8-minute symphonies on hand to fill otherwise awkward time slots. Later on I bought the CD (one of those heavy-duty discs sold by L’oiseau Lyre that actually feels like a quality product in your hand), and still treasure these delightful, happy pieces by a composer who seems to have gotten upstaged by Haydn and Mozart.

Available from Presto Classical

Dvorak: 16 Slavonic Dances (Decca, 1990)
I know this is not exactly a unique favorite, but it was in the box that went to Australia. I’m partly of Czech descent, so maybe it was important to bring some of my heritage along. Either way, Christoph von Dohnanyi captures the energy of the dancing peasants in my imagination.

Available from Presto Classical

Wynton Marsalis: Marsalis Standard Time - Volume I (Columbia, 1987)
Amazingly, I owned only one jazz recording in 1996, and this was it. I was fascinated at the time that a musician so proficient in the classical realm could also deliver credible jazz. From today’s perspective, “credible” hardly begins to describe what Wynton has offered the jazz world, to the point that many have forgotten his early classical virtuosity. Although my jazz library has grown considerably in 20 years, this recording gets special kudos for being the seminal work.

Available from Tidal

Kathleen Battle & Jessye Norman: Spirituals in Concert (Deutsche Grammophon, 1991)
In the years leading up to the overseas assignment, I was a choir member at a nearby cathedral where there were a number of very talented gospel singers. I guess I knew that having this CD along would remind me of home. The rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” still raises goose bumps in a way very few singers do for me. Incidentally, I recently saw Kathleen doing her Underground Railroad performance at the Met, and yes she still does it for me.

Available from Tidal

My 1-year assignment in Australia was extended to almost 5 years. So at the 18-month mark we had most of our possessions, including my whole CD library, shipped to us. What a happy reunion that was. Hard to imagine how such a small collection had kept me happy in the meantime.

Neil Madsen studied music in college. He now works in a profession unrelated to music, but just for fun plays in the horn section of an oldies band, frequents live jazz & classical music performances, and listens to hi-fi in his Manhattan apartment.

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Anton's picture

Loved it the first time I heard it and it seems to remain a slightly under-appreciated gem in the jazz world.

Great list!

2_channel_ears's picture

Look forward to if you do a round two.

lestes's picture

An enjoyable direction to your list. Thanks for sharing.