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Top Ten Classical Tracks for the Beach

June 22, 2012

What a great idea, thought I. It should be a breeze to come up with ten classical tracks that would work well heard through earbuds on a sunny day at the beach.

Then I got the bright idea to contact musicians and music-loving friends, and ask them to contribute. But such earnest suggestions as the first movement from Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, the second movement Allegro from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, and Rautavaara’s entire Cantus Arcticus made me realize that one person’s great day at the beach is another person’s third degree burn.

What follows is a combination of my own recommendations and those of others (credited) that have survived the Serinus Surf test. If some of these recommendations tempt you to pack up your beach towel and flee to the desert, or bury me deep in the sand, try closing your eyes, channeling your inner Brian Wilson or Annette Funicello to period instrument accompaniment, and sailing to bliss on whatever in this Top Ten floats your boat.

Kathleen Battle

1. Zerbinetta’s Aria, from Richard Strauss’ opera, Ariadne auf Naxos

This impossibly difficult coloratura romp, as ravishing as it is ridiculous, served an integral role in my most perfect beach day ever. While paying homage to my mother, who followed the Eleventh Commandment and retired to Florida, I spent a Saturday afternoon alone on Miami Beach. The temperature was perfect, the beach relatively un-crowded, and the beauty profound. With a small portable FM radio and earbuds — this was in the pre-i era — I tuned into Live from the Met, and discovered Kathleen Battle chirping away. I could not resist joining her. What a perfect afternoon!

Music@Menlo Through Brahms

2.  Brahms, Sextet No. 1, Op. 18, first movement

While recently interviewing countertenor Robin Blaze, I asked what music he’d choose. He mentioned this piece and I began to wax rhapsodic about the performance of this glorious work I heard at Music at Menlo in the summer of 2011 (available on their CD set, Beyond Brahms). Brahms’ two early sextets are as joyful as they are heartfelt. You’ll have trouble stopping after one movement, and find it even harder to resist playing the Sextet No. 2, Op. 36.

3.  J.S. Bach, Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major

Mention Bach and the beach, and most people think of the Brandenburg Concertos. In the stately French manner, and equally entrancing, is Bach’s third Orchestral Suite. You can stop after the rollicking six-minute overture, but few will be able to resist the second movement Air (on a G String) and the dance movements that follow.

4. Adele’s Laughing Song “Mein Herr Marquis,” from Johann Strauss, Jr’s Die Fledermaus

Find me a recording more delightful than Elisabeth Schumann’s, and I’ll be forever in your debt. Maestro Nicholas McGegan offers another gem, the “Tipsy Aria” from Jacques Offenbach’s La Perichole, which Frederica von Stade totters through so well.

5.  Shostakovich, Jazz Suite No. 1

This irresistible romp comes recommended by culture maven Alan Oakley, one of the original members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who is busy attending theater when he’s not ushering at San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and elsewhere, or flying to opera performances in L.A. and Seattle.

Riccardo Chailly

6.  Shostakovich, Age of Gold ballet: Polka and “Tea for Two” Entr’acte

The former comes courtesy of music critic Bob Moon, an occasional contributor to SFCV. I first discovered the luscious latter, hardly what you’d expect from Shostakovich, in a slightly different arrangement, in the Riccardo Chailly recording of the two Jazz Suites. Pieces such as these remind us that, before the axe fell and his humor turned ironic (often bitterly so), Shostakovich actually had fun in the life.

7.  Mahler, Symphony No. 4, third and fourth movements

Ellen Wassermann, pianist for the Oakland Symphony and professor at Cal State East Bay, advocates for the third movement. It does have a few dramatic moments, but its profound, heart-touching serenity can induce a state of blissful reverie. If the huge drum thwacks near the end awake you just as you’re drifting off, it’s to better prepare you for the transcendent conclusion. My favorite final movement: Kathleen Battle with Loren Maazel, especially in the remastered version.

Elly Ameling

8. . Schubert, Piano Quintet “The Trout”, final movement

If you have to parse out your joys, the final movement will suffice. But if you’ve got the time, the entire quintet will have you roasting in the sun. If you are into lieder, be sure to add “Die Forelle,” the song which shares the final movement’s joyful theme. For sopranos, you can’t go wrong with either Elly Ameling or Elisabeth Schumann, although Schwarzkopf partisans will cry fowl rather than fish.

9.  Harrison, Varied Trio

Written for the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, this rhythmic masterpiece will transport you light years beyond the contrapuntal sounds of volleyball on the beach. If you start with the first movement, you won’t want to stop.

Rainbow in Curved Air

10.  Riley, Rainbow in Curved Air

Shame on me: my collection lacks this seminal work by the great minimalist Terry Riley. Pianist Sarah Cahill writes, “It has a magical way of stopping time, so you can bask in the laid-back groove of electric organ, electric harpsichord, dumbec, and tambourine (all played by Terry Riley himself in overdubbing), and feel any worries being washed away by the waves of psychedelic loops. Like any classic, Rainbow in Curved Air is as essential today as it was in the free-wheeling ‘60s.”

Extras for the Long Beach Days of Summer

If I had a long stretch at the beach by myself, I’d grab EMI Classics’ ICON boxes of Elisabeth Schumann and Elly Ameling. Schumann’s discs 5 and 6 contain her definitive Richard Strauss recordings (she toured the U.S. with Strauss at the piano in 1921), the first CD masterings of English songs, and sundry gems so charming as to lift the fog from the Golden Gate. The Ameling box appears to have first CD masterings of her Schubert recordings with Irwin Gage, as well as early Schubert and Mozart selections with Jörg Demus. Heavenly.

If you’re in a romantic mood, Maestro Michael Morgan suggests Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, first movement, and Robert Schumann’s Arabesque. If you’re not, Bob Moon offers the Buckaroo Holiday from Copland’s Rodeo. Nic McGegan is also a big fan of Schubert’s Rondo in A for piano duet (there’s a recent recording from Stephen Osborne and Paul Lewis) and Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement.

And now it’s your turn. Please add your comments below. I’m heading off to lather on the sunscreen.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.