Jeremy Denk: my classical-for-beginners playlist

Jeremy Denk
The Guardian

When you learn a new language, you typically begin with quite irritating conversations between Jane and John, about umbrellas, trains and times of day – dialogues that teach you vocabulary and absolutely nothing about the human condition. My five pieces for getting into classical music (it’s an idiotic term for centuries upon centuries of incredible human thought) take the opposite approach and go directly for the jugular. 

Let’s not start with the mistaken notion that classical music is polite, safe or pretty. So, my first choice is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the original and unsurpassed soundtrack for a nightmare, where the whole tonal system is perching on the edge of its own destruction – disgusting and seductive at once. It should be mentioned that this piece caused me to be evicted from my student flat. 

Already mired in blood and nostalgia, we might as well head for The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s ballet of human sacrifice, which upended what was considered to be rhythm. There are still bits where he is hovering in dreadful suspense, and then thrill rides, where there is no knowing where the downbeat is. It’s visceral and oddly danceable, until the final death-blow.

Then, we head back in time to the early 1700’s: Bach wandering off the deep end. The last of his first set of preludes and fugues (I suggest Edwin Fischer’s transcendental version, Romantic in the best sense) begins with a simple chord, and then tiptoes around every possible dissonant note, every note that doesn’t belong. Between the statements of the main theme – which feels like it’s off in unmapped territory – are episodes that seem to hover in a more consoling, familiar, sequential world. 

Then fast forward to Ligeti’s Piano Etudes (try as many as you can stand), where he sums up and undermines all of keyboard technique in his exploration of chaos. I’ll mention shamelessly that I’ve recorded many of them. 

My last choice is a cheat: a pair. Start with one of the great middle Beethoven quartets, with a slow movement that takes you directly into the core of what he has to say – prayerful, profoundly sad, empathetic with human suffering – then releases you into joy and optimism. Have a coffee maybe, take a brief walk and then listen to him a decade or so later, when all the experiences of middle age, all the consolations of time, disintegrate into unsettling fragments. The opening fugue of Op 131 is one of the most terrifying and beautiful things you will ever hear. In many ways, Beethoven, the venerable father figure of classical music, is the most revolutionary and disturbing of them all. 

Read the rest of the review and listen to Jeremy's playlist here