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May 2015
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Your Top 10 Favorite Symphonies


You voted, and we listened! For the last two weeks on Midday with Lisa Flynn, we have been counting down your Top 10 Favorite Symphonies that were paired with 10 Symphonic Discoveries – great symphonic masterpieces that may be new to you. Below is a list of your Top 10 Symphonies and the 10 Symphonic Discoveries we’ve enjoyed together, along with information about each of the recordings we heard. Thanks for voting and thanks for tuning in as we explored some of the great symphonic masterpieces.


1. Beethoven: Symphony #9, “Choral”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Sir Georg Solti, Decca 4759090

Unsurprisingly, Beethoven’s Ninth tops our list of favorite symphonies. It claims a special place in history and in the hearts of listeners. Although not the most frequently performed Beethoven symphony, the Ninth’s universal message of brotherhood and humanity makes it a central work of the classical canon.


Cherubini: Symphony in D
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini, RCA 60278

Luigi Cherubini spent most of his working life in France and is mostly remembered today for his operas and other vocal works. Widely admired in his time, Cherubini was regarded by Beethoven as the greatest of his contemporaries. In the 20th century, conductor Arturo Toscanini was a staunch champion of Cherubini’s music through recordings.


2. Dvorak: Symphony #9, “From the New World”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner, RCA 62587

Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony was a major milestone in the validation of American music, written as a portrait of the composer’s experiences in the United States. Fascinated by African-American and Native-American songs, he captured their essence in the work and encouraged American composers to find their own voice through the use of traditional melodies.


Beach: “Gaelic” Symphony
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi, Chandos 8958

Dvořák influenced Amy Beach heavily. She looked to his compositions and ideas on American music while composing her own symphony. Instead of using American melodies, she sought inspiration in old English, Irish, and Scottish tunes. The “Gaelic” Symphony was the first symphony by a female American composer to be performed in the United States.


3. Shostakovich: Symphony #5
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung, CSO Resound 0912

The great symphonies are often products of intense personal struggle. Nowhere is this more evident than with Shostakovich’s Fifth, written after the public denunciation of his Fourth by Stalin’s regime. The dramatic power and deep layers of meaning in the Fifth make it his most popular symphony to this day.


Miaskovsky: Symphony #21
New Philharmonia Orchestra/David Measham, Unicorn 2066

Nikolai Miaskovsky was considered the finest symphonist in the Soviet Union before Shostakovich. His 27 symphonies form the center of his career. The 21st symphony was composed in 1940, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Frederick Stock to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary.


4. Mahler: Symphony #5
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim, Teldec 23328

Gustav Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” The world of the Fifth Symphony represented a new direction for him. Voices and poetry, which were an integral part of the previous three symphonies, are no longer used. Yet, the Fifth still has an inner program, which Mahler invites the listener to discover.


Hovhaness: Symphony #6, “Celestial Gate”
I Fiamminghi/Rudolf Werthen, Telarc 80392

A painting by the Greek artist Hermon di Giovanno inspired Alan Hovhaness’s Symphony #6. Di Giovanno had guided Hovhaness into the ancient worlds of Greece, Egypt, and India and had encouraged him to study his Armenian heritage. Hovhaness described di Giovanno as “my spiritual teacher who opened the gate to the spiritual dimension.”


5. Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6, “Pathétique”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner, RCA 61246

Tchaikovsky’s final symphony has fascinated listeners since its first performance just nine days before the composer’s death. It’s considered the first tragic symphony. Tchaikovsky biographer David Brown described it as “the most truly original symphony to have been composed in the 70 years since Beethoven’s Ninth.”


Albéniz: Catalan Symphonic Scenes
Barcelona Symphony Orchestra/Jaime Martín, Trito 0078

So much of Isaac Albéniz’s music for piano is known through orchestral arrangements, pushing his works specifically written for orchestra out of the limelight. Albéniz wrote the Catalan Symphonic Scenes in 1888-89 in Tiana, a small Catalonian village near Barcelona. The four movements, using different folk themes, describe four moments at a village fiesta.


6. Mahler: Symphony #1
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt, EMI 54217

All of Gustav Mahler’s nine completed symphonies came out of struggle, but he acknowledged that his first symphonic foray was the most difficult. With it, he took the symphony in new directions, melding the narrative program of the symphonic poem with the structure of earlier works. As a result, he changed the form forever.


Zemlinsky: Symphony #1
Gürzenich Orchestra/James Conlon, EMI 564737

Alexander von Zemlinsky was in the center of Vienna’s musical life at the turn of the 20th century. Although his work was nearly forgotten after World War II, he has recently been recognized as one of the century’s significant compositional voices. Conductor James Conlon has led the revival of Zemlinsky’s music with several important recordings.


7. Sibelius: Symphony #2
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis, LSO Live 0105

In his seven symphonies, Jean Sibelius unleashed new worlds of sound, pushing the limits of orchestral playing and creating vast landscapes which evoke the stark beauty of his native Finland. The Second Symphony marked the first step in his nature-inspired vision of bringing what he called “a profound logic” to music.


Madetoja: Symphony #1
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds, Ondine 1211

Leevi Madetoja is among the most important Finnish composers in the generation after Sibelius, who encouraged his promising young student to follow in his footsteps and write symphonies. Madetoja’s three symphonies are his most recorded and performed works and show his mastery of orchestration and instrumental color.


8. Beethoven: Symphony #3, “Eroica”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti, Decca 430400

The “Eroica” Symphony represents a turning point not only in Beethoven’s career, but also in the history of music. It was the first work in the “new path” he wanted to pursue, and it reflected his reaction to the political forces of the day, specifically Napoleon. Musically, the “Eroica” presented players and audiences with challenges that redefined what a symphony could be.


Harris: Symphony #3
New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein, DG 419780

The backbone of Roy Harris’ output is his series of thirteen symphonies, which span his career from 1933 to 1976. Described by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky as “the first great symphony by an American composer,” the Third is remarkable for its broad, sweeping melodies evoking vast landscapes and drawing on hymns and plainsong.


9. Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
Chicago Symphony Orchestrah/Daniel Barenboim, Teldec 98800

Symphonie fantastique is a self-portrait of its composer, Hector Berlioz. Through its movements, it tells the story of an artist’s self-destructive passion for a beautiful woman. The symphony describes his obsession and dreams, tantrums and moments of tenderness, and visions of suicide and murder, ecstasy and despair.


Dukas: Symphony in C
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier, Chandos 9225

Paul Dukas might be considered a “one-hit-wonder” for his ever-popular work “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” But, of the handful of works left behind by the famously self-critical composer, his only symphony also stands out as a masterpiece. It shows his deep admiration for César Franck, who served more as a model than as a teacher to Dukas.


10. Beethoven 5
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti, Decca 421673

During his lifetime, Beethoven’s Fifth was not his most famous symphony. The “Eroica” was actually performed more often. Over the years, the fateful opening theme has come to represent his struggles with destiny, and the work which follows, built on the simplest of motives, shows one man’s triumph of spirit.


Voříšek: Symphony in D
Czech National Sym Orchestra/Paul Freeman, Cedille 90000 058

Combine Schubert’s gift of melody with Beethoven’s flair for drama and you have the music of their respected friend and colleague – the Bohemian composer Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek. Unlike his better-known contemporaries, Voříšek composed few large-scale works in his tragically short lifetime, including only one symphony.

  • Adam Bounas

    I am surprised that Mozart did not make the list !!!

  • Ann Raven

    I love the list, including the discoveries! Thanks! This was fun.

  • Judy Davis Solomon

    My favorite is Beethoven’s 7th – I was surprised it wasn’t on the list!

    • Sophia Sanchez

      Me too! 🙂

  • Carolyn Paulin

    Great list and love the pairings. But where’s some Brahms or Mozart?