Discover: Decca

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 09.01.11 in User's Guide Hubs

The Decca catalog is a vast feast, a label that lovers of concert music have trusted for decades, comprised of a who’s-who of the celebrities of the classical music world and ranging from ancient chant to modernism and minimalism, jazz and Broadway (from the Golden Age to recent releases), with everything in between. The greatest composers, instrumentalists, singers, conductors, orchestras, ensembles — they are all here, enough to keep even the most avid and knowledgeable listener busy for years. So if you are daunted by the sheer scope of this lustrous catalog (and honestly, who wouldn’t be?), this list is a good place to get started.

The Singers


Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Schubert's icily haunting song cycle, a setting of the words of the German poet Heiner Mller, begins with the saddest song ever written ("Gute Nacht," in which, in the dead of Winter, the poet, his lover's eye having turned to another, departs his home under cover of night) and from there grows darker yet. In these 24 songs, scored for the spare, stark combination of lone singer accompanied by piano, the lovelorn poet wanders from town to town in search of solace, company, and eventually, encountering a solitary hurdy-gurdy man, decides to join him. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau arguably delivers one of the most accomplished and nuanced performances of this intimate masterwork ever committed to record. Daniel Felsenfeld

Punishing Kiss

Ute Lemper

With a voice like a Lotte Lenya, looks like Marlene Deitrich, and the performing gifts of Edith Piaf, Ute Lemper is a chanteuse for this or any other age. Known mostly for her interpretations of Kurt Weill or her collaborations with composer Michael Nyman (both of which are available on Decca as well), this record stands as a fantastic and new direction for her or certainly did when it was released in 2000. Rather than tour through her beloved Weimar Cabaret catalogue, she instead assays songs by none other than Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Steve Nieve, Neil Hannon (from the Divine Comedy) and Tom Waits. The arrangements are sumptuous, and Lemper is in not only excellent voice but well in her element, singing work written for her by some of the most erudite and reaching of modern songwriters. Especially worthy are the title track (by Costello), Nieve's "Passionate Fight," and Waits's tender closer "The Part you Throw Away." Called, not un-aptly, by one reviewer, "Cyberpunk Cabaret," Lemper is not just content to pour the old wine into even the most fabulous of new bottles she needs new wine of her own. Daniel Felsenfeld

Haunted Heart

Renée Fleming

Opera Proibita

Cecilia Bartoli

La Stupenda - The Supreme Joan Sutherland

Dame Joan Sutherland

Strauss, R.: Four Last Songs

Renée Fleming

Jessye Norman - Spirituals

Jessye Norman

The Instrumentalists

Schoenberg: Piano Concerto, Klavierstücke Opp.11 & 19 / Berg: Sonata Op.1 / Webern: Variations Op.27

Mitsuko Uchida

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida is probably best known for her interpretations of the quite different composers Mozart and Schumann, paeans of high classicism and heart-on-sleeve Romanticism respectively. From a distance, then, it makes little sense that she'd have any affinity for the bleakly Modernist music of Arnold Schoenberg that is until you listen, especially to this recording. Uchida, with her flawless technique, and pristine and deep sense of interpretation, proves his ideal interpreter, making his own case that in fact he was, in his way, the culmination of both traditions the whimsically organized and the wildly diffuse and varied. The Piano Concerto bristles with raw dramatic energy (as concerti should), even under the sometimes-cold baton of Pierre Boulez. Builds are gradual, high points tasteful, all done with spectacular loyalty to the score. And, as if to prove her Modernist capacities, Uchida closes the disc with two cornerstone Expressionist solo piano works: Anton Webern's short-but-fraught variations and Alban Berg's gorgeously searching sonata. Daniel Felsenfeld

Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas & Concertos

Claudio Arrau

If you are new to Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, these legendary performances by Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, handily packaged in this complete set, are an excellent place to start. His Beethoven is, for the most part, consistent and clear there is no technical feat this pianist cannot accomplish while also running hot, passionate and emotional as needed. Even in the famous pieces (the "Moonlight", "Pathetique" and "Hammerklavier" sontatas or the "Emperor" concerto), Arrau plays with his own brand of specific fervor, not as heavily as Rubenstein, as beautifully manic as Glenn Gould, or as forthrightly as Richard Goode (all of whom do these pieces exceeding justice) but rather with a certain elegance and restraint. He is not afraid to bounce when Beethoven asks it of him, nor is he afraid to demonstrate his own apt virtuosity, but it is in the later sonatas, and especially the Orphic Fourth Concerto, where Arrau really makes his mark, lending to Beethoven a depth of artistry and expression few since can match. And as an extra "bonus," tucked into this set is Arrau's phantasmagoric recording of Beethoven's wildest piece, the Diabelli Variations. Daniel Felsenfeld

Beethoven: The Complete Violin Sonatas

Itzhak Perlman

Barber/Walton: Violin Concertos

Joshua Bell

Liszt: The Piano Concertos

Julius Katchen

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations

Alfred Brendel, piano, with Walter Klien, piano, and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Paul Angerer

The Conductors

Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen

Various Artists

Decca was the pioneer of recording Wagner's four-day music festival, with Georg Solti's famous studio set and an early live stereo recording from the Bayreuther Festspielhaus (shelved for decades so as not to compete with Solti). In the mid '60s, Decca brought their recording equipment back to Wagner's own hall for another live document of the massive retelling of Norse mythology, this time under the baton of Karl Bhm. The result is one of the finest Ring cycles on disc, equaled but, for many, never surpassed. Although the era of the great Wagner singers was on the decline, the cast was packed with singers connected with that tradition and still in excellent voice, like Birgit Nilsson, Theo Adam, Wolfgang Windgassen, Josef Greindl and Gustav Neidlinger, as well as younger singers fully capable of taking on the demands of the music's style and power, like Anja Silja, James King and Helga Dernesch. Bhm was one of the great opera conductors, and his command of the pacing is complete. These are some of the fastest recordings available, but the speed conveys great, gripping drama and intensity, with nary a hint of breathlessness. More than a complement to studio recordings, this is a classic. George Grella

Stravinsky: Petrushka; The Firebird; The Rite of Spring; Orpheus

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

A collection of the most famous, perhaps greatest music from the last great composer, Igor Stravinsky, along with a far lesser-known work that is an absolute masterpiece. The three early ballets for Serge Diaghilev and Les Ballets Russes, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, set the world on its collective ear, put the last nail in the coffin of Romanticism and opened up the still-new 20th century to endless newness, all of it owed to these pieces, especially the Rite. The dazzling colors, propulsive rhythms and crushing climaxes of the music have demolished the boundary between avant-garde art and popular audience, and continue to thrill listeners. Stravinsky continued to write music for dance and his collaboration with Georges Balanchine produced some of the greatest works of music and ballet ever known. Orpheus is one of the three ballets the two made on Greek themes, and is one of the most delicate, crystalline and beautiful scores Stravinsky wrote. It narrates the tale of the tragic, mythical musician in hushed, controlled string tones, compellingly cool surfaces and a deliberately understated focus. Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra play the music with beauty, lyricism and power in this great set. George Grella

Leopold Stokowski: Decca Recordings 1964-1975

Leopold Stokowski

Schumann: Symphonies Nos.2 & 4 (arr. Mahler)

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Holst: The Planets

Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

The Chamber Ensembles

Bach, J.S.: The Brandenburg Concertos

Academy of Ancient Music

Bach's great masterworks, the Brandenburg Concertos, get a stunning reading on this disc from the Academy of Ancient Music. The great composer wrote these works for a slapdash "orchestra" he conducted in a modest German city, and what this group aims to do is to recreate this history, play them exactly as they would have been played at the time they were composed so this recording stands as a document as much as a good listen, an issue from a group that has taken up the mantle of being "historically informed," their dedicated period research put into practice. Obviously, we have only an educated guess, but in this instance, what a guess! The performances are vivid, throbbing pieces of music, this ensemble's take on these glorious works. Especially sparkly is the fifth Brandenburg Concerto (likely the most recognizable of the bunch) but the whole set is worth a serious listen. Daniel Felsenfeld

Brahms: Complete Trios

Beaux Arts Trio

Johannes Brahms's piano trios are the small-scale pinnacles of his achievement. His symphonies are obviously his loudest and largest contributions (he never wrote an opera), and his music for string quartet or piano quintet define his approach to chamber music. But it is in his three piano trios that evidence of his style his late style specifically, in which every note is readily identifiable as his own, in which he shuffles off early influences of Beethoven (whom he feared) and Schumann (who was his best friend) comes to bear. His passion, his wit, his Germanic sense of fairy-tale playfulness that masks a deep-seated intellectualism, all can be heard in these masterpieces. And of course the Beaux Arts Trio is the perfect group to assay these pieces, themselves being witty, deep, passionate, profound artists. And if this trio of trios is not enough, two of Brahms' greatest pieces of chamber music are included in this set: his Horn Trio in E flat, a brash and gorgeous piece of raw contemplative nerve, and his rangy, Gypsy-tinged Clarinet Trio in A minor. If you like Brahms but do not know where to begin (and are daunted by a symphony) this would be an excellent starting place. Daniel Felsenfeld

Beethoven: The Late String Quartets

Quartetto Italiano

Bartók: The String Quartets

Takacs Quartet

Volans: String Quartets Nos.2 & 3

Balanescu Quartet

The Composers

Shostakovich: The Symphonies

Bernard Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra

One of the most compelling and unfathomable artistic figures of modern times, Shostakovich left us with a generous body of great and important symphonies, string quartets, operas, concertos and even a large and notable catalogue of film music. He also left us with one unanswerable question: What do they all mean? As a young man, he was a star of Soviet music, until his Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk District fell afoul of Stalin's sensibilities. He lived most of the remainder of his life in fear of arrest and transportation to the Gulag, even as the face of resistance in WWII, his picture on the cover of Time magazine, his Seventh symphony smuggled out of the siege of Leningrad and broadcast by Toscanini as a coup of musical propaganda. Salvaging his reputation with the populist Fifth, Shostakovich hides layers of meaning under each other, like the skin on an onion, undermining a seemingly straightforward passage until the new suggestion is further undermined, endlessly spirally, endlessly fascinating, and often full of savage power unheard in any other music. This skillful set is a satisfying whole, and has fine performances of the ominous 11, the wrenching 13, Babi Yar, and the impish 15. George Grella

Britten conducts Britten: Opera Vol.2

Benjamin Britten

Wanna hear something really scary? How about Benjamin Britten's ghost-story opera The Turn of the Screw, based on the story by Henry James? In it, ghosts real? imagined? haunt a governess who may or not be responsible for the death of a young boy. That not scary enough? How about The Rape of Lucretia, one of the more beautifully excruciating depictions of a personal violation ever put on stage, a darker reading of the same questions asked by Mozart's Cosi fan Tutti is true marital fidelity possible? Benjamin Britten was a composer not only of limitless abilities but also of deceptive means, able to make a music that, on the surface, comes of as simple, even square. But there are darker forces at work (especially when under the composer's own nuanced baton, as on these two recordings). Although if you like things a little zippier, Britten's operatic treatment of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is at points laugh-out-loud, especially when the "rude mechanicals" get into the picture in the final act. Aside from being led by the composer, what all of these recordings have in common is a substantive role for his longtime companion, tenor Peter Pears, whose voice sounds like no other. From these recordings, the strength of their personal and artistic marriage comes through. Daniel Felsenfeld

Light & Gold

Eric Whitacre

Psycho - Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers

Various Artists

Muhly: Seeing Is Believing

Thomas Gould

Philip Glass: Low Symphony & Heroes Symphony

Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra


Spring Awakening

Duncan Sheik

It makes sense that a rock musical was made out of Frank Wedekind's pre-turn-of-the-last-century German Expressionist play about the adolescent exploration of sexuality, a play so steamy in its depiction of everything from homosexuality to suicide to masturbation that it was banned. So rather than aiming for the then-cultural jugular with a period score (as was the case in that other famous Wedekind adaptation, Alban Berg's brutal final opera Lulu), pop firebrand Duncan Sheik (with lyricist Stephen Salter) creates a set of criminally catchy pop songs to mirror the adolescent spirit of the work, from angsty numbers like "The Bitch of Living" and "The Dark I Know Well" to the mildly acerbic "My Junk," the appropriately lurid "Touch Me" and "The Word of Your Body," culminating sweat-soaked chorus of "The Song of Purple Summer." It is no history lesson, but rather teaches that lesson that people, across decades and centuries, have the same troubles, unpack the same frustrations, and experience the same turnings of the heart. The show won several Tony Awards, and this Original Cast Recording won a Grammy. Daniel Felsenfeld


Various Artists

When the histories of the early 21st Century Broadway Musical are written, it will no doubt start and end with Stephen Schwartz's runaway smash musical Wicked. For over half a decade, this gleeful "point of view" look at the Wicked Witch of the West in her early years has been packing the biggest theatre on Broadway. This recording of the original cast is a sparkling document of an important show, with no less than Idina Menzel (of Rent fame) taking the role of Elpheba (a.k.a. The Wicked Witch) and Kristen Chenoweth (from The West Wing) playing Glinda the good. All is not as you'd expect in Oz when this show starts out, and through Schwartz's delightful and rangy score (he who also brought you Godspell, Pippin and The Baker's Wife) we get to know the back story of these characters. Yes, Glinda is your worst high school nightmare, but on something of a dare she takes on the green-faced Elpheba as a kind of project. The two become fast friends, take a day trip to the Emerald City, and from there the plot advances. Daniel Felsenfeld


Original Broadway Cast

Big River: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

Various Artists

Carmen Jones

Various Artists