The 7 best, most epically dramatic hour-long pieces in classical music
10 February 2016, 16:34 | Updated: 6 January 2017, 14:45
From Beethoven to Bartok and Mahler, sometimes you need 60 minutes to pack in all your amazing musical drama. Here are a few of our favourites (TIP: set aside seven hours now).
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2
Hold on to your hats for this one. Brahms is in full-on tearful/tender/frustrated/violent mood, and crams it all into an epic drama for piano and orchestra. Cascading clatters of notes from the pianist at the height of virtuosity, enveloped by a full, richly Romantic orchestra - all in about the time it takes to make a cup of tea and watch a West Wing episode. The slow movement comes with bonus gorgeous cello solo - the moment its solo line returns for a second time is surely one of the most ravishing moments in all music.
Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana
The short, sharp and shocking Italian opera is usually spends the night with another famous operatic one-acter - but it makes for an exciting hour of listening by itself. Mascagni won a competition with the opera and it was an instant hit. By his death, it had already been performed more than 14,000 times in Italy alone. If you like a good dose of adultery, jealousy and murder - and let's face it, which opera fan doesn't - then this is the 60 minutes for you. You get that stonking Easter Hymn too.
Bartok: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
If you’re looking for 3600 seconds (yes, we counted) that will well and truly put you through the emotional wringer, look no further than Bartok’s superb one-act opera, first performed in 1918. There are just two characters - Bluebeard and his new wife Judith. She’s curious to know what’s behind seven huge doors in his gloomy castle. If the torture chamber and weapons store aren’t enough, she nags him to open the doors to a lake of tears, and finally the cell where he keeps his other three wives locked up. Inevitably she now must join them. Not exactly a barrel of laughs but gripping, and you don't really have to worry about going to the bathroom beforehand.
Schubert: String Quintet
"How could you possibly improve the most perfect chamber music ensemble. Oh yes, more cellos." That was clearly the thinking of this passionate, somewhat awkward, bespectacled composer. Schubert's masterpiece was written late in his life and, like everything he touched, every bar is gloriously lyrical and agonisingly beautiful. It's also epic. An hour is a long time in chamber music, but every minute is worth it - from the expansive, dramatic sweeps of the opening movement to the heart-shattering Adagio, all with that added depth of sonority with a second cello. We want to put the phone on silent, pour a glass fo wine, and spend 60 with it now.
OK, you might not want to spend an entire hour thinking about the death of one of the world’s greatest ever geniuses. But there’s just so much to enjoy here. Few pieces can effectively encompass such a huge range of emotions, and even fewer can do it in what is actually a quite limited time frame. From the opening Lacrimosa, you’re inveigled in sorrow and loss, but you’re gradually transported to enlightenment, acceptance, contentment. It’s like your whole life in an hour. And with really great counterpoint.
Mahler - Symphony No. 4
Depending on who you get conducting this beast, you could easily use up an hour here. It was always Mahler’s intention to include as much ‘stuff’ in a single symphony as he could, famous believing that each one must “contain the world”, but with No. 4 he’s distilled it perhaps more efficiently than in any other of his mammoth works. Totally worth it for the fourth movement alone, which is basically a retelling of an epic German folk story starring a boy soprano.
Beethoven - Symphony No. 9
Well, we hardly have to introduce this one. Quite simply, this is the hour that changed music, and history, for ever. It begins with tremolo strings in a stormy mood, building the most incredible atmosphere. We're treated to a joyous, dramatic Scherzo, a captivating slow movement before a clamour of chords begins the choral movement recognised the world over. A profoundly human work of artistic genius, offering transcendental, euphoric joy. And you can fit it into your lunch hour. Cool, huh?