Top Five Epic Cycles in Classical Music

Thursday, April 04, 2013

There’s something at least mildly obsessive about presenting a composer’s complete set of works. These projects don’t only require a great understanding of the music at hand, but often suggest a consummate biographical knowledge of its creator. The lengthier and more intimidating the cycle, the closer one feels to its its writer. Below are our top five ambitious cycles; please add your favorites in the comments below.

1.  Bach’s Complete Cantatas (65 hours)

We just finished our own full cycle through all of Bach’s music, so we are intimately aware of the time commitment necessary to just listen to all of Bach’s nearly 200 cantatas. It took the conductor and Baroque specialist, Ton Koopman, more than 10 years to record all 198 known cantatas with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. For Sir John Elliot Gardner it took more than five years and the help of several orchestras and soloists. Meanwhile, the Bach Collegium Japan and its director Masaaki Suzuki hope to complete the cycle this year after embarking on the project way back at the end of the 20th century.


2.  Mahler’s 10 Symphonies (11 hours)

Dozens of orchestras and composers have put their stamp on Mahler’s symphonies—some multiple times. But the sheer endurance of getting through all nine (and often the Adagio of the incomplete Tenth) symphonies can’t be underestimated. On the completion of a Berlin Staatskapelle’s 2009 Mahler cycle with Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim, Alex Ross wrote, “The trouble with putting on a gigantic Mahler festival is that some unlucky musicians have to play all the music. The composer made cruel demands on his performers; each symphony is a marathon in itself.”


3.  Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets (6.25 hours)

Regarded as the composer’s most autobiographical of works, Dmitry Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets are often considered as reflections of Shostakovich’s deepest and most personal feelings. Written over the course of 36 years in which the composer found himself more often than not out of favor with the ruling Soviet party, the quartets require an intimate understanding of Shostakovich’s state of mind. Last month, the Jerusalem Quartet (right) explored the works over a four-concert series with the Chamber Music Society. The group’s violist Ori Kam called the works "a window into Shostakovich’s soul.”


4.  The 32 Beethoven Sonatas (11.5 hours)

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas have flummoxed many a keyboardist, including the great Rudolf Serkin, who infamously wiggled out of a complete cycle at Carnegie Hall in the early ’70s. These days, playing all the works isn’t as rare a feat. In recent years, Till Fellner, Paul Lewis, Daniel Barenboim, Andras Schiff and Jonathan Biss (who’s currently recording all the sonatas) have taken on the challenge. However, the Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear will add an additional obstacle on the already daunting task by performing the works chronologically and back-to-back over a 12-hour period during his upcoming Sonatathon performances later this year.


5.  Haydn's 106 Symphonies (37 hours)

Of all herculean musical efforts, completing a cycle of symphonies by Joseph Haydn ranks among the most difficult. After all, the Father of the symphony wrote 106 of them. For years, Antal Dorati was the only conductor to record the complete the cycle of symphonies. Since then, Adam Fischer and Dennis Russell Davies have also finished the task. Said Fischer of the all-consuming process: "My daughter went to school with No 35; my son did his final school exams with 82; my niece got married with 32, had a baby with 41 and got divorced with 53."

Photo: Marco Borregreve/Harmonia Mundi


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Comments [5]


This is a pretty arbitrary list, don't you think? What about something which was actually conceived as a cycle, like "Der Ring des Nibelungen?". If that is not "epic", then I don't know what is.

Apr. 09 2013 12:30 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

This is a good start. But this should have been a "Top 10 list" not a Top Five, or maybe separate Top Fives each in a different genre (symphonies, sonatas, quartets).

Yes, Shostakovich belongs on this list, as does a mention of the Brodsky Quartet's cycle, and Bernstein's cycle of the Mahler symphonies which was groundbreaking for its time, akin to Dorati.

As usual, the "Top Five" format is cute but does disservice to major cycles not on the list. Can't WQXR get more creative for a nice blog like this?

If you include the Shostakovich Quartets, then you must also include the quartet cycles of Haydn (67 quartets, 22 hours) and Beethoven (18 quartets, 8.5 hrs). Perhaps the Shostakovich symphonies (15 symphonies, 12 hours) should also be on the list--about half of the 15 have become repertory staples.

And I don't see how did the ubiquitous Mozart Piano Concertos (27 concertos, 10-11 hours), a cycle without which we might not have such a form as a "piano concerto" and which was central to the careers of Uchida, Barenboim and Perahia.

I would include the Mozart Symphonies too and the excellent cycle by Mackerras/Prague Chamber Orch (40 symphonies, 12 hours), but I think Haydn is a better representation for the same form and time period.

While the cycles above are the obvious absentees from the list, other cycles that don't seem to get their due are Scarlatti Sonatas (555 sonatas, 33 hours) and Vivaldi Violin Concertos. For the Scarlatti cycle, there are two options--Scott Ross and Jan Pieter-Belder. For the Vivaldi, just Shlomo Mintz I think, for the complete cycle. I think there's a good argument to be made that the piano and violin repertories would not have been advanced to the degree they were without Scarlatti and Vivaldi. Scarlatti probably more essential than Vivaldi, and Scarlatti probably as important as any of the cycles listed above from a musicological perspective.

Apr. 04 2013 02:17 PM

I agree with Bernie from UWS. Shostakovich's string quartets (and symphonies) do belong on this listing. Please WQXR, please play more Shostakovich.

Apr. 04 2013 10:31 AM
Bernie from UWS

Are you kidding? Shostakovich is every bit as significant a composer as Bach or Mahler. Perhaps more so. He had to practice his craft while a repressive regime kept tabs on his every move, thus writing in "code" much of the time. Haydn and Bach lived comfortably while working for aristocrats and churches most of their lives. His quartets have just as much anguish and depth of emotion as any of Bach's passions, Beethoven's symphonies or Mahler's adagios. I only wish we heard more of it on WQXR.

Apr. 04 2013 06:17 AM

Shostakovich is not in the same league as the other composers. One might as well list the time it takes to perform Roy Harris's 16 symphonies or Darius Milhaud's 12 symphonies.

Apr. 04 2013 03:32 AM

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