There are countless rabbit holes in classical music.
For some, a rabbit hole is a bad thing. You might get lost, as Alice surely did when she followed the White Rabbit into Wonderland.
Then again, go down that hole, and you might be surprised to discover a world you never knew existed.
Here’s how it works for music lovers: Pick a composer, or a genre, or an ensemble, and go deeper. At some point you branch off from the course you started down, and if immersion into a musical vastness doesn’t terrify you, you’ll find strange new riches.
Even as record stores become rarer, there's another way you might yourself down the rabbit hole into classical music: a record label can draw you in. Like rabbits themselves, seems like there are more and more labels all the time—including a few newcomers releasing some really mind-opening music.
One of these new labels, in fact, is part of a history that predates the recording industry itself.
Steinway & Sons’ first piano was sold in 1853. Their first record came out in 2010 to warm reviews: Bach’s keyboard music performed on (what else?) a Steinway.
They’ve released more than 30 different titles since, focusing mainly on the piano and Steinway-endorsed pianists but also making space for releases by other musicians, such as the Canadian Brass and singer Ute Lemper.
For me, Steinway & Sons’ most intriguing releases so far stand out with one of two themes:
First, there are programs that show similarities in unlikely ways. Some of these albums use one entry point to open doors to other works.
The title of "A Folk Song Runs Through It" makes its object pretty clear: the influence of folk music in the music of Bartók, Janácek, and Kodály.
Earlier this year, a cellist and a pianist made similar introductions on another Steinway & Sons release with American music, playing “serious” Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss alongside those same composers’ unabashedly more populist music.
There are even wilder examples of this kind of presentation in the catalog. A piano duo begins a 2011 release with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” then moves to Vivaldi, and later Radiohead follows Villa Lobos. It works. And an enchanting disc pairs Francis Poulenc with Edith Piaf.
A second group of albums focuses on lesser-heard music. The Steinway & Sons catalog already has examples of names of composers you know (Bach, Beethoven and Chopin), but what about Mompou, Pignoni and Bull?
There's the “Silent Music” of Federico Mompou. Let two delicious recordings of Argentine music introduce you to composers who aren’t well known in North America—Remo Pignoni, included. And a romp through the 400-year-old keyboard miniatures of John Bull called "Basically Bull" is anything but.
Another of these exploratory records may haunt you: the complete piano sonatas of Viktor Ullmann, who died at Auschwitz; this “absolute music” has just as much to say as his better-known "The Emperor of Atlantis."
That said, the latest Steinway & Sons release does neither of those two things.
It’s an album of two of the big hits of classical music (and also the first occasion where this piano-centric record label has engaged an orchestra): Stewart Goodyear burning rubber through Tchaikovsky’s first and Grieg’s only piano concerto.
I was almost disappointed, until I remembered: when I was a kid, it was a record label that drew me to classical music.
The warmly brilliant and buttery yellow Deutsche Grammophon label on the cover of an LP attracted my eye, and then the ornate but somehow welcoming box around words and names I couldn’t hope to understand. I had no idea what the phrases meant, and yet I put that record on the player.
Thanks to that awakening with the Mozart Requiem, I grabbed all the other yellow-labeled records in that collection. Included in the stack: Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.
With the Steinway & Sons' new release, there are now more than 250 available recordings of this particular warhorse. But there's amazing passion in Goodyear's performance here—enough to convert someone from classical agnosticism.
Perhaps that same someone will begin to wonder about this storied name on the CD jacket. "Steinway & Sons," she thinks. "Pianos and records? I'll check that out."
Down the rabbit hole.
Here's a playlist of what that listener might discover from Steinway & Sons. You'll need a Spotify account, which is free.