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At first, your question seems impossible to answer. After all, I don't own thousands of CDs & LPs because I enjoy listening to only a shoebox full of recordings, or just one or two favorite 'desert island' discs on any regular basis. Although, come to think of it, I did once know a musician who only owned & listened to (literally) a shoebox of recordings (along with his local classical radio station). His passion was more for collecting scores. He once told me that his all time favorite recording--among his 15 or so CDs--was an album that pianists Harold Bauer & Ossip Gabrilowitsch had made together of a Waltz or 'Suite for Two Pianos', by Arensky. Those two pianists were keyboard giants for sure, but the older historical sound quality of their recording probably won't fit the bill in terms of the technical sound excellence that you've requested (although there is a good Ampico piano roll--just click on a link provided on the You Tube page below in order to hear it),


As for my own choice, perhaps the best way to come up with an answer to your impossible question is to narrow my decision down to those few recordings in my vast collection that I've bought duplicate copies for--just in case something were ever to happen to my prized CD. In other words, those recordings that I treasure so much that I was willing to spend extra money to buy a 'back up' copy, should the recording go out of print and my existing disc become scratched or worn out, or borrowed & never returned, or lost in a move, etc. (as I don't download). (Which isn't the same thing as buying newly updated remasters of cherished recordings that I already own in my collection; although of course those are special favorites, too, but comprise a much longer list.) That will narrow my focus down to about ten recordings, each of which happens to come in first class (& mostly digital) sound. For those people that are interested, first, I'll discuss what these ten "best" recordings are below, & then in my last paragraph, I'll pick my favorite of the bunch. (So feel free to skip ahead if you get bored.)

--J.S. Bach, Cantatas for St. Michaelmas--BWV 19, 130, & 149, performed by Montreal Baroque, conducted by Eric Milnes, on the Atma label (a hybrid SACD, in audiophile sound). For me, these cantatas are some of Bach's greatest music. The fugal opening of BWV 19, for example, is mind blowing! Plus, the moving tenor aria in BWV 130, where a human implores the Archangel Michael to remain on earth after his victory over Satan, is surely one of the most beautiful arias that Bach ever wrote. It is sung here by Jan Kobow. All four solo singers are expertly chosen by Milnes, & especially Monika Mauch, who has become one of my favorite Bach sopranos (alongside Arleen Auger, Janet Baker, & Elly Ameling). Here's the fugal opening to BWV 19, & I'd suggest that you turn up the volume to get the full effect,

--Josquin Desprez, "Musica Symbolica", Josquin's incredibly beautiful Missa Gaudeamus--which I'd place among the top 5 greatest masses composed in music history (if we're ranking), & one of Josquin's most underrated works. To my ears, this mass sounds purer & more ingenious & less secular influenced (perhaps) than Bach's great Mass in B minor; which, nevertheless, I'd consider to be the greatest mass composed after the Renaissance. In other words, the old, now outdated scholarly view that Josquin's masses are 'inferior' to his motets is nonsense; though granted, it does depend on which performance & mass you're listening to. Josquin's Missa Gaudeamus comes coupled with various Marian Motets (since it is a 'Marian' Mass), which are all superbly well performed by the Italian vocal group, De Labyrintho, led by Walter Testolin, on the Stradivarius label. (Their performance is even better than those by the Tallis Scholars & Ensemble Metmorphoses, IMO.)

--Josquin Desprez, Motets, sung by the Orlando Consort, on DG Archiv.

--W.A. Mozart Piano Sonatas, Vol. 5 of pianist Alicia de Larrocha second survey of Mozart's complete piano Sonatas, for RCA. Admittedly, I tend to prefer De Larrocha's playing on her earlier analogue Mozart survey for Decca (reissued by Eloquence--if interested, see my link below*). Yet, I'd consider Vol. 5 from her later RCA survey to be one of the finest solo piano recordings of the digital era.

--Federico Mompou, 6 Impresiones intimas, & Musica Callada, Book 4, which the Catalan composer dedicated to Alicia De Larrocha, as they were friends. Her recording of this music is very, very special. It's a pity that she didn't record the other three books--possibly out of deference to Mompou, who had recorded the complete Musica Callada himself, years earlier.

--Maurice Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit, coupled with Serge Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 6, played by Ivo Pogorelich, on DG. This was my very first recording of Ravel's richly imaginative Gaspard de la Nuit on LP, & both the music and Pogorelich's brilliant pianism held me spellbound, & still do many years later. Again, this recording is another one of the finest solo piano recordings made during the digital era, IMO. (Though close behind Pogorelich is Martha Argerich's fine recording of Gaspard; as well as Samson François & Hannes Minnaar's remarkable recordings of Ravel's equally magical & imaginative Miroirs, among other treasured Ravel discs in my collection...)
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit, M. 55 - I. Ondine

--Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, performed by the Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, with Margaret Price singing the role of Isolde, on DG. The blending of the remarkably in tune Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra (in those days)--speaking of "technical excellence"--with Price's beautiful, & equally in tune soprano voice, is quite rare on record. The sense of rapture that Kleiber & his phenomenal orchestra achieve in Isolde's Liebestod is unique from my listening experience (though the modern digital sound certainly helps). In my view, this is the best recording that Kleiber made during his career. I find it generally underrated from the standpoint of conducting & orchestral excellence, as I don't think I've ever heard another orchestra play Wagner's music better than the Staatskapelle Dresden does here. If anyone's open to splurging, i.e., spending extra, I'd strongly recommend the pricey Esoteric remasters for this recording, sound-wise.
Richard Wagner "Tristan und Isolde" Liebestod Mild und Leise | Margaret Price, Carlos Ludwig Kleiber

--Gustav Mahler, his three major orchestral song cycles, sung by Dame Janet Baker, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, on EMI. Suffice it to say that Baker is one of my favorite Mahler singers, & Barbirolli is likewise one of my favorite Mahler conductors. (In close second, I'd place Baker & Arleen Auger's recordings of Ravel's orchestral song cycle, Shéhérazade--with conductors Barbirolli & Bour, respectively; as well as Elly Ameling's Schubert lieder (especially with pianist Dalton Baldwin), Veronique Dietschy's Debussy, Faure, & Duparc Mélodies, Victoria de los Angeles singing of Chausson's orchestral song cycle, "Poeme de l'amour et de la mer", & Anne Sofie von Otter's gorgeous sounding CD of "French Chamber melodies" with pianist Bengt Forsberg & other chamber musicians. In fact, I've likewise doubled up on the Auger/Bour Ravel disc, Dietschy's Debussy survey, & von Otter's French Chamber songs, which are all desert island discs in my collection of vocal music, as well.)
Rückert Lieder: No. 5, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

--Claude Debussy, Images Books 1 & 2, and Children's Corner, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, on DG. I'm a Debussy nut, & from my experience of listening to a huge quantity of recordings of his solo piano works, I'd say this is one of the great Debussy piano recordings in the catalogue. The textural clarity that Michelangeli brings out in Debussy's Images is astonishingly nuanced and the different musical lines so distinctly chiseled that, at times, his Debussy can sound like two pianos!!: Debussy: Images - Book 1, L. 110 - I. Reflets dans l'eau. Surprisingly, I don't find Michelangeli's Debussy Preludes, Books 1 & 2 to be quite as successful, as I prefer a number of other pianists in these works (such as Freire, Y. Lefebure, Monique Haas on DG, O'Rourke, Rouvier, Arrau, Beroff on Denon, Egorov, Gvetadze, C. Collard, etc.). However, his Images Books 1 & 2 are virtually in a class of their own, in my view, & I would only count Moravec & Kocsis, and maybe, maybe Beroff, Pludermacher, & Rev to be in his same league with him in these works--that is, among those pianists that recorded during the digital era*. Although I should point out that Michelangeli's DG recording is analogue, so it's advisable to find a first rate remastering, such as Universal Eloquence's AMSI or 'Ambient Surround Sound Imaging' remaster (my first choice, but hard to find), or via Esoteric (very pricey), or within the most recent 2 CD & 1 DVD DG set, which has been remastered from the original recordings (another excellent choice, sound-wise): Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli - Debussy: Preludes I & II, Images I & II, Children's Corner [2 CD / Blu-ray] - Amazon.com Music. (*Jean-Philippe Collard, François, Gilels (Book 1), Arrau, & Helffer's wonderful readings of the Images weren't digital.)

--Ludwig Van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor", performed by Claudio Arrau, with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, conducted by a young Bernard Haitink, on Philips. I've heard many recordings of this work over the decades & very, very few pianists enter on the piano in the middle movement as softly & faintly as Arrau does--both here, & on his later digital recording with Sir Colin Davis. In contrast, most other pianists enter too loudly, which doesn't work nearly as well, & as a result, they don't get close to the kind of ineffable beauty and sense of intimacy & repose that Arrau finds in the opening of this movement:

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major Op.73 -"Emperor" - 2. Adagio un poco mosso
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73 "Emperor" - 2. Adagio un poco mosso

Of course, other recordings are now coming into my mind that I've bought duplicates for, such as Paavo Berglund's 'swan song' live Barbican performance of the Sibelius Symphony No. 7 with the London Philharmonic, Paul McCreesh's Handel Messiah with the Gabrieli Consort & Players, David Oistrakh & Lev Oberin's Beethoven Violin Sonatas 1-10, certain recordings by Emil Gilels, Rudolf Serkin, Youra Guller, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, & Sviatoslav Richter of Beethoven Piano Sonatas--such as Richter's live 1970s London 'Hammerklavier' & Serkin's previously "unreleased" Sony recording of the Op. 109 & 110 Sonatas (which were selected by his son, Peter, from the Serkin archives), as well as Glenn Gould's final CBS recording of the "Six Last Sonatas" by Franz Josef Haydn. But I've gone on enough....

So, to answer your question, among the ten recordings mentioned above, which would I pick as my "single best", that is, if I could only take one recording to my desert island? Well, I'd take the Orlando Consort's recording of Josquin's Motets. First, the CD contains some of the most enlightened & beautiful music I've ever heard, and secondly, the line up of singers on this disc represents the Orlando Consort at their very best. To this day, it remains my favorite line up for this group. For instance, I don't think I've ever heard more beautiful counter tenor singing than by Robert Harre-Jones on this incredible album (etc.) In other words, if I were pressed to name my single favorite recording of early Renaissance music (out of hundreds), this would be it; although that certainly wouldn't be an easy decision: Des Prez: Inviolata, integra, et casta es Maria à 5

(*As mentioned above, here's a link to Alicia de Larrocha's superb earlier Mozart (& Haydn), originally recorded for Decca & now reissued by Eloquence in a box set (which I'd strongly recommend): Mozart, Haydn, Alicia De Larrocha - Mozart: Piano Sonatas & Fantasias / Haydn: Andante variazioni & Piano Concerto - Music)
 
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