Valentine's Day Hit List

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Photo credit: Esther van Berk

Ronald Vermeulen
Director of Artistic Planning


‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ These eternal words from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night have been a source of inspiration for generations of composers. From the chansons of mediaeval troubadours to the songs of Beyoncé: music is the food of love and there is simply no better language to express our innermost feelings of the heart. So what are the five most romantic classical masterpieces we need to have in our headphones this Valentine’s Day?

Of course the doomed Shakespearean love couple Romeo and Juliet scores high, as are the works of composers as different as Hector Berlioz and Leonard Bernstein. But these pieces are fairly well known and I’d like to reserve some spots in this top 5 for less obvious musical masterpieces. But we should start with an evergreen:

Puccini: La Bohème: O soave fanciulla
Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan (Decca)

All Mimi hoped for that evening was the help of her neighbour. The draft in her apartment had blown out her candle. But one look at the dashing Rodolfo and… Puccini wrote perhaps the best off-your-feet-sweeping love duet ever. I usually stop the CD after this, as to not disturb the romantic idyll.

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde: Isolde’s Liebestod
Margaret Price, Staatskapelle Dresden, Carlos Kleiber (Deutsche Grammophon)

You can leave it to Richard Wagner to take matters to the extreme. A love potion, a fateful nightly encounter and a love that was not meant to be. Isolde dies, but her love for Tristan transcends this earthly life and becomes part of the universe. This is probably the most intoxicating and all-embracing love music I know.

Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony: Joie du sang des étoiles and Jardin du sommeil d’amour
Steven Osborne, Cynthia Millar, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena (Hyperion)

The French twentieth century composer Olivier Messiaen shows us that even Wagner can be surpassed. His monumental Turangalîla Symphony is also inspired by the Tristan myth and has the most gorgeous, sensual tender movements, but also the ecstatic ‘transformation on a cosmic scale’ that is the union of two lovers in Joy of the Blood of the Stars. A nerdy (but oh so romantic) detail: Messiaen wrote the piano part for his wife.

Mahler: Symphony no.10
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)

Hector Berlioz fell hopelessly in love with the actress Harriet Smithson and wrote the Symphonie fantastique to attract het attention. When Gustav Mahler found out that his wife, Alma, was having an affair, he poured his heart and soul in his unfinished 10th Symphony: music of almost unbearable love, tenderness, grief and despair.

R. Strauss: Four last songs: Im Abendrot
Erin Wall, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (ABC Classics)

I hope one day to be able to look back upon a life that was filled with love, in the same way as the poet Eichendorff: ‘Through sorrow and joy we have gone hand in hand; from our wanderings, we will rest in this quiet land.’ The incredible tenderness of the music goes straight to the heart.