The 50 greatest recordings of all time

The must-have performances on disc

The 50 Greatest Recordings

Each month at BBC Music Magazine we receive hundreds of recordings, and hundreds of thousands have been made since the advent of recorded sound. But which are the greatest, the ones that no collection should be without? We asked the BBC Music critics to vote on the top 50 recordings of all time. And here are the results… To read more about each recording click on the title of the disc or the cover image.

1. Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelung

Wagner's Ring Cycle

‘Very nice,’ sneered a rival producer, hearing that Decca were embarking on the Ring. ‘But of course you’ll never sell any.’ To him it was just an obscure, prestige project. But at a stroke – Donner’s awesome hammerstroke in Rheingold, to be precise, the loudest sound then recorded – Decca’s new venture was to galvanise classical recording, and begin a new era…

2. Beethoven's Symphonies Nos 5 & 7

Carlos Kleiber

The reclusive Carlos Kleiber – voted the most inspiring conductor of all time in a poll of eminent current practitioners in BBC Music’s April 2011 issue – was a rare visitor to the recording studio. But his LP of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, issued in 1975, was recognised as a classic…

3. Britten: War Requiem

War Requiem

‘I thought Mozart and Verdi had said it all: I was wrong.’ So spoke the usually sceptical Ernst Roth, Britten’s publisher, after the momentous 1962 premiere of the War Requiem at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral…

4. JS Bach: Goldberg Variations

Glenn Gould

Given this is now such a historic landmark, it seems strange to recall that executives at Columbia had misgivings about Glenn Gould recording the Goldberg Variations…

5. Puccini: Tosca

Tosca

It was the legendary recording producer Walter Legge who brought the 29-year-old Maria Callas to the EMI stable in 1953, thereafter recording with her between two and four operas each year until the end of the decade…

6. Elgar: Cello Concerto

Elgar Cello Concerto

Some say it’s the red-hot personality, others that it’s the du Pré-Barenboim love story, still others that the tragic emotions evoked in the music foreshadow the tragedy that later befell the performer…

7. Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan and Isolde

This superlative recording, made in London in 1952 and never out of the catalogue, was the first complete one of Tristan und Isolde, and contains several lengthy passages from the love duet in Act II and Tristan’s delirium in Act III that many lovers of the work had never heard before…

8. Ravel/Berlioz: Shéhérazade/Nuits d'été

Shéhérazade

Escapism is what Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Berlioz’s Nuits d’été and have in common. Régine Crespin knew that, which is why her performance of these two song cycles practically seems to exist out of time and space…

9. Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos 4-6

Tchaikovsky

At the height of the Cold War, the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under its legendary principal conductor Evgeny Mravinsky visited Britain in September 1960, giving sensational concerts in Edinburgh and London which drew ecstatic responses from both press and public…

10. Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess

Glyndebourne’s production of Porgy and Bess in 1986 confirmed the work’s status not merely as Gershwin’s masterpiece, but as one of the great operas…

11. JS Bach: Cello Suites

JS Bach Casals

It was a chance discovery in a Catalan junkshop that ultimately led to the making of one of the 20th century’s truly great recordings…

12. Beethoven: Late String Quartets

Beethoven Late String Quartets

It’s nearly 80 years since the Busch Quartet made their legendary recordings of Beethoven’s Late String Quartets, and it’s frequently stated that they have never been bettered…

13. Janáček: Kátya Kabanová

Katya Kabanova

Released in 1977, in the years when Decca was at the height of its powers as an independent label, this recording opened up new dimensions in Janáček performance, and its success launched Charles Mackerras’s complete cycle of the operas that was to follow…

14. Art of the Prima Donna

Art of the Prima Donna

This ambitious set of 16 arias associated with past coloratura legends came out in 1960 at the beginning of Sutherland’s career as an international recording star…

15. Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas

Artur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel was the first pianist to record the complete Beethoven Sonatas, undertaking the mammoth project for the Beethoven Society in the early 1930s…

16. Hildegard von Bingen: A Feather on the Breath of God

Hildegard of Bingen

This was the 1981 disc, from Christopher Page’s pioneering Gothic Voices group and the incomparably pure-voiced Emma Kirkby, that launched interest in the medieval visionary and composer Hildegard von Bingen…

17. Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610

Monteverdi Vespers

John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir have had a long and special relationship with the Vespers of 1610 going all the way back to their groundbreaking recording of the mid-1970s…

18. Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4; Ravel: Piano Concerto

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 4

Reclusive Italian virtuoso pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli remained a notoriously reluctant recording artist, feeling unable to commit his performances to disc for fear that they would not match his self-imposed high standards…

19. Chopin: Sonata No. 3 etc

Martha Argerich

‘Argerich plays Chopin’ is the emphasis on a recording where the interpreter sometimes comes before the composer, but this brilliant disc deserves its legendary appellation…

20. Mozart: Complete Piano Concertos

Mozart Piano Concertos

In the 1960s, while still in his twenties, Daniel Barenboim joined forces with the English Chamber Orchestra to record a groundbreaking set of the complete Mozart Piano Concertos, conducting from the keyboard…

To find out which recordings featured from 21-50 click on the pictures below