Classical Music Shred-Fest: Which Pieces Get You Pumped Up?

Violinist Nigel Kennedy i i

Violinist Nigel Kennedy sports a punk haircut and a rock 'n' roll attitude toward classical music. Joerg Koch/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joerg Koch/Getty Images
Violinist Nigel Kennedy

Violinist Nigel Kennedy sports a punk haircut and a rock 'n' roll attitude toward classical music.

Joerg Koch/Getty Images

You may have seen my colleague Robert Goldstein's fascinating story about the 60th anniversary of the Fender Telecaster electric guitar yesterday. After noting the instrument's history, influence and some of its most kick-butt performers, Goldstein states it's a birthday to "celebrate loudly." I agree. Nothing quite like a face-melting solo from an electric guitar master.

Which got me to thinking: High-adrenaline shredding isn't exclusive to rock 'n' roll. Classical music has its share of heavy metal moments, too — ear-piercing, greased-lightning passages that blow your hair back and get your heart pumping. Got some favorites? Tell us about them in the comments section. Below are a few I love to turn up loud.

It always seems to start with J.S. Bach, doesn't it? Here, in this video of the opening movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, (performed with speed and precision by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra), check out Michael Behringer's great-balls-of-fire harpsichord solo, which really heats up at about 7:36. Careening up and down the keyboard, even Jerry Lee Lewis could be jealous of Bach's wild streak and Behringer's pacing. One of the YouTube commenters even posed the question, "Bach was possibly the first metal head?" Answer: Yes.

One of the first superstar shred-heads was violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini. He didn't even need all four of his fiddle strings. He was famous for improvising on a steamy theme using just two — the E string portraying the woman and the G string representing the man. Goethe called his playing simply "meteoric." Just imagine what his fans thought when they saw him playing his Caprice No. 5. This awesome performance is by Shlomo Mintz.

Paganini's shred-fests influenced more than just violinists. A young pianist named Franz Liszt heard Paganini play in Paris in 1832. Liszt was, essentially, the Paganini of the piano, at least when it came to supersonic virtuosity. Notes sprayed all over the place in Liszt's most flashy works. No one could top him. But today, there are pianists who can give us a taste of what the mighty virtuoso might have sounded like, and Evgeny Kissin is one. "La Campanella" starts out innocently, but by the time you reach the rock 'n' roll finale, Kissin's hands are merely a blur.

In the official handbook from the Minister of Shredding, it clearly states that opera singers, too, can be headbangers. Just listen to the flurry of exquisite notes from the throat of French coloratura soprano Mado Robin. Warning: Secure all crystal stemware near the end of this section of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Hear an excerpt of "Tetras" by Xenakis, played by the JACK Quartet.

My favorite heavy metal string quartet, Tetras, belongs to Iannis Xenakis, the French composer and architect of Greek heritage. Written in 1983, its jagged, raw and violent outpourings (with touches of humor) would be welcome at an Iggy Pop show. No one today has the command of this music like the young JACK Quartet, which recorded this piece for the excellent modern music label Mode Records.

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Got a few favorite classical shredding moments? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section.

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