Wednesday, 8 August 2012

My 'Desert Island Discs'

'Desert Island Discs' is a BBC radio programme which has been going on for 70 years, in which a 'celebrity' from any field chooses eight records to be taken if that person were to be shipwrecked on a desert island and which would have to last, potentially, for the rest of his/her life. (A 'record' = a single track. So no complete albums, operas, musicals etc. are allowed.)
A single book may also be taken - apart from the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible, which are, by chance, already there - as well as a single luxury i.e. something which is of no practical help to survival or to escape. It cannot be a radio (or TV) as that would defeat the object of the exercise. It must also be inanimate - so, no pet cats etc!

 I've actually been listening to the programme since about 1962. Even when I lived in Germany I followed it on long-wave radio.

My blog friend Andrew @  has already recently done the posting of his choices and Stephen @ is currently revealing his own choices one by one. So, after toying with this idea for years, I think it would be better to strike now while the iron is hot.

My choices are:-

Beethoven - 9th Symphony (first movement, rather than the last) - conducted by Otto Klemperer.

Beethoven - Piano Sonata in C minor Opus 111 (second movement) - played by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Bach -  Mass in B minor - the opening of the 'Gloria' - conducted by Karl Richter

Brahms -  Alto Rhapsody - soloist, Janet Baker

Beatles - Hey Jude

ABBA - Super Trouper

Rodgers & Hammerstein - 'This Nearly Was Mine' from 'South Pacific' - sung by Paolo Szot

Shakespeare - Selection from the 'Sonnets' recited by Sir John Gielgud.

 Beatles   I'd have been satisfied with so many of their tracks that the final choice must have an arbitrariness about it. I suppose my accolade for the best single track they ever made would be a toss-up between 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Eleanor Rigby' - but both were, largely or exclusively, solo efforts by Lennon and Mccartney respectively, but also both having a huge input from George Martin.  Then there are their many album tracks - again, almost too many jewels to count - 'And Your Bird Can Sing', 'Two of Us', 'Something', 'And I Love Her', 'In My Life', 'Here There and Everywhere', 'Sexy Sadie', 'I am the Walrus', 'Girl', 'While My Guitar...', 'Revolution'.......the list just goes on and on.
So, finally plumping for 'Hey Jude' doesn't necessarily mean I think it's the greatest of all the Beatles tracks, though it is certainly among them. It's just that it's more representative than some. For me, this time was when pop music reached the absolute heights of excellence - and it's never been quite there since, though it has come close - Bowie, Carpenters, Elton, Queen, even Madonna - and then, of course, there's......

ABBA  This is the most evocative track out of my eight choices. It marks the start of what turned out to be my decade of hedonism, during the second visit of what was to be no less than 35 visits to Amsterdam, within the next 10 years, usually alone. (On my very first visit I'd been too scared to do anything!). It was a decade of frequent peaks of joy, but also regular heartbreak, living more intensely than I've ever lived before or since, making new friends - and, within the space of a few years, losing very nearly every single one of them through.... you know what. A decade of extreme highs and lows, but years which are treasured in my memory forever.
  The 'Super Trouper' album came out when I was already a very keen Abba fan so even without the associations I would almost certainly have picked a track by them. But I think the entire album is a succession of  gems anyway - so many brilliant tracks (particularly 'Our Last Summer' which, in its lyrics, sings of Paris, a city I was then yet to discover - and to find that Paris was my favourite city of them ALL!). But the title track of this album brings all that era back to me. I only have to put it on, close my eyes - and I'm there again!

'This Nearly Was Mine'  I couldn't live without something from a musical - and this is as fine a choice as any I can think of. There may be musicals other than 'South Pacific' which, though I love tremendously, I love even more. ('Les Mis' still delivers to me the highest count of pleasurable goose-pimples than any other musical.) I could also have chosen a Lloyd Webber - specifically from 'Evita' (any number of songs there!) or one from any of his trilogy written with Tim Rice.
    But this particular song from South Pacific never fails to get me close to tears. I'm not generally a great fan of Hammerstein's lyrics - 'subtlety' was never his strong point - but here, with Rodgers' gentle, lilting, poignantly sad waltz, he hits the emotion right on target. It's a sentiment which we all recognise and go through regularly, no matter what our sexuality. I just find it so very profoundly moving.
Incidentally, until I googled his name, I hadn't realised that the singer I chose, the Brazilian Paolo Szot, is an 'out' gay man. He may not sing it as expertly (he has a bit of a 'warble') as, say, Jose Carreras, but the latter declaims the song whereas the lyrics are clearly that of introspection and inner regret at the loss of something that had been so close to having - and Paolo delivers it as an 'inner voice' just as the lyrics require. Heart-moving stuff!

John Gielgud  - for me the loveliest speaking voice of my time. He may not have been the greatest actor (that surely was Olivier, though since his death even he is now considered to have been rather mannered) but what beautiful, fruity, full-bodied enunciation Gielgud had! I find his rendering of Shakespeare's words quite hypnotic - and if I have to live for the rest of my life knowing how only one person talks, I can't imagine my choosing anyone better than Gielgud to show how it can be done. Though I've learnt to recite all the Sonnets myself off by heart (yes, all 154 of them) Sir John is an object lesson in how to do it properly.

My classical choices
 Beethoven's 9th is, in my books (along with the 'Missa Solemnis'), simply the greatest music ever written by man. I only chose the former rather than the latter as I've already got a mass with the Bach (my joint-favourite of all composers) -  the 'Gloria' of whose B minor Mass is surely the most exhilaratingly joyful music ever written - by anyone!
I picked Beethoven's final piano sonata because of it being a glorious summation of his achievements - written, like his final symphony, when he was completely deaf, but nevertheless an almost unbelieveable miracle of sound and invention. Most music critics would place the string quartets as a whole, particularly the late ones, on an even higher plain than the sonatas. But there are more than twice as many of the latter - and they cover such an amazingly immense spectrum of emotion. I could live with his piano works more comfortably than with his chamber pieces, and Ashkenazy is the pianist who, for me, gets closer to Beethoven's spirit than any other.
The Brahms Alto Rhapsody, particularly the final C major section with the male choir joining the Alto soloist,  would be a piece I'd choose for my funeral, if I were to have one (though I don't want one anyway)..  It is so very simple and deeply, deeply moving. This music never ever fails to reduce me to tears - and when it's the solo voice of an angel like Janet Baker (the favourite female singing voice of my lifetime), well nothing on earth can trump that!

My luxury - a comfy pillow. (Having a good sleep is ever so important to me.)

My book - the many who pick the rather obvious choice of 'War and Peace' do so by saying that they've either never got round to reading it, or they started but never finished it. Well I would choose it on its merits - which are manifold. I've read it (so far) six times in three different translations - and I worship it as a work! Just about everybody says that 'Anna Karenina' (four or five times) is an even greater work, and I'm willing to concede that. But W & P has such a mind-blowing panorama of the psychology, emotions and motivations of a good number of individuals during Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign, that one really cares for them and what happens to them. The characters rise from out of the pages and sit with you as you read. Also, Tolstoy's sweeping commentaries on the politics and strategies of the time, with his countless 'asides', just leave me breathless. Microcosm and macrocosm brought together in one glorious volume. I love it - and it's power to involve blows me away every time. I will never stop re-reading it.

So that's it! I've said to Andrew @ 'the widow's world' that one's list doesn't have to be definitive for all time. As one goes through life the choices cannot help but change according to the impact one's circumstances of the time have had. But these are my choices as at now.

It would be so very interesting if other readers of this blog could offer their own contribution to this little game . Go on - have a go, (please)!


  1. Ah, you mention Les Mis - I almost had the soundtrack on my list but opted for other things in the end. Do love it and need to see it again (it must be around 15 years since I last did!)

    1. Andrew, I've seen it 3 times so far, all at the Palace Theatre in the West End, and all within the first three years or so of its opening - so a re-visit is long overdue.
      The first time I could not believe what I'd just witnessed and on the way out I went to the box office and bought a ticket to see it again a couple of weeks later. It's a real beauty, isn't it? However, I must own to a slight feeling of guilt in liking it that much (if it is allowed) as it's yet too early to be classed as an 'established' musical in the same way that, say, R & H's brilliant works, or those of Cole Porter, Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb, and several others are regarded. But it's still a miracle of a piece.
      Thanks for your thoughts - and your 'approval' ;-)

  2. Oh, I love this one:
    "Rodgers & Hammerstein - 'This Nearly Was Mine' from 'South Pacific' - sung by Paolo Szot"

    Another song that brings me to tears is "I Loved You [Once In Silence] sung by Julie Andrews. i heard it at a Pride festival in Key West. The woman who sang it said, for her, and for all of us, it was how gay men and women used to love. In silence.

    1. Bob, I'm so glad this 'South Pacific' song appeals to you too. Although it's one of the slightly lesser-known songs from that marvellous show it goes straight to my heart every time. And Paolo Szot does it greater justice than anyone else I've yet heard.

      I don't know the Julie Andrews song, but now that you've mentioned it I must investigate. Obviously for you it has a particular resonance but I still want to get a flavour if it. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. what great selection you have amassed here, I am indeed impressed. I applaud every one of your selections, even Hey Jude, although if I could ever narrow down my tastes to a DID list, it wouldn't have been my choice of Beatles track.

    having said that, I am still impressed and singing out loud, narr narr nee nea narr

  4. Jase, I'm pretty sure that WHATEVER Beatles track was your choice it would get my whole-hearted approval, at least if it was post 1963 - though NOT if you chose 'Revolution Number 9'!

  5. I was so relieved to read "after toying with this idea for years..."! This is a daunting task. I think maybe I'll study your list and explanations ... for years... before I start on mine!

    1. Can't wait that long, Mitch. I'm eager to see your own list NOW - but at least you're thinking about it.

  6. what a fabulous thought provoking MEME !
    I enjoyed your entries and explanations - I will steal this one anon.

    1. Oh, please do so, Dr Spo. It only needs you to post your own choices and I can guarantee that most, if not ALL, of your followers will be doing it. I so much want the idea to catch on and spread like wildfire. It's real fun reading others choices - it says more about them in a few lines than can be contained within an extended posting.

      Btw: I should have said that in this radio programme it's not only British celebrities who take part. Many Americans have done so (and Canadians, I'm sure). I remember myself people like Bing Crosby, Lauren Bacall, Liberace, Bob Hope - and, about a decade ago, Rod Steiger and Stephen Sondheim (the latter choosing excerpts from three of his own works. - And why not?)
      One of the most 'notorious' castaway guests was Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, whose choices included seven records on which she herself featured.

      I can't understand why more countries don't do their own similar programme. It's a brilliant formula which never tires.

      Now that you've sown the seed of expectation, I'm just LONGING to see your own list - with the reasons for your choices.

  7. As you said, the list doesn't have to be definitive. My list changes almost weekly since I purchased a ticket to The Berliner Philarmoniker and can access all their concert archives. As of today, my classical choice would be Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor,probably one of the most difficult pieces to play. The artist would have to be Denis Matsuev. If I couldn't have that, it would be Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor OP. 54 played by Mitsuko Uchida. On a side note, after reading your post, I watched and listened to the "Missa Solemnis." I agree, it probably is the greatest work ever composed.

    It appears that you and I are both fans of "Les Mis" and Evita." Difficult to choose. At first, I was going to go with "And The Money Kept Rolling In" from "Evita" because the lyrics always bring a smile. But I'm going with "Les Miz" I love "Empty Chairs And Empty Tables" but "Bring Him Home" won out as sung by the Jean Valjean Quartet. Your choice of Paulo Szot (my spelling differs from yours, as that's how his name appeared in my Playbill) was a great choice. At the performance I attended, he earned more applause than the actress who played Nellie.

  8. Paul, by rights my comments on YOUR comments ought to take another complete posting, but I'll try to make them concise.

    Rach 3 - yes, it certainly IS difficult. Ashkenazy, whom I've mentioned, cites it as THE hardest of ALL piano concertos in the established repertoire - specifically the final movement. Not made easier when you know the absolutely incredible span of the composer's hands, which I think I spelled out in a blog a few years ago. (If you want to know it again let me know.)

    I'm pleased you mentioned the Schumann p.c. It's one of the concertos - and there aren't TOO many of them - which just never ever palls for me (rather like Mendellsohn's 'Italian' Symphony - though you may disagree about that.) The concerto sounds so seamless and perfectly balanced - there isn't a misplaced note in the entire work - it's hard to believe that the first movement was written first as a stand-alone piece - and only later were the final movements added. But it's an absolute gem of a work - certainly one of my own very favourites of ALL p.c.s. So we're at one about that.
    Incidentally, do you know Clara Schumann''s (nee Wieck) concerto written some years before her husband's. Also in A minor and also with the slow movement having a central section featuring up-front cellos (or is it just the one?) I can't help wondering if her hubby was cheekily trying to outdo hers by modelling his own on it, in a manner of "THIS is how it should be done!" But Clara's themes are nowhere near as meorable as Robert's.
    I'm not sure I know the version by Mozart-specialist Mitsuko Uchida, but I really must make an effort to look out for hers.

    You hadn't heard the 'Missa Solemnis' before? That's remarkable. Or maybe you had but hadn't paid it that much attention. Beethoven really takes both chorus and orchestra, not to mention the soloists, by the scruff of the neck and forces them through hoops. It's said that he wrote for voices much as he wrote for instruments, but not allowing the soloists the 'courtesy' of allowing breaks in which they can breathe - a mere minor detail! It must be absolutely exhausting to perform. As for the music - well, words fail. It's just out of this world. Beethoven never wrote another extended piece that is so dramatic as this - it even outdoes 'Fidelio' for sheer drama. However, as with all masses set to music, it's a pity that the Latin text is not well-suited to being a satisfyingly balanced work aesthetically. After all that it preceds, it doesn't even have 'Amen' as its final word! But Beethoven, although agnostic, really goes to town with the 'libretto' and interprets every single word in literal music terms. It may be seen as ultra-naive - but I don't doubt for a moment that he was aware of what he was doing.
    I'd be hard pushed to name my favourite part - the opening Kyrie, the entire Gloria, the double fugue towards the end of the Credo, the piercingly beautiful Benedictus with violin solo, or the profound Agnus Dei which, when recalling the Napoleonic wars sounds almost 20th century. Those trumpets could almost have come out of Britten's 'War Requiem'! So many highlights - such a grand work, in all senses. (Btw: I consider the optional organ part as absolutely essential to achieve the required forcefulness.)

    As you liked this, if you get a chance, do search out his earlier Mass in C. I love it too. A bit shorter, but it's yet another wonder.

    (I'd better finish this on another 'comment' or it won't get accepted when I try to post it.)

    1. ......cont'd

      'Evita' is so very good, with not a dull number in it. Tim Rice was such a superior lyricist to the subsequent ones with whom Lloyd Webber worked - though Richard Stilgoe for 'Starlight Express' is funny and clever - and Charles Hart for 'Phantom' pulls a few rabbits out of the hat - but Time Rice in this one, as in 'Joseph' and 'Superstar', was exceptional throughout (as he also was when working with the ABBA guys on 'Chess'.)

      I'd find it almost as difficult to pick out a favourite piece from 'Evita' as I would from 'Les Mis'. (Note the 'almost'!) I can't pin down why the latter has such an effect - a lot of the criticism is that there's a 'sameness' about the music. I can just about see that but when I come to look at a list of the numbers I see an immense variety of styles. All I know is that it affects me more than any other musical I've seen - though of course that's not to belittle the MANY other musicals I know and love.
      Are you steeling yourself to be disappointed by the film when it appears, which can't be long now? I'm fearing for the cuts they are going to make, as they always do for screen versions. On the other hand we'll have that gay-sympathetic hottie, Hugh Jackman to gawk at, so it should be worthwhile for that alone. But musicals on film are problematic as they do have a tendency to preserve it all in aspic - unchangeable, of course - and which many will, and always wrongly, take as the definitive version. Live theatre has the electricity of a performer/audience complicity which just cannot, by definition, be reproduced on the screen. Speaking for myself I'd have preferred then to have left it alone. But as they're not doing that I suppose I'd better see it.

      Paolo Szot (however his name is spelt) was little more than a name to me until a few days ago, to whom I hadn't given him that much attention. I know that he's even now not exactly 'OLD', but when you saw him he must have been even younger for his part as the ageing De Beque. But let's not get over-literal. Acting beyond one's age is just one of the many theatrical conceits.
      I've only seen 'South Pacific' twice on stage, the second at the London Palladium with our Gemma Craven (who seems to have disappeared from the scene after being a big name here) as Nellie. Both productions fell short of my expectations. But nothing can detract from the glorious songs.

      Got to close quickly now, Paul. Thanks so much for your remarks. But when are we going to see YOUR list of choices? ;-)

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