My 8 Desert Island Discs. Which Disc Would You Save From the Waves?
Classic Desert Island
The Idea Behind Desert Island Discs
January 1942 was a landmark in British broadcasting history. The first airing of Desert Island Discs pulsed over the airways and an iconic format was born.
Guests were invited onto the programme with a list of eight recordings they would wish to have with them if they were shipwrecked on a desert island and discuss why they had chosen them.
They also talked about their life and at the end of the programme, they were also invited to decide on a book to take (they would also have the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare), one object (could not be used as a an aid to shelter) and they would also be asked how well they would fare as the sole inhabitant of the fictional island. Finally they would be pressed on which disc they would choose above all others to save from a mythical storm.
The concept was devised by Roy Plomley who was also the programme's first host. Such a simple idea, but, goodness, did it have legs. It's still running now, well into the twenty first century. So well loved is it, that many of us compile our own list and here is mine.
Claudio Monterverdi 1567-1643
Monteverdi's Vespers are a landmark on the musical chronologic map. Monteverdi bridged the eras of the Renaissance and the Baroque and was a superb exponent of the double choir and was able to experiment with bold antiphonal writing at St Mark's cathedral in Venice when he was appointed conductor there in 1613.
Vespers was written in 1610 before he took up his post in Venice and may have been used as a way of securing the prestigious position.They are a collection of liturgical settings including a mass for six parts,and has eye looking back to the the great Renaissance composers like Palestrina and forward to a more modern time when operas would start to be performed for the first time.
I studied Vespers at school under the tutelage of the most superb music teacher any student is lucky enough to have. Vespers takes me back to those happy days and I would never want to be without them.
Vespro della Beata Vergine From Monteverdi's Vespers Conducted By John Eliot Gardiner
Antiphonal writing is when one choir, or a section of an orchestra alternates with another.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Mozart Piano Concerto No 21 In C
Salzburg is a chocolate box town on the border with southern Germany and famous for its association with Mozart. I visited it in the 1980s and of course couldn't miss out on a look round his birthplace.
In one of the rooms, opened out at the first page within a sealed glass case was the original score for Mozart's piano concerto in C. Years later I heard a recording of it on the radio. the announcer, as always (which is why I love the radio so much) related information to the performance about to be aired.
The soloist she had picked out of a vast pool was Dinu Lipati. He was suffering from leukemia, and his wife had spoken of the immense effort her husband had to make to prepare for the event and how much it had taken out of him. He died just three months later aged only 33.
The poignancy of the personal story has stayed with me, and despite the distress he'd endured leading up to the performance, his playing retains the the fluidity of touch, running up and down those Mozartian figurative scales with practiced ease. The graceful singing but heartbreaking line in the slow movement seemed to mirror Lipati's own, adding another sombre layer to this, most beautiful of second movements.
I've always loved Lipati, his solo Bach in particular, and taking the the sad back story into account, my choice of soloist for Mozart at his best, has to be him. Two great artists taken from this world at a young age.
Mozart Piano Concerto no 21. Dinu Lipati's Last Recital
Mozart's Birthplace in Salzburg
The First Ever Guest
Roy Plomley's first guest on the show was a comedian call Vic Oliver. It was broadcast on January 29 1942 and the first piece of music chosen was the Etude in C minor no 12 by Frederic Chopin.
Leos Janacek 1854-1928
This is a Czech composer who didn't find favour with the public until his autumn years. He can fluctuate from the most wistful of tunes to the big bold statement, and this piece is no exception.
It opens with a majestic brass fanfare (Janacek specifies no less than twenty-five brass instruments, roughly twice the usual amount) with a kick in the rhythm aided by the timpani. Janacek returns to it at the finale but it swivels on its head with the most telling of deep chords that will turn your head in wonder while the violins trill above before swelling to the expansive ending. In between are bouncy woodwind and brass themes, with changes down a gear to the relief and softness of slower moving strings, but often harking back to the grandeur of the opening.
All the five movements in the SInfonietta music are in fact derived from the the fanfare, binding the work together. I love the splendour and contrast in this piece, and the brilliance of the crescendo on the luxurious final chord. A wholly satisfying symphonic masterpiece to listen to while building my shelter!
Janacek Sinfonietta Cnducted by Sir Charles Mackerras
Fanfare From SInfonietta. Janacek's Autographed Score
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
Bach. Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues
Bach, perhaps the greatest composer of all. How could I not have him in my collection?
But which of his thousand plus works to take? Now there's a conundrum. This was tough. for a long time I oscillated between the St Matthew Passion and the 48 preludes and fugues. Eventually the preludes and fugues won over.
Why? I've played many of them, and have my favourites, mostly from Book Two, and if I had to settle for only one out of them all it would be the in D minor, one I tended to turn to when I opened my copy. My attempts to tame the fugue could not in any way be compared to Andras Schiff whose renditions of Bach have brought him world wide acclaim.
One evening, in the early 2000s. Schiff's whole series of recordings was played late at night over several days on the radio. He doesn't play them at blisteringly high speeds, which many performers do, instead he takes his tome to savour each one. I took myself off to bed and lisitened in the dark. I can't tell you what a pleasure it was. The most satisfying, I'd say.
Part of Bach's Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues, Book II
The acclaimed singer Elizabeth Schwarzkopf elected to take all discs of herself performing. She defended her egotistical choice by saying she would be reminded of the friends she sang with.
Sergei Prokoviev 1891-1953
Prokoviev. Violin Concerto No 1
Prokoviev wrote two concertos for violin. The second with its popular and easily accessible rumbustious finale has put the first into the shade somewhat. A shame as the first born is much more interesting and surprising.
In some ways it's more virtuosic, but just doesn't shout as loud as the second - it hasn't the expected gutsy big-themed last movement to bring the house down.
This work is introspective in comparison to its later compatriot. It explores musical finespun avenues, delicately fingering it's way through a strange but wondrous world. The last movement could be fashioned from gossamer, the violin wispy in its high registers, bowing out, lead by a nebulous flute, almost as if it is taking the violin by the hand and floating it away on the tenderest of slipstreams to the the next distant galaxy.
I started learning the violin at seven, the instrument is close to my heart and I simply must have the sound of its strings to keep me company on a desert island, It's been part of my life, indeed of me almost forever, and I'm taking a forever performance.
Joeph Szigeti captures the inward looking perspective of this work, and in particular the ethereal closure fading into the stratosphere. Most violinists are too loud, it should reduce to nothing, hanging weightless like a dewy spider's web.
Joseph Szigeti Playing Prokoviev Violin Concerto no 1
The guest chosen for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Desert Island Discs was footballer David Beckham. It may surprise you to know that he didn't choose a Spice Girl number despite being married to 'Posh' Spice, the former Victoria Adams.
Schubert. Fantasia in F Minor
I couldn't live without Bach, but I'd die without Schubert. That is how I describe my feelings in relation to both these composers.
Another prolifically life cut short, Schubert had an unfailing talent for pouring out works from his soul as easily as drinking coffee, and indeed it was often in a coffee house where his pen and ink came out.
Schubert had that ability to write the simplest yet profoundest of melodies. Even his works in major keys, which might classed as happy in layman's terms, all have a tinge of angst, as if the sun is shining, but clouds aren't far away.
Such is the spark ignited by so many of Schubert's works it urges us (or at least me!) to want to bow down and kiss Schubert's feet, or shake his hand to thank him for leaving us such an extraodrinary catalogue of exquisite music in so short a time, Little wonder he frequently features on Desert Island Disc's guests playlists. The C major string quintet is requested most of all and I can't fault it as a choice.
But I'm plumping for what I consider to be the counterpart to that work, not the Trout quintet, but the Fantasia in F minor. It's written for piano duet; the main despondent lyrical theme reappears throughout with interludes of contrasting music including a lighter theme in the form of a ländler, a folk inspired dance, plus a more serious fugue. The fugue also returns later, this time as a double fugue layering up the texture, building towards the final announcement of the opening theme.
Like the string quintet, it has the most extraordinary twist at the end, leaving you unable to listen to anything afterwards until you have recovered from the emotional turmoil it generates within. I'm quite happy to have silence around me for a while.
Schubert Fantasie in F Minor with Christoph Eschenbach and Justus Frantz
What is a Fugue?
A fugue is where a main theme is imitated by a following part. Commonly you have two, three and four part fugues, and you can hear each part winding along independent of each other but totally interlinked.
The main theme often leads to a second, and this is also imitated in the same way before returning to the main theme to finish. Composers were likely to vary the motifs by inverting them, using different pitches, even playing them backwards. Bach, the grand master of the fugue used all the techniques. They are a sort of puzzle where you can listen or play just one part, and slowly add all the others until it's built up to a whole. It's a good technique to adopt if you are playing one from The Well-Tempered Klavier as you will really understand the piece from every angle.
A double fugue uses two melodies which progress together and are subjected to the same treatment as a single fugue.
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Brahms' Fourth Symphony
Brahms' fourth symphony is most frequently described as tragic. Not in my book. Defiant is the word I would specify.
This work, probably more than any other, rolls up all that was Brahms' personality in one symphonic summation and I believe that is how Brahms himself viewed it. Conversely sociable and intensely private, he was also confident of his ability as a composer. He's considered as one of the all time greats, though he had his critics at the time, and even later on Benjamin Britten commented that he played through his works on the piano to remind himself how awful he was!
Brahms pours all his personal musical experience into this symphony, using trademark techniques and favoured devices. He settles for E minor, a key that is majestic, but can be lightened up with thinned out orchestration. Brahms wrote a great deal of chamber music, quartets and quintets with and without piano, three sonatas for piano and violin, two for cello and piano (one also in E minor). Much of the symphony is reduced to small instrumental groups reflective of his love of the chamber genre.
The finale is a tour de force in the form of a passacaglia. Brahms took the theme from a Bach cantata, set to the words Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich. It comprises of eight notes, climbing up the scale starting on the keynote E, but in a change to the original, Brahms nudges one note sharper before continuing up before dropping down an octave and back to the keynote,
A passacaglia was a form popular in the baroque era, when ground basses (another name for passacaglia) were designed to show off a composer's prowess. Essentially, a composer takes a short phrase and plays it over and over without pause, the foil on to which varied countermelodies are threaded. Imagine, you have eight notes, could you make a whole symphonic movement out of it, lasting about eleven minutes? How many even very competent composers can? But Brahms did, and it's one of the most exceptional exponents of the form you are ever likely to hear.
The announcement, coming hard on the heels of the brass fanfare proceeding it, is an emphatic statement of utter self-belief, staring straight into the eyes of those who would put him down. In effect Brahms is throwing down the gauntlet to his detractors, And what a gauntlet.
There is nothing charming and safe about closure of Brahms' symphonic writing here, in fact it's more in line with a giant grasping you by the scruff off the neck and giving you a good shaking.
It's taut and immensely strong, the giant rising up to embrace the whole audience. This showpiece takes you through a catalolgue of styles from almost violent writing to the most wistful of flute solos, offering a much needed respite from the white water rafting that defines most of this passacaglia, searingly falling away in the violins as if in a heartfelt expression of regret, until the movement starts to build up to the massive climax, short and to the brutal point. A lance thrust into his critics.
The whole symphony may be likened to a William Golding novel. No word is superfluous, neither is one note. The worthy successor to his idols, Bach and Beethoven.
Brahms' Fourth Symphony Conducted by Carlos Keiber
Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss the Younger
The Most Popular Desert Island Disc
The work chosen most by guests on the programme is The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith. Vaughan Williams wrote two versions for violin, one with piano accompaniment, premiered first, and a second with orchestra.
I love opera, I've played some, and I'm irrestably drawn to tear-jerking melodramas - Verdi and La Traviata, Bellini's Norma, not forgetting Puccini's 'shabby little shocker', Tosca, as one critic described it.
When I was in hospital having my son, I took Tosca in to listen to. Mistakenly, I was under the idiotic notion it might take my concentration off the pain. It didn't but the consultant was very happy - never had he attended such a lovely labour, he said. He was keen on music, and it did mean he stayed with me far more than he would have otherwise!
As it always reminds me of when my son was born, I will be have a happy time listening to it, even though it also makes me reach for the tissues.
Tosca by Puccini. Maria Callas in the Title Role
You can download podcasts of past broadcasts of Desert Island Discs right back to 1942. They're fascinating, and could be regarded as a sort of historical archive.
Final Choices for Desert Island Discs
What book would I want to have with me? Well, something practical, I think, would be useful, so Ray Mears' The Outdoor Survival Handbook would fit the bill. My luxury has to be an unlimited supply of pen and paper. I know I'd be writing down my experience of the island and I could draw plans of anything I was building. I'm quite practical, can put electric sockets in, erect shelving, and fit wallboards.
So what would I save from the waves? Although I said I couldn't live without Bach but would die without Schubert, in fact it is the Brahms I would take, as it encapsulates all I need in a work, chamber music, solos and full orchestra. The recording has to be the acclaimed performance from Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic. I have never heard the horns be so full, smooth and rounded. It encapsulates Brahms' double-sided character. and Kleiber and his fabulous orchestra don't put a crotchet wrong. It's as perfect as you could expect, maybe too perfect for some, but it'll do for me. And I think Brahms would have approved.
© 2017 Frances Metcalfe