Posts Tagged ‘Desert Island Discs’

Choose your own Desert Island Discs

It’s such a simple idea, but so effective. If you were stranded on a desert island, and had, miraculously, some machine on which to play music, which eight pieces of music would you choose? And which of those eight would you keep if you could keep only one? The answers are so very revealing. Some choose music for reasons of nostalgia; some for the quality of the music; and some, one suspects, to make a certain impression, or to project a certain image. But whatever the reason (and one can usually tell from listening to the programme) it is a fascinating idea, and extraordinarily revealing of the guest’s personality and cultural preferences. So successful has this simple formula been, that the programme will shortly celebrate its 60th anniversary. 

In addition to the eight pieces of music, they are allowed to pick one luxury, and one book apart from the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare – which, we are told, are already on the island, it being assumed by the programme creator Roy Plomley that these two choices were so obvious that just about everyone would go for one or the other. Of course, things have changed since Roy Plomley’s days: on being told they’d be given the Bible, some guests nowadays react as if they’d been told they’d be given a dog turd. A few seem quite shocked that they’d have to pick a book at all, and try desperately to think of some book they’ve heard of. On the other hand, there are those delighted to be getting the Bible and Shakespeare: I remember Robbie Coltrane on this programme commenting that if some alien life form wanted to know what humanity was like, the best thing one could do would be to hand them a copy of Shakespeare. (His own choice apart from the Bible and Shakespeare was a Raymond Chandler novel – obviously a man of good taste and discernment!) But however they react, it’s revealing. 

In preparation for the 60th anniversary celebrations, the BBC has put up on its website all the choices ever made by various guests since the programme started. It makes, I find, for addictive browsing. I like seeing the surprising choices – such as Oliver Reed showing his sensitive side by choosing Debussy’s “Jardins sous la pluie” from Estampes (I wouldn’t look too closely at his luxury choice, mind you!); or the distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert choosing Abba singing “Super Trooper”. 

The BBC will soon be broadcasting a special programme to celebrate Desert Island Discs, and as part of the celebrations, we, Joe Public, can send in our own choices. The rules are a bit odd: we can choose a song, but not collections of songs or albums; and if we choose classical music, we may choose either one complete work if it is a non-vocal work (i.e. if it isn’t opera or oratorio or something similar); or, if it is opera or oratorio, we may choose an excerpt from it – an aria or ensemble or chorus or whatever. Well, it’s their game, so I suppose they can make the rules. For the record, these were my choices: 

Mozart: “Dove Sono” from “Le Nozze di Figaro”

This would be my one choice if I were restricted to one.

I have written on this blog before about my love of Mozart’s music, so I won’t go through all that again. But, quite apart from that, this is a work my wife and I particularly love, and it has many personal associations for us.

Tagore: “Bhara thak” from “Shapmochan”

This is music I grew up with at home. Tagore’s songs (Rabindrasangeet) are, effectively, the national music of Bengal. Growing up in Britain, I was picking up and absorbing all sorts of Western influences, but this was the culture I had at home. It’s hard to say whether I enjoy listening to this music because it brings back childhood years so vividly, or because the music itself is very good: a bit of both, I think. After all, glam rock of the early 70s was also part of my growing up, but I can’t say I make any special effort now to seek it out. This, however, is different.

Shapmochan (literally “The Breaking of the Spell”) is either a traditional folk story, or a story made up by Tagore in the folk style: I’m not sure. The story is narrated by a speaker, and is interspersed with some of Rabindranath’s loveliest and most moving songs. Since I can’t pick all the songs, I’ll pick the first – a tender, haunting melody of farewell.

(If anyone wants to hear this for themselves, do a search on Spotify on the word “Shapmochan”, and pick the track called “Shapmochan” that lasts about 45 minutes; this is the very famous recording made some 50 or so years ago, and featuring Suchitra Mitra and Hemanta Mukherjee. The first song – my choice above – is sung by Suchitra about a minute or so into this track.)

Brahms: Piano Concerto 2 in B flat major

I’ve always felt personally close to Brahms’ music, and this, effectively a symphony with a piano, is one of the old boy’s best.

Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and  All Rakha: Raga Sindhi Bhairavi

This was recorded live from a concert given in 1972 inNew York, and it is the most exhilarating piece of music making I think I have ever heard. All three of these very great musicians – Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Alla Rakha (tabla) – were on red-hot form that night. This piece is about half an hour long, and is, effectively, one continuous accelerando. Just when you think it can’t get any faster, it does – and the precision with which these three toss around musical phrases of great rhythmic complexity at ever-increasing tempi is mind-boggling, and takes one’s breath away.

Schubert: “Am Meer” from “Schwanengesang”

Schwanengesang was Schubert’s last collection of songs, and they are songs of pain and longing and desire. It’s virtually impossible to pick out just one song, but since them’s the rules, them’s the rules. This particular song is a setting of a poem by Heine, and, as with the Tagore song I picked earlier, it’s a song about a parting. But the mood here is deeply ambiguous. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so haunting.

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations

We all know the story of how Beethoven took a simple and trivial little theme composed by Anton Diabelli – a music publisher – and wrote 33 variations on it, transforming something utterly trivial into a massive work that communicates all moods and all states of mind imaginable, and, by the end, seems to transcend everything as it moves into new regions of sound. It seems to me sometimes a metaphor for creation itself: it’s the emergence of an entire universe out of nothing.

Nirmalendu Choudhury: “Naiya Re Sujan Naiya”

This is something else I grew up with at home. Nirmalendu was a singer of Bengali folk songs, and had the most phenomenal voice and singing technique. This song is a traditional boatman’s song (“bhatiali”), and contemplates the immensity of the river. (And you can put on that whatever metaphoric interpretation you want.) It starts quietly, but develops towards a climax of tremendous passion. The adjective “soulful” may almost have been invented just for this song.

(And if you want to sample this, I’d suggest going into Spotify again, and searching on “Nirmalendu”.)

Bartók: String Quartet 5

I would like some modernist music as well on my desert island, and I have long loved the wild passions and the passages of weird nocturnal stillness in Bartók’s string quartets. I have picked the 5th – but really, I could just as easily have picked any of the other five.

So, those are my eight. The BBC doesn’t ask us to choose a book or a luxury, which is just as well, because I really wouldn’t know what to choose. I’ll have the Bible and Shakespeare, which are both welcome, but then what? War and Peace? A Dickens novel? The poems of Tagore, perhaps, or of Wordsworth? The plays of Ibsen? I think I may just choose the complete Sherlock Holmes stories instead, but … who knows? 

Well, those are my choices. And I’d be interested in any other personal Desert Island Discs choices from anyone else out in the blogosphere.

These are a few of my favourite things…

Who hasn’t wanted to appear on Desert Island Discs? Or on Private Passions? Who hasn’t wanted to fill in a questionnaire all about one’s own self? Well, when one has one’s own blog, one can. Can’t one? So, without any apology or preamble, I shall take a leaf out of the blog Somewhere Boy, and press ahead. (And I would encourage anyone else out in Blogland to put up something similar: it’s fascinating finding out about other peoples’ tastes!) 

1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

One’s taste is always evolving, but even so, there are some constants. Mozart is my desert island composer: those three da Ponte operas, the wind serenades (I particularly love that very dark C minor serenade), the late symphonies, the piano concertos (especially the slow movement of the 17th), the divertimento for string trio, the clarinet quintet, the sinfonia concertante, etc. etc. – I adore them all.

As for other works I adore – the ones that immediately come to mind, in no particular order, are Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the 4th symphony of Brahms, Bartók’s 4th string quartet (with that haunting nocturnal movement at its centre), Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations,  Verdi’s Requiem Mass, Schubert’s G major string quartet, Mussorgsky’s epic opera Boris Godunov… I suppose I could go on and on, but that’s enough to be going on with, I think.

“What about Bach?” I hear you ask. Well, frankly, much of the time, he intimidates me. But when I do get his music, there’s nothing quite like it, and I wouldn’t think of leaving for Roy Plomley’s desert island without a recording of those wonderful Brandenburg Concertos.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

Perhaps I love good singing more than anything else – there’s nothing quite to match a beautiful voice, combined with imaginative phrasing and colouring. And when all this is in the service of music that I love, that’s just heaven. Just listen to that ethereally beautiful voice of Gundula Janowitz singing the role of the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro: is there really anything better than that? (Indeed, that whole recording is pretty damn good!) Or to Stuart Burrows singing Don Ottavio in Colin Davis’ recording of Don Giovanni. Or Lucia Popp singing the title role in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Or Janet Baker singing the finale of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in that live recording conducted by Rafael Kubelik, Or, if you want emotional intensity, try Jon Vickers as Tristan, or Plácido Domingo as Otello, or Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert’s Winterreise. And for sheer unmitigated pleasure, Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles in Thomas Beecham’s recording of La Bohème. Yes, these are all famous recordings – and they’re all famous for good reason.

Even in instrumental music, it is often the singing quality of the playing I enjoy most – Yehudi Menuhin’s fiddle singing ecstatically in the recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler; or Evelyn Rothwell on the oboe and Adolf Busch on the violin making their instruments sing like angels in the slow movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto; or Pablo Casals phrasing that melody at the start of the slow movement of Schubert’s B flat trio; and so on.

I suppose I should mention a few much loved recordings of a different type: Mravinsky’s searingly intense recordings of the last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky are high on most people’s lists of greatest classical recordings, and one can see why; the Hungarian Quartet’s recordings of Schubert’s late quartets and the string quintet aren’t quite that famous, but surely deserve to be; and finally – the most jaw-droppingly beautiful orchestral sound I’ve ever heard is in that wonderful recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

I think I’d best stop there.

3. Favourite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

As I was growing up, my parents played Bengali music at home. And mostly, this meant Rabinrasangeet – i.e. songs by Rabindranath Tagore, which constitute, in effect, the national music of Bengal. Of course, it is mandatory for teenagers to reject their parent’s values, and I rebelled by conforming to this pattern. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, and I now find myself moved by the same songs I had once rejected. And I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia for childhood: these songs really are quite wonderful.

Another record I remember from childhood is a collection of Bengali folk songs sung by Nirmalendu Choudhury, who is little-known outside Bengal, and, from what I gather, seems now to have been largely forgotten in Bengal also. That is inexplicable, as he was an extraordinary singer: his intonation was immaculate in even the most complex of passages, his breath control and  dynamics things to wonder at, and he could put a smile in his voice, or express the most profound melancholy, with apparently the greatest of ease. I am fortunate enough to have got hold of a few CDs of his recordings (they’re not easy to get hold of), and they are very dear to me. Particularly remarkable, I think, is his singing of bhaitali – which are traditional boatmen’s songs (Bengal is situated on the Ganges delta, and the river is a significant presence): the adjective “soulful” could almost have been invented specially for these.

As for Indian classical music – the term is a bit of a misnomer: the very concept of “classical music” is Western, and its application to the music of India is approximate at best. What is usually referred to as “Indian classical music” is the system of ragas, and although I love listening to them, I do wish I understood them a bit better. As it is, I can’t tell one raga from another, and have difficulty distinguishing even between types of raga. But for all that, I treasure the recordings I have of the likes of Bhimsen Joshi, Bismillah Khan, Vilayat Khan, etc etc. And if I had to choose the most exhilarating piece of music-making I have ever heard, I would unhesitatingly choose a live recording from New York, 1972 of Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Alla Rakha (tabla) playing Raga Sindhi Bhairavi.

4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:

I don’t think I cry physically, but I do often find myself very moved by music. I find this increasingly the case as I become older. And also, when I go through emotionally difficult times, it is in music that I tend to find a focal point for what I feel. Just about all the music I have mentioned so far moves me in some way or the other.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

There are certain major works by major composers that seem surprisingly little known. Mozart’s divertimento for string trio, say. Or, for that matterm anything by Handel except Messiah. (How many recordings are there of Samson, say, or of Belshazzar? How frequently are they performed? And yet, they’re supreme masterpieces!) As for lesser-known composers, I don’t know that I know the works well enough to comment, although, after watching the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I’ve developed a great affection for Miklós Rózsa’s violin concerto (the music from this concerto was recycled for the soundtrack of that film). But I wouldn’t make any claim for it other than that I personally enjoy it.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

I have not had a musical education, and am happy to defer to those whose understanding of music exceeds mine. There is much that is highly rated that has little effect on me, or which I find myself disliking, but if musicians of the calibre of Lenny Bernstein, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Rostropovich, Haitink, etc. admire, say, the symphonies of Shostakovich, then who the hell am I to say they were wrong? I’m happy to put it down as a blind-spot. Other musical blind-spots include Berlioz, French baroque (Rameau, Couperin, Lully), Liszt, minimalist composers, etc.

7. Live music performance(s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:

Goodness!- where do I start? There’s Pierre Boulez conducting the LSO in Mahler’s 6th symphony; the concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Edinburgh Festival featuring Robert Holl as Hans Sachs and a then relatively unknown young tenor called Jonas Kaufmann as Walther; Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden with Carol Vaness and Thomas Allen, and with Jeffrey Tate conducting; an equally good Figaro at Covent Garden a couple pf decades later, this time featuring Barbara Frittoli and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, and with Charles Mackerras conducting; a phenomenal sarod recital by Ali Akbar Khan at Queen Elizabeth Hall; Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony; Tatiana Nikolayeva playing Bach’s preludes and fugues at the Wigmore Hall; the Belcea Quartet playing all six Bartok quartets over three concerts spread out on a single day; Maurizio Pollini playing the Hammerklavier Sonata; Claudio Abbado conducting Die Zauberflöte …  

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

I’m very much out of sympathy – and, consequently, out of touch – with modern films. That is not to say there aren’t any good modern films: just that there is too much that is mediocre or worse that is highly acclaimed, and I don’t really have the time or the patience to wade through them all to dig out the few good ones. Every now and then I’ll see something that has been highly acclaimed, and wonder why I bothered. So I think I’ll pass on this one.

9. A few films you consider classics:

For me, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar) – based on two quite wonderful Bengali novels by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji – is among cinema’s finest artistic achievements: they move me possibly more than I think I could explain. These three films do, however, overshadow other films by Ray of comparable artistry – most notably Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri (aka Days and Nights in the Forest) and Ashani Sanket (aka Distant Thunder).

But my greatest love is Laurel and Hardy. With a couple of exceptions (Way Out West and Sons of the Desert), they were at their best in the two-reelers. When we first acquired a DVD player, my first priority was to get myself those classic Stan & Ollie pictures, and when I finally am invited on to Desert Island Discs and Kirsty Young asks me what my luxury is, I won’t hesitate.

Other than that, I think I love classic Hollywood best. Of course, there are many European and Japanese films I love dearly – from La Grande Illusion to Bicycle Thieves, Fanny and Alexander to Ran, Fitzcarraldo to Stalker – but ultimately, the films I tend to love best are film noir, the Jimmy Cagney gangster movies, screwball comedies, Marx Brothers, the films of Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard) and of John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine), and so on. And yes – Citizen Kane, which is wonderful despite everyone saying it is.

I am also a great fan of Chaplin. People queue up to say he isn’t funny, but if that’s the case, I really don’t know why I’m laughing. City Lights and Modern Times, especially, are wonderfully moving films.

I’m not sure why I enjoy being scared, but I do. I grew up with Hammer horror films, and love them still. But the film that unsettles me most, even after multiple viewings, is The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s superb adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

The 70s were really my era. British cinema was in decline by then after a peak in the 60s and early 70s (films like This Sporting Life, Kes, Sunday Bloody Sunday etc.) but outside Britain, directors of the calibre of Ray, Kurasawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Herzog, Fellini, etc. were still active (and often at their best) in the 70s. Meanwhile, from the US, we had films of the quality of The Godfather & The Godfather Part 2, Chinatown, Mean Streets, Five Easy Pieces, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Last Detail, etc. But it all went downhill from the late 70s onwards: the phenomenal success of the Star Wars films, and of the big-budget kiddies’ movies from Spielberg, heralded a juvenilisation of cinema, and we still haven’t recovered. Clint Eastwood continued to make films of distinction, but he was something of an exception: even directors who had done good work in the past seemed to go off the boil (Coppola is a conspicuous example of this). But I’m glad that my teenage years coincided with what, in retrospect, may be seen as a golden era.

 10. A book (or two) that is important to you (and why):

It’s a good job that I’m restricted to “a book (or two)”, otherwise, I’d be here all day. But I’ll take the liberty of extending ithe one or two books to four. The first is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, for reasons that really are too obvious to be stated, and too difficult to articulate; War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, because, as Someone-or-other once put it, it’s about everything that is important in life; The Poems of Rabindranath Tagore because, as a Bengali, I don’t have a choice on the matter; and, finally, The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories, for what would I read at bedtime otherwise?

 11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:

My extraordinary ability to fold my tongue simultaneously along two perpendicular axes.

 12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:

My utter lack of physical co-ordination, which manifests itself spectacularly when, at weddings or at similar functions, I am persuaded against my better judgement to take to the dance floor.

 13. Three things you can’t live without:

Should I embarrass my family by nominating them in this category? Will they be pleased by the nomination, or will they feel insulted that they are nominated alongside my collection of malt whiskies? All right, let’s leave family members out of it. I nominate my library, my CD collection, and my malt whiskies.

 14. “When I want to get away from it all I…”

Get into my dressing gown and slippers, curl up in my armchair with a glass of deep, satisfying malt whisky, and put on a Hammer horror film – something classy, like Taste the Blood of Dracula – on my DVD player. Or I read a Sherlock Holmes story.

 15. “People are surprised to find out that I…”

…genuinely enjoy watching football. I don’t know why that should surprise anyone: maybe I don’t look like a footie-loving person. But I am. (Note: If there’s any transatlantic reader out there, please read “soccer” instead of ”football”.)

 16. “My favorite cities are…”

Having grown up in Glasgow, I shouldn’t really mention Edinburgh here, but I will, as it’s a spectacularly lovely and characterful city. I have also developed an attachment to my adopted city, London. And, having come back from a holiday there, Venice must be high on any list.

17. “I have a secret crush on…”

Doesn’t Kirsty Young have a really sexy voice? The way she says “Time for your fourth record …”  Damn! – it isn’t a secret anymore!

18. “My most obvious guilty pleasure is…”

Malt whisky and Hammer horror films. But I don’t really feel very guilty about either.

 19. “I’d really love to meet – or to have met…”

Kirsty Young, with that sexy voice of hers, interviewing me as guest on Desert Island Discs. Come on Kirsty – what are you waiting for?

 20. “I never understood why…”

… why there is anything at all instead of nothing.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q: Why do you think Tolstoy is the greatest of all novelists?

A: Now, I’m very glad you asked me that … [cont. P 873]