The Magazine

Listener's Choice

One phonograph, eight records, and all the time in the world.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By JOHN SIMON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Desert Island Discs is a long-running favorite program of BBC radio, on which guests name the eight recordings that would help sustain them on a desert island. Responding to an invitation by THE WEEKLY
STANDARD, I choose to omit operas because there I wouldn't know where to begin. For other music, here goes in alphabetical order.

Béla Bartók's Third Piano Concerto is one of the composer's last works, the final 17 bars orchestrated by his disciple and friend Tibor Serly. The dying Bartók composed it for his wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory. Lacking Stravinsky's commercial shrewdness, he had little money to bestow; so this relatively easy-to-play work was his legacy to her.

I perceive the first movement, allegretto, as declamatory. It is brisk, bright, nearly cocky. Also, at times, lusty and provocative, it calms down for a passage wherein the orchestra predominates with festive solemnity. When the piano reassumes the lead, it gets some dizzying stuff, which the orchestra approvingly echoes. Turning ruminative, it ends with something like a modest afterthought.

The second movement, adagio religioso, is curious coming from a professed atheist. Slow and pensive, it exudes a tenderness that might be a farewell to his wife or to life itself. As it becomes somewhat swifter, it turns into one of Bartók's beloved "night musics," as if the composer had set his piano before an open nocturnal window, and allowed moon and stars to frolic teasingly on the keyboard.

There are earthier sounds as well: night birds twittering, insects chirping, darkness yielding up its intimate secrets. Then, led by woodwinds and muted strings, the religious mode recurs, with the full orchestra finally sweeping in for a shudderingly beautiful climax abutting on silence.

The final movement, allegro vivace, becomes somewhat jazzy in rocking dialogue between a sprightly piano and impassioned orchestra. It ends in a tremendous affirmation, striking coming from a moribund composer; but then, "Death, where is thy sting?"

It is hard to pick a favorite among my seven recordings. Almost at random I choose Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra with soloist Hélène Grimaud, on a Deutsche Grammophon disc that includes the other two piano concertos, marvelous in very different ways.

Gabriel Fauré is one of my favorite all-round composers, exquisitely elegant in whatever form he embraced. It's a bit of a Sophie's Choice trying to pick a single piece, but let's take the First Cello Sonata, a late work never betraying the composer's deafness, and deserving to be better known.

In its 21 or so minutes, it is a great balancing act in the Fauré manner between sentimental lyricism and fastidious restraint. The opening allegro proves that Fauré can sound spiky without losing his essential tunefulness. The middle movement, andante, is heartstoppingly beautiful. For me, the test of true beauty in music is that it hurts, its enchantment and transience blending into a gentle ache in the heart. You wish to exclaim with Goethe's Faust, "Linger awhile, you are so fair," but it evanesces and you experience instant bliss along with intense loss.

The final movement, allegro commodo, dances on the cusp between merriment and reserve, "contained exuberance" Ronald Crichton calls it, reminding us that the piece was composed on the Riviera in 1917, between the anguish of wartime and the peace of the sea. Which of my three versions to recommend? The celebrated cellist Paul Tortelier, and the prematurely deceased brilliant Thomas Igloi, are equally expert. Perhaps the best sound on DG (Dabringhaus und Grimm) with Ulrich Schmid (cello) and Günter Herz-
feld (piano) is to be recommended.

The Brazilian composer Mozart Camargo Guarnieri (1907-93), who wisely dropped the Mozart, was a near-contemporary of Heitor Villa-Lobos, equally gifted but far less well known abroad. Out of an abundance of Guarnieri recordings I choose a disc entitled A Brazilian Salute on Summit records, featuring the pianist Caio Pagano and an unnamed, presumably pickup orchestra.

It begins with the Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1961), in Guarnieri's "nationalistic style," like much but not all of his music. The opening "Festivo," in sonata form, treats the orchestra (as Marion Verhaalen observes in her book about Guarnieri) "as one huge strumming guitar." It gives way to a "Tristonho," a type of sad song, which soon evolves into a joyous scherzo that, in turn, reverts to melancholy. The tripartite final movement starts with a carnivalish "Frevo" (lively, sparkling), continues with a somber "Modinha," and concludes with an "Embolada," a patter or dialogue song in rapid tempo. Yet this dizzying variety artfully coheres.

There follows another fine work, Choros, which designates the kind of serenade performed by bands of strolling musicians. Particularly lovely is its middle movement, well described by the booklet as "an ardent, nostalgic, and serene love song." I also cherish the last movement's outbursts of humorous verve. The CD ends with brief piano pieces, preludes Guarnieri calls penteios, which dazzle with their terse penetration.

Jacques Ibert's daughter Jacqueline was a harpist, and prevailed on her father to write the wonderful Trio for Violin, Cello, and Harp (1944). Such a lovely, peaceful piece amid World War II is, in itself, remarkable. So, too, was Jacqueline's willingness to bribe her father by ceding her wartime cigarette ration to him, considering how passionately the French smoke. In my recent book John Simon on Music I called the result "one of the most beautiful chamber works ever written."

The first movement is all Gallic sophistication gracefully rendered; the third movement, cracklingly jovial energy. But the middle movement, andante sostenuto, is a marvel: the personification of longing for an absent lover or elusive happiness. In some five minutes the gamut of human yearning, from intensive to resigned, is perfectly captured down to the last dying fall.

Of the three versions I have, the one by the Ensemble Arpeggione on Adda records (it includes good stuff by Albert Roussel and Darius Milhaud) may be the best. But the one on REM, in Jacques Ibert: Musique concertante, is also very good. Only the version that is part of Olympia's two-disc Complete Chamber Music loses a bit by slightly minimizing the harp.

Next come the often recorded string quartets of Leos Janácek. According to Janácek's great compatriot, the novelist Milan Kundera, the composer's music is "harsh juxtapositions instead of transitions, repetition instead of variation, and always heads straight for the heart of things: only the note that says something essential has the right to exist." But which note is that? I would say the one that takes us by surprise, yet feels absolutely right.

The First Quartet, "Kreutzer Sonata," is based on Tolstoy's story about a woman unhappy in marriage and out: her lover, a foppish fiddler; her jealous husband a maltreater and eventual murderer. Elements of the story can be traced in the music, although it stands very well on its own.

Finer yet is the Second Quartet, "Intimate Letters," dedicated even more openly to Kamila Stosslova, the much younger married woman who was the unreciprocating great love of Janácek's life, his uncomprehending Muse, responsible for much of his latest and best music. This piece conveys sovereignly the trepidations and fluctuations of the composer's feelings as they hurtle between hopefulness and melancholy, fantasized fulfillment and sober awakening. It ends in triumph, anyway, and was in 1928 Janácek's last finished major work. As a British musicologist has noted, "The two quartets stand with those of Debussy, Bartók, and Ravel among the supreme masterpieces of the medium" in modern times.

Of the six versions I own, I recommend especially the Janácek Quartet on Supraphon Archiv, the Melos Quartet on Harmonia Mundi, and the Manfred Quartet on Pierre Verany discs, which incorporates the important textual emendations of Milos Skampa.

The great Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is another who is far too little known in this country. His numerous works in every conceivable genre are winners all, yet the only piece that gets performed now and then is the Cancion de cuna para dormir a un negrito ("Cradle Song for a Little Black Boy"). I pick it over several other wonderful works by Montsalvatge in my possession.

The song is part of a cycle, Cinque canciones negras, all five of which are noteworthy, although "Cradle Song" steals the show. The text by Ildefonso Pereda Valdes is as simple as it is sweet; the enchanting setting is as sweet as it is simple. Arguably the tenderest lullaby I know, it should lull the most recalcitrant tot to sleep with its blend of Hispanic, African, and American types of music in the Cuban manner.

My preferred version is by Isabel Bayrakdarian on the CBC record Azul o, with a group of cellos accompanying. By having merely a piano accompaniment, the rendition by the glorious Angelika Kirchschlager on the album When Night Falls (Sony) loses something. Much as I admire Joyce DiDonato, accompanied by the excellent Julius Drake, she comes across a bit too subdued. However, her album, Pasión!, includes all five songs of the cycle, which may make it the most desirable version.

In 1943 Sergei Prokofiev composed his Flute Sonata, one of the lightest works by this often brash and sardonic composer of largely angular music. As Opus 94 it was rewritten the following year for violin at the request of David Oistrakh, but even Oistrakh's artistry could not make the violin version as charming as the flute one.

The annotator Lorenzo Arruga has described it as "a story that seems all harmony but that is bitten with unrestrainable restlessness." Another annotator, Jérôme Pellissier, calls it close to "the Prokofiev of the great symphonies, with highly elaborate rhythms and the employment of all the harmonic attributes of the flute .  .  . uninhibited in its flights of virtuoso fancy."

I would add playfulness, mischievousness, and songfulness to its characteristics, with occasional turns to the wistful and sneakily sentimental. What frisky optimism in a terrible war year!

I have two versions: Bruno Cavallo (flute) and Bruno Canino (piano) on ASdisc, slower; and Jean-Pierre Rampal and Robert Veyron-Lacroix on Erato's two-disc Twentieth-Century Flute Master-
pieces, faster. Most available today is the one with Emmanuel Pahud and Stephen Kovacevich on EMI, which the Pelican Guide pronounces "easily a first recommendation" but which I don't possess.

My eighth pick is the Fourth Symphony of the Polish master Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) better known as Sinfonia concertante (1932). I won't try to evaluate my eight recordings of it, but for this essay I listened to the Chandos disc with Vassily Sinaisky conducting the BBC Philharmonic and Howard Shelley the piano soloist.

This three-movement symphony is really more of a piano concerto with elements of a concerto grosso about it, but beautiful by any appellation. Norman Lebrecht writes that Szymanowski, who died of tuberculosis at age 54, "has been depicted as 'the last Romantic' but his outlook was as modern as Bartók's."

The opening movement manages to be both propulsive and extremely melodious, a neat trick; the middle movement is calmly contemplative and, except for a couple of outbursts, almost sacral; the final one, strongly rhythmed again and building to two tremendous climaxes. Throughout, there is something mysterious about the work, starting with those muted drumbeats. It is also nervous, almost neurotic, which makes it peculiarly modern and megalopolitan--although embracing, as the composer said, the "savage natural and native originality" of the Polish mountain shepherds, culminating in "an almost orgiastic dance."

I would recommend getting the EMI recording of Szymanowski's breathtaking opera King Roger, which adds as filler the Sinfonia concertante. Simon Rattle conducts the Birmingham Philharmonic with Leif Ove Andsnes at the piano. That gives you two of the composer's masterworks in one two-disc box.

These then are my eight desert island discs, for my first shipwreck. For my next shipwreck, I already have another eight to hand.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.