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
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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.