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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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.