Growing up in England, one of my favourite radio programmes was the BBC’s "Desert Island Discs" hosted by the late Roy Plumley. According to Wikipedia, the programme was first broadcast in January 1942 and is still going strong, 65 years later, making it the longest running programme in the history of radio. The format of the programme was simple. Each week, there was a celebrity guest who would be invited to choose the 8 discs they would take with them to a desert island, always assuming, as Mr. Plumley would explain, that they had a gramophone with them. (As nobody ever stopped to consider the unlikelihood of there being an electrical power source on the island, I can only assume that they were thinking of the old wind-up gramophones.) Around the guest’s musical choices, would be woven the story of their life.
On Israel Radio’s Kol Hamusika channel, there used to be a programme based on a similar concept, called "My Concert", although it was a two hour programme and there was no mention of desert islands. But the basic idea was the same – that one’s life is punctuated by musical landmarks.
Not being a celebrity, I have never been invited to take part in either programme, but the question continues to gnaw at me. If I were to be marooned on a desert island, which pieces of music would I choose to have with me? Not an easy question. There are so many.
Take Beethoven, for starters. One of the earliest pieces I remember is the Egmont Overture. We had an old radiogram, inherited, I think, from my maternal grandfather, and a collection of old 78 r.p.m records. "Egmont" was one of them. I used to listen to it and wave my arms around, pretending I was conducting. Yes, I think "Egmont" would definitely be on my desert island list.
Beethoven being my favourite composer, I am going to have to be very strict with myself here and limit myself to no more than 2 pieces by him. Otherwise, no other composer will get a look in. Which is to be the second piece? I toyed with the idea of Symphony no. 9 – having performed it, with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra at last year’s Independence Day Concert. It sounds magnificent – such power and optimism – but believe me, it’s hellish to sing, especially if you happen to be a soprano. No, on the whole, I think my second Beethoven piece is going to be the 6th Symphony – the Pastoral. I particularly love the depiction of the storm.
Number 3, number 3, which is it to be? I was introduced to opera quite early in life, without realising it. My father used to sing bits of operatic arias, but with funny words of his own. For example, I remember:
"I am a little tiger cat, And I am getting rather fat, For my stripes have grown so tight, so tight, That I have to take them off each night, take them off each night," sung to the tune of "Bella figlia dell’ amore". And there was a version of "Ah! che la morte" from the last act of "Il Trovatore" which began with the words: "Why are you calling me? ‘Cos I wanted to tell you something."
However, I was also exposed to "real" opera. The BBC (again!) used to have "Schools’ Broadcasts" including various music programmes – "Time and Tune", "Rhythm and Melody" and so on. Each school term, the programmes would centre around a single topic and one term, that topic was Smetana’s opera "The Bartered Bride". Round about that time, I received my first LP, a gift from my mother – extracts from "The Bartered Bride" sung in English by the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company (later known as the English National Opera). I still have that record and in addition, when I eventually visited Prague (many years later), I bought a triple CD album of the whole opera, with a Czech cast and orchestra. In my opinion, the overture and opening chorus of "The Bartered Bride" is one of the most joyous pieces of music in existence. When I listen to it, my feet start tapping and I feel tears of pure happiness. So – that’s definitely coming with me to my desert island.
Proceeding to number 4. When my mother was bedridden with her final illness, someone gave her an LP with the Bruch No. 1 and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos, played by Yehudi Menuhin. There was also an LP of Elgar’s Enigma Variations which she loved very much. I’m going to have to choose between these three.
I think, on the whole, I’m going for the Elgar. The two violin concertos I like, although neither of them can lay claim to being my favourite. There are several violin concertos I prefer, among them the Tchaikovsky, which I discovered much later in life, the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Second Violin Concerto ("The Prophets"), or even the Sibelius, in D Minor, with its chilling opening evocation of grey northern skies. I must also bear in mind that, at least as far as Mendelssohn is concerned, there are quite a few pieces I like more than I like the Violin Concerto. Fingal’s Cave I love, as well as the incidental music to "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," (the first Shakespeare play I ever saw, at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London – and to this day, my favourite of all the Bard’s works). Then, too, a serious candidate for my favourite work by Mendelssohn, must be "Elias", which I have performed, with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, more than any other piece of music, over the last few years – 5 times in Israel and 4 times in Germany (see previous blogs).
Tchaikovsky was bound to be one of my desert island choices and, while I very much like the Violin Concerto and absolutely love the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, I’m going to go for one of the ballets here. It’s a hard choice. I remember my father taking me to a Saturday afternoon matinee performance of Swan Lake at Covent Garden, where we sat in the second row (much too close, in my opinion). I love the haunting Swan Theme. I also love the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty. But, looking at the ballets as a whole, music-wise, I think The Nutcracker has to be my favourite, with a wealth of lovely pieces – the Dance of the Snowflakes, the Waltz of the Flowers, the (rather hackneyed) Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and (my personal favourite), the Pas de Deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier (nowadays, often performed by the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince). So, number 5 is going to be The Nutcracker.
Number 6 is going to take us back to the world of opera. Here again, it’s going to be a difficult choice. The very first opera I ever saw, in its entirety, was Turandot, broadcast on Israel TV back in the days when there was only one channel, if I remember rightly – or at most two – and with a simultaneous stereo broadcast on the radio. It was broadcast over two evenings, the first two acts one night, and then the last act, a week later. The cast included Eva Marton as the eponymous heroine, José Carreras (my favourite tenor, ever since) as Calaf and Katia Ricciarelli as the unfortunate slavegirl, Liu. They say a woman always has a soft spot for her first lover. I certainly retain a soft spot for my first opera – and for Puccini – and so Turandot remains a prime candidate for the title of my favourite opera, but bothTosca and La Bohème can certainly give it a close run. However, all in all, I’m going to go for Madama Butterfly and the love duet at the end of Act 1, "Bimba, non piangere".
Or am I? Because there’s another love duet I can’t get out of my mind, and that’s the Reconciliation Duet from the end of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. Monteverdi is one of my very favourite composers and although later Baroque music is often perceived as over-stylised and lacking in emotion, this accusation can in no way be levelled at Monteverdi. There are scenes in this opera where the emotion is as raw as in any verismo masterpiece and the knot in the pit of my stomach and the lump in my throat, when Penelope finally recognises her long-lost husband are no less than when the fragile Mimi expires or when Cio-Cio San plunges the knife into her breast. So, which is it to be? The youthful passion of Butterfly and Pinkerton, the touching adoration of the young bride, doomed to be betrayed? Or the tried and tested love of the mature couple, parted for so long, reunited at last and (hopefully) never to be parted again.
Come to think of it – why not both? This is my desert island, so I’m going to allow myself ten pieces, rather than eight. (Yes, I jolly well can. This is my blog, and, as I stated in my very first entry, I can do what I like in it!). Besides, the BBC now has a new series, called "Private Passions", where the celebrity guests get to choose 8 or 9 pieces – and there have been cases where they got away with ten! Right then! I’ll have both, and that’s my 6th and 7th choices out of the way.
I must have some Händel. Growing up in the UK, naturally I heard a lot of his music, especially round about Christmas and whatever piece I choose, the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Messiah is going to give it a run for its money, but, in the end, I can’t remain indifferent to the fact that the first oratorio I ever sang, with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, still in its infancy almost 2 decades ago, was Judas Maccabaeus. So that’s going to be my eighth choice. If I had to choose one piece from this magnificent oratorio, I think it would be the tenor aria "Sound an Alarm" and the following chorus "We Hear, We Hear". The aria flows smoothly into the chorus, so it’s really like one single piece. Ah, who can beat the rousing sound of baroque trumpets in full cry?
Time for number 9. Schubert. An die Musik. It says it all, sums up exactly what music means to me, its power to lift the spirit and to transport the listener far away from the sorrows and cares of this world to a better place. And as for the performer – obviously Kathleen Ferrier. As it happens, she was my mother’s favourite singer and, possibly because the same illness killed both of them, is inseparable in my mind from my mother.
Finally, for number 10, it’s back to my roots. Kol Nidrei. Not the Bruch version for cello, but sung, in Hebrew, as it has been for centuries. Sung as it was in the Central Synagogue in London, when I was a little girl and would sneak into the men’s section to sit with my father and creep under his tallit (prayer-shawl) – or, as we used to call it in the Ashkenazi pronunciation we used back then, tallis. I would like it performed by the same man who served there as chazan (cantor) in my day, the Rev. Simon Hass.
There you have it then. Ten essential pieces of music to take with me to my desert island. And with them, it would be no desert.