WH’s Desert Island Discs (April)
Total time of music – 43 minutes
Desert Island Discs ! I always assumed that such a notion was merely a charming fantasy. Yet here we are!
As I contemplate my own desert island (fortunately for me I’m sharing it with Katharine and our three dear children) I realise it affords me a moment, now far enough removed from the 20th Century to begin to gently ponder that century’s musical significance. Musically it was a magnificent century, but I perfectly understand that for the vast majority of lovers of classical music it is considered a century best forgotten.
I put most of the blame for this situation on my own profession. We have in my view far too often chosen to perform music that we didn’t actually believe in, then sat back and scratched our collective heads wondering why the musical public stopped trusting us where new music is concerned, somehow confused that the public didn’t believe in what we ourselves didn’t believe in either!
This is not to say that the listener will always immediately gravitate to newer great music. Why I remember as a 19 year old how strange the sounds of a children’s opera of Benjamin Britten’s were. But ten years later I couldn’t for the life of me understand what I could possibly have found difficult about Britten. Music is a language, and language needs time and patience. That said, I suggest that interest in a given musical language is often acquired far more quickly than that of spoken ones.
Today on our desert island I am going to offer bits and pieces of music from the middle years of the 20th century. I ask that if you are going to engage with me in this that you don’t put the music on in the background as it will almost certainly annoy you (as it would me if I did the same). Rather I ask that you would sit or lie still, undisturbed, and treat the situation exactly the way you would when reading a good book. That is, not as a secondary happening, but rather as the central and only thing happening at the time.
1. Bartók: Quartet no 5, 2nd movt (1934) (Hungarian)
Performed by the Vegh Quartet
Bartók (1881–1945) is one of the last composers for whom there is widespread agreement amongst musicians, regardless of later (post Bartók) aesthetic choices that we have made. For me he is the musical hero of the twentieth century, unflinchingly uncompromising, always honest and (unlike Stravinsky) refreshingly immune from the need for universal adulation. All this in addition to being a musician of utter heart and passion, devoid of both artistic cynicism and any need for mere gimmicks.
This extract is from his most acclaimed string quartet (no. 5) which itself is a one of his six quartets which is collectively acknowledged by musicians as the most significant contribution to chamber music in the twentieth century. In this movement we hear some of the “night music” for which Bartók is famous, a kind of insect music at times, yet in the bigger picture there is a magnificence where one discerns the influence of the chorales of Bach and a sublime aloneness. You’ll probably need to hear it at least a few times! It is here beautifully played by the Vegh Quartet, an ensemble which has hugely coloured my own musical thinking for most of my life.
2. Poulenc Flute Sonata op 164 (3rd movement) (1957) (French)
Phillip Bernold Flute
Alexandre Tharaud piano
I first heard this as a young school boy in 1968, and immediately was smitten by it. I didn’t have any clue at the time that I was listening to contemporary music. (the music itself was 11 years old at the time). More’s the pity, because by 1968 I had already come to the view (with mostly good reason I now conclude) that contemporary music was something which I hated in spite of my being madly in love with music itself.
3. Polyptyque Frank Martin (2nd Movement) (1973) (Swiss)
written for Yehudi Menuhin
Zbigniew Czapczynski violin
Chantal Mathieu conductor
Zurich Chamber Orchestra
I have literally wept tears that I didn’t know about this piece when it was new. Had I heard it then I would have totally believed that new music could be truly magnificent. The composer Calvin Bowman introduced me to it about 15 years ago. Now I still weep when I hear it—for the sheer ecstasy and sublimity of it.
It was written for the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin who declared that when he played this work he experienced the kind of euphoria he experienced when playing the music of Bach.
4. Bax Quartet No 3 1st Movement (1938) (British)
Now here’s a recent find for me which is played by the Maggini Quartet who to this day is doing tremendous musical service, particularly for outstanding British composers of the last 120 years. I recommend all their recordings, particularly of those of their British repertoire.
Bax has his own clear beautiful voice but one can also hear the influences here of his contemporary, and better known, Richard Strauss and indeed of other composers of his time. In terms of form he is essentially a copybook classicist employing in this movement the same “sonata form” which preceded him in Brahms and going back and back to Beethoven and Haydn.
Listen for example to the 6’ 22’ mark on this 10 minute track where the recapitulation arrives right on cue (always around the point where the movement is roughly 65 – 75% finished) the recapitulation always being a revisit of the first theme (first idea) of the movement.
5. Alfred Hill Quartet No 11 (in one movement – 17 minutes)
Australian String Quartet (recorded July 1994)
Now it is claimed that this was the first piece of Australian classical music ever to be recorded. That recording was made by the Queensland State String Quartet in 1945. The Leader of the quartet was Ernest Llewellyn, one of the greatest violinists Australia ever produced. Sadly I couldn’t come by that recording but instead offer one with my old band, the Australian String Quartet, which we recorded in 1994 for Naxos. I still find this music beautiful, utterly charming and very personal.
It would appear that we might be on our respective desert islands for some time, so if you’re up for it I will stay in touch from time to time. On this occasion I am hoping that you may have come a little way towards my own conviction that the 20th century was much better than it sounded at the time.
With every musical blessing to you, stay safe and hoping to see you soon.
William Hennessy AM
MCO Artistic Director