Music: Desert Island Discs

You are going to be marooned on a desert island. You can only take two suitcases. You will not be rescued for at least three months. You have a portable CD player and headset. Your CD carrying case holds 34 discs, and you are standing before a library of some 2,000 CDs. You have an hour to make up your mind. What do you take with you?

Party game? No, I actually had to do this. I wasn’t going to a desert island, but to the desert as a civilian accompanying a military force in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The deployment—first to Kuwait and then to Iraq—had been sped up, and I was racing through my last day to get everything ready. I dashed down to my study and began pulling CDs off the shelves with several criteria in mind: things I knew I would enjoy, things I might listen to for potential review, and music I ought to revisit out of curiosity to see if my original opinion of it had held up. This resulted in a highly eclectic collection.

In the first category came Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Rubbra, Shostakovich, and Bruckner. Category two included Ferdinand Ries, John McCabe, Giovanni Sgambati, and Franz Ignaz Beck. The third brought Benjamin Britten, Luigi Boccherini, Adalbert Gyrowetz, M. Vainberg, Richard Strauss, Franz Berwald, and Joao Domingos Bomtempo.

I soon discovered that where you are considerably affects your musical tastes and ability to listen. When the war began and the air-raid sirens first sounded, I dutifully trotted in my pajamas and robe down to the bomb shelter in the Kuwait Hilton Resort. Not knowing the duration of the Scud missile intrusion, I brought along a P.G. Wodehouse novel and my CD player. Alas, with my helmet and gas mask on, I found that my Koss PortaPro headphones would not fit over the gear. What’s more, due to my hasty departure, I did not have prescription lenses fitted to my gas mask and therefore could not read. Under these conditions (and due to my increasing confidence in the marvelous accuracy of our Patriot missiles), air raids quickly became boring. I had to amuse myself by observing the odd assortment of night clothes in which my neighbors were caparisoned. Of course, everyone was embarrassed. Try a gas mask on before you go to bed, and you will achieve the same effect. Nothing in the Brooks Brothers catalog quite fits the situation.

Later, I did have occasions to listen, but infrequently. Working in two time zones was the problem. As our work day in the Middle East was winding down, Washington was waking up, which began the day again with innumerable phone calls and coordination. I was surprised to discover that a week would go by without my having listened to a thing. I became very choosy. Mediocrity did not work. For instance, Franz Ignaz Beck’s Stabat Mater, which I had been looking forward to auditioning, fell victim to this schedule. After ten minutes, I had not the patience to continue with what was clearly a third-rate work from the 18th century, a period for which I usually exercise greater tolerance. Also, Sgambati’s Piano Quintet No. 1 did not measure up to the quality of his Second, which I knew and loved. Off with its head.

Some of my favorites didn’t work either. I tried the Bruckner Eighth in one of the great performances, directed by Gunter Wand on RCA. Too prolonged, too demanding. Rubbra’s and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphonies came through, but only twice each, as I lacked the requisite energy for the exaltation they call forth. To my great surprise, I put Mozart’s early symphonies aside—too familiar, too light? My initial impulse to delve further into Bomtempo’s Requiem, one of the little-known Portuguese masterpieces from the first part of the 19th century, was restrained, I think, by its subject matter—some other, more congenial time, perhaps.

However, Beethoven’s Seventh amazed me, as it always does, especially in Rene Leibowitz’s recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, made back in the 1960s for Reader’s Digest. Leibowitz’s melts the music down to molten lava and spews it forth in a volcanic eruption. His performance shows that the Seventh is not, as Wagner famously remarked, “the Apotheosis of the Dance” but an exercise in sheer, terrifying power. Unfortunately, the Minuet label issue is no longer available. Mendelssohn’s String Quartets, played by the Coull Quartet on Hyperion, continued to please me. Mysteriously, I found certain performances too fast and wondered why I had not noticed this when I favorably reviewed them for Crisis several years ago. Listening again, perhaps with more sleep, I found them to be right on the mark. An unfailing source of satisfaction was Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, performed by Keith Jarrett on the ECM label. I think that I will never tire of listening to Shostakovich privately communing across the centuries with Bach, as if Bach were still alive—cor ad cor loquitur.

As far as the review discs were concerned, I took particular pleasure in Beethoven-clone Ferdinand Ries’s Symphonies Nos. 4 ands 6. The CPO issue with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, under Howard Griffiths, closes out a brilliant cycle of Ries’s six published symphonies. Ries completely assimilated Beethoven’s influence and mercilessly imitated him but did it better than any of his contemporaries, like Onslow, Spohr, or Czerny. Occasionally, I thought the music a bit awkward and lacking in first-rate melodies. Later, I would wonder what tune was wandering through my mind, only to trace it back to Ries. If you have any interest in the period at all, the three CDs in this cycle are worth your attention.

To an extent I could not have foreseen, Boccherini became my greatest source of solace and musical delight. During three months, the CD I listened to most often was Volume 1 in CPO’s set of the complete symphonies, performed with wonderful verve and precision by the German Chamber Academy of Neuss, under director Johannes Goritzki. (I only wish I had brought all eight CDs!) It is not as if I had not listened to Boccherini before, but I now found his natural flow of melody and charm irresistible. Though Italian, Boccherini was known as the Spanish Haydn, due to his long service to the Spanish court. Boccherini was as prolific as Haydn, and as inventive. He may have actually been the originator of the string quartet, of which he wrote nearly 100. Most certainly he was the creator of the string quintet, of which he wrote more than 120.

Perhaps somewhat derisively, he was also called “Mrs. Haydn.” Does this mean his music is effeminate? The Haydn tag accurately conveys the language Boccherini employed, but the gender bender means simply that his music is Italian rather than German. It is not muscular or preoccupied with power. Rather, it is characterized by grace, wit, and invention and produces joy or a sweet melancholy. In short, Boccherini is genius aimed at enjoyment, and sources of enjoyment in the desert were scarce. I shall be forever grateful for the refreshment he provided, especially in the sometimes 115-degree heat.

Other frustrations beset me on my “desert island.” There were no classical music stores. In New York, CDs are known as audio crack. As an addict without the opportunity of buying for two and a half months, I was able to grab a set of Sibelius’s Seven Symphonies in the Beirut duty-free shop during a short side trip out of Iraq. The performances on Brilliant Classics turned out to be completely unremarkable, but the thrill of purchase was there. Scotch was also available in great profusion and at amazingly cheap prices. I demurred because I had to travel on my way back to Baghdad through Kuwait where, apparently, the customs officials have not been informed that Prohibition was repealed. Someone needs to tell the Emir. Meanwhile, my new motto is: Boccherini for everyone!


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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