Desert Island Discs: Classic interviews
As the BBC Radio 4 programme turns 75 years old, we pick favourites from the archive
Since its first airing 75 years ago in January 1942, the hosts of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs have cast away more than 3,000 guests from the fields of theatre, science, politics and – of course – music. To celebrate this pillar of British radio, we’ve picked out five of our favourite interviews from the archive.
Arthur Rubinstein (pianist; 1887-1982), August 1971
Judging by the enthusiasm with which he regales listeners with stories from his long life and career, pianist Arthur Rubinstein would seem, from that aspect at least, an ideal Desert Island Discs guest. When, however, it comes to the fundamental premise of the programme – namely choosing recordings and saying why he likes them – things get a little sticky. ‘Again, you pin me down to something!’ he exclaims when asked to explain how he made his selection of eight discs.
Tellingly, when Rubinstein does make his first choice – Brahms’s A major Piano Quartet – presenter Roy Plomley explains that ‘At your request, Mr Rubinstein, I am not specifying which particular recordings these are. I am just playing the music you asked for.’ One might even suggest that Plomley starts to sound a little tetchy at this point…
Reluctance to come off the fence aside, Rubinstein’s half hour on the Desert Island is compelling listening. Along the way, we hear of heated conversations with ‘my good friend’ Picasso, fond memories of meeting Bartók, childhood lessons with violinist Jospeh Joachim, and concerts with cellist Pablo Casals. While recollections of his playboy lifestyle amuse – ‘the critics didn’t trust that a man who does all that could also play decently a Beethoven sonata’ – a more sobering moment comes when he explains that his reason for not performing in Germany is ‘out of respect for the dead, and unfortunately among the dead are my whole family, who were most horribly assassinated.’
Luxury: A revolver, ‘as I am sure I would kill myself after one or two days’
Book: ‘Any book from my library, as I have all of the others in my head’
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Imogen Holst (composer and conductor; 1907-84), October 1972
Imogen Holst didn’t own a gramophone at the time of her Desert Island Discs interview, though by the end of her conversation with Plomley she tells him, ‘you’ve almost persuaded me to get my own.’
Her choices include everything from Purcell to improvised Indian music, by way of her beloved father Gustav Holst’s The Planets. ‘When I was small,’ she confides to Roy Plomley, ‘I’d sit on my father’s lap and he’d play very exciting things either side of me [on the piano], and because I was so young I thought I was doing it all!’.
Imogen Holst was, in fact, ‘supposed to become a pianist’. Instead, she ended up working for Benjamin Britten as his amanuensis, as a conductor and, later, as artistic director of Aldeburgh Festival. She wrote her own music, but didn’t consider it worth much. ‘I’m lucky that I’ve got the skills to understand how it works,’ she tells Plomley, ‘but I’m not really a composer.’
How would Imogen Holst fare on the island? ‘I don’t think I’ll be much good,’ she says. ‘I could probably make a bamboo pipe to play on, but I couldn’t make a hut.’
Luxury: ‘I’d like to take a miniature spyglass I have… which I take on the marshes to look at birds and flowers.’
Book: ‘Kilvert’s diary – my favourite bedside book. Kilvert believed that it was a positive luxury to be alive.’
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Jacqueline du Pré (cellist; 1945-87), March 1977
By 1977, it had been over six years since, due to the ravages of multiple sclerosis, Du Pré had played her final public concert. Roy Plomley visited her in her house just off Hyde Park for the interview.
Although Plomley’s plodding interview style hardly gets the best from the cellist, there are some touching anecdotes, ranging from her father soundproofing her practice room at home to avoid disturbing office workers below, to her studies with Pablo Casals, Paul Tortelier and Mstislav Rostropovich, and her love of her Stradivarius cello, a gift from an anonymous donor.
The cellist’s choices include performances by her and her then-husband, Daniel Barenboim, of Brahms’s Cello Sonata in F, as well as Chopin played by Arthur Rubinstein, with whose family Du Pré and Barenboim spent much of their Spanish honeymoon. Naturally, she also chooses her legendary recording of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, again with Barenboim, plus Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta, ‘well, and another friend, who happens to be turning the pages – [conductor] Lawrence Foster.’
Of her MS, Du Pré is surprisingly sanguine: ‘It took me a long time to come to any kind of grips with what had happened, but then I can say that in a sense I’m lucky because the cello repertoire is small, I had done most of what I loved and I can look back on a full musical, cellistic life.’
Luxury: ‘All I can say is that my latest kick is trying to write poetry, so I would love to have pencil and paper.’
Book: ‘Since words are my latest discovery and joy, perhaps Roget’s Thesaurus, which would have the lot and many synonyms and things to go into and investigate.’
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Jessye Norman (singer; b1945), 12 September 1981
‘Are you a soprano or a mezzo?’ Roy Plomley asks Jessye Norman midway through her Desert Island Discs interview. ‘I’m a singer,’ she replies, laughing. But as a child, before her thoughts turned to music as a profession, the American opera star thought she might become a nurse. She grew up in Georgia, US, before heading to Germany in her early career, where she made her debut singing Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin: ‘When I think about it, I must have been absolutely mad. It felt right at the time. If I had been a bit older I probably would have worried about it for days.’
Her musical choices included extracts from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – the latter conducted by Colin Davis, with whom she often worked – and Marian Anderson singing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody. This was, says Norman, ‘one of the very first records of classical music I can remember hearing. It’s very dear to me as, aside from loving the music, I’m very very fond of Marian Anderson’
Once on her island, Norman reckoned she would least miss the telephone from urban life, but didn’t think she’d be that good at building a hut, even though she was a scout. ‘I only got past the square knot. The rest of it I wasn't very good at.’ Would she try to escape? ‘No. I would invite someone to come along!’
Luxury: ‘I can’t imagine being anywhere without lots and lots of huge green bottles of Perrier Water’
Book: Diaries of Virginia Woolf
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André Previn (pianist, conductor, composer; b1929), August 1996
Despite his early success as a film music composer and jazz pianist, neither of these genres make conductor André Previn’s shortlist as a castaway. ‘I’m fond of jazz – it moves me – but I would rather have compositions than improvisations,’ he tells Sue Lawley. ‘The repertoire I admire above all is orchestral.'
His musical choices range from ‘unsurpassable’ Beethoven to ‘perfectly engineered’ Brahms and ‘quintessential’ Strauss. He also has a ‘predilection’ for British music.
Previn knew he would be a musician from an early age, telling Lawley that he asked for piano lessons at the age of five. He recounts the family’s lucky escape from Nazi Germany to Paris, explaining how it ‘sounds like a story from a film’. Asked to narrow down his favourite work of all, Previn opts for Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, noting to Lawley his disdain for early music interpretations. Instead, he opts for a ‘beautiful’ recording by conductor Bruno Walter, his ‘idol’.
Previn may prefer a desert island with a variable climate. He sees British music as translatable into certain kinds of natural phenomena… ‘whether it’s the sea with Britten, or the rolling hills for Vaughan Williams’.
Luxury: ‘I said I wanted a piano and I was told I couldn’t because of a practicality,’ queries Previn. ‘You can have one as long as you promise not to shelter underneath it,’ clarifies Lawley.
Book: ‘The collected works of Anton Chekhov – that’s a lot to read and it never fails to be moving.’
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What is your favourite ever Desert Island Discs interview? Comment below...
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