Neil Heywood's Desert Island Discs

  • Posted on: 14 February 2020
  • By: huw

Neil Heywood, one our basses and writer of notes for our concert programmes, choses and writes about his desert island discs.

As it looks as if I’ll never be invited to get them played on Radio 4, the choir's invitation to tell visitors to the RCS web site about my eight indispensable pieces of music is too good to miss. The only problem was, how to choose only eight? To choose such a small number is also to exclude so many others, and that made the task harder than I’d expected. Eight is not enough. I need 88! However, after much head-scratching, I’ve come up with my must-haves. Here they are.

Bach - Lobet den Herrn. I must take one of Bach‘s motets. I first discovered them as a student in London, when I joined a scratch choir that met monthly on a Sunday in a City church (St Michael’s Cornhill), where we would rehearse some a capella Baroque piece for about three hours and then perform it to anyone who happened to be in the church at the time. It was good musical training, as most of the choir were better sight readers than me! We did most of the motets, and I’d be happy to have any of them, but I will take ‘Lobet den Herrn’, if only for its dancing rhythms, joyous counterpoint and the entrancing Alleluia which brings it to an end. Six minutes of bliss.

Heinrich Schütz - Christmas Story. Let’s jump back a century before Bach for this next record. Heinrich Schütz’s ‘Christmas Story’ is full of wonderful sonorities and contrasts. It tells the Gospel tale concisely, the orchestral writing is splendid, and each solo and chorus is a small dramatic gem. I’ve never performed it, or even heard a live performance, but how I would love to!

Gerald Finzi - Dies Natalis. Next, something else I may never hear done live. Gerald Finzi’s ‘Dies Natalis’ is a rhapsodic setting of Traherne’s wonderful words for tenor and strings. Is the new-born infant Jesus, or any child? I prefer the latter, but it matters little, the words and music are so marvellous. I once had an LP of it, now long lost, sung by that great English tenor, Wilfred Brown.

Bernstein – Bon Voyage. Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ isn’t often revived, overshadowed as it is by the amazing ‘West Side Story’. But ‘Candide’, a faithful treatment of Voltaire’s satire, contains such extraordinary music; an outrageous burlesque of Grand Opera, bursting with life and hugely funny. I heard it first in the Scottish Opera production under Charles Mauceri at the Old Vic sometime in the 80’s. If I have to take just one track (this is so difficult) it will have to be ‘Bon Voyage’, which if it doesn’t make you laugh out loud, I shall be very disappointed.

Mozart - Man and Wife. There has to be some Mozart! But what? I’d like to take a complete ‘Magic Flute’, but as this probably won’t be allowed, I will choose that simple and lovely duet ‘Man and Wife’ in which Papageno and Pamina muse on the blessings of the married state. Never fails to bring a lump to my throat.

Richard Strauss - Four Last Songs. Richard Strauss. The ‘Four Last Songs’ please, and no, I won’t compromise and take just one. It must be listened to at sunset while musing on mortality, as the loveliest of the four, ‘Abendrot’ is playing. Sung by Janet Baker or Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, please.

Brahms - Requiem. Heavens - only two to go! My next choice was going to be a Handel coronation anthem, but that would squeeze out the Brahms Requiem, certainly the loveliest thing he wrote, and for my money, the finest writing for voices in the whole of the 19th century. The chance to sing it at last, after more than half a century loving it, was the reason I joined RCS, and my memories of being part of that performance are deeply emotional.

Britten - Rejoice in the Lamb. Help! The last disc. Of course: Britten, and for me it must be ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’, which I first sang at Bridlington Priory as a member of Hull Bach Choir in, I’d guess, 1961. I loved the piece at first hearing, and it’s stayed with me since. Poor Christopher Smart; he wrote those extraordinary words in an asylum while confined as a lunatic, and few of us would ever have known them, if not for Britten’s inspired setting. The poor, abused, neglected man; I do like to think that he would have loved to hear his words set so powerfully.

That was an interesting experience. I think an apology’s due, though, to Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Gibbons, Elgar, Schubert, Bruckner, Sullivan – I see them as their ship sinks saying reproachfully; “What about us? Aren’t we worth saving?” Sorry, chaps – but maybe another RCS member will come along soon to rescue you from the briny.