A series featuring members of Palatinate‘s editorial team creating playlists of songs special to them. This month, find Editor-in-Chief, Toby Donegan-Cross’ top picks.
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On a recent episode of Desert Island Discs, David Mitchell – the author, not the comedian – observed that castaways tend to choose songs based on three criteria. First, there are those songs which will remind them of people they will miss. Second, songs to remind them of a particular time. And last, songs which will provide sustenance – be it artistic, spiritual, intellectual or through laughter. This framework broadly made sense when approaching this list and is the only way I can retrospectively give this odd list of songs any coherence
1. Baltimore – Nina Simone
Track one reminds me of my brothers. The studio sessions from which Baltimore emerged were reportedly characterised by great tension. You can hear this in the staccato guitar upstrokes, the ringing strings, and the repetitive harmonic minor vocal patterns. The tension builds – ‘hard times in the city, in a hard town by the sea. Ain’t no where to run to, nothing here for free.’ Gerunds ‘waiting’, ‘lying’, ‘hiding’, and ‘dying’ build further. Then, as Simone hits the pre-chorus, strings – now warmed up – release with full throttle into symphony. ‘Oh, Baltimore’, Simone sings, and we release.
2. L’eau à la Bouche – Serge Gainsbourg
This song is here because it is painfully funny, particularly as someone with rusty French. ‘Ecoute ma voix, écoute ma priere’ (listen to my voice, to my prayers)/ ‘Je t’en pris ne sois pas farouche quand me viens l’eau à la bouche’ (I beg don’t be shy when I have water in my mouth). You listen through trying to pick apart the words and meaning, missing any of the figurative elements, thinking ‘did he really sing that?’
3. Love Comes To Everyone – George Harrison
This track transports me to a time of personal difficulty. George Harrison wrote his eponymous album in the Halcyon late 1970s, during a period of great personal contentment. A new wife Olivia and child Dani gave perspective on the acrimony of the Beatles’ split, and as a result the album is full of joy. The anguish of the fab four’s split gave us Harrison’s most commercially successful album All Things Must Pass. This anguish is still present in his later works, but is compounded with the serenity of wedlock and fatherhood.
4. Post-War Glamour Girls – John Cooper Clarke
This is another track here for comic value. The opening line – ‘Espresso bongo snaps of Rome in the Latin quarter of the ideal home’ – is playful and evocative. The song is a carnival of colour and deals with themes of superficiality and modernity. And Cooper Clarke’s delivery of the line ‘Yes, there’s always a method actor hanging around’ is simply priceless.
5. Tangled Up in Blue – Bob Dylan
This one’s for friendship and family. The first track on Dylan’s 1975 Blood on the Tracks album, the song has played an important part in lots of fond memories. It’s a long epic narrative of Dante-esc proportions (perhaps Dante is the ‘Italian poet from the fifteenth century’ he refers to in the lines ‘everyone of them words rang true and glowed like a burnin’ coal’). At the end, to round it off, Dylan plays a harmonica solo so warm it could heat a city.
6. Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30: 1. Allegro ma non tanto (Khatia Buniatshivili’s recording) – Sergei Rachmaninoff
The pianist Steven Hough speculates that Rachmaninoff was a nervous performer, and argues that you can see this through his second piano concerto. After the opening chords, he suggests, the piano is swamped and obscured by the orchestra. Meanwhile the nervous Rachmaninoff, now with a wall of noise to defend himself, does what Hough suggests is a series of technical exercises, safe in the knowledge that any blunders will not be heard. Once he was warmed up, the orchestra dims and the central melody sings. Whatever technical trickery, it is a spectacular opening to the concerto.
7. Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73 “Emperor”: II. Adagio un poco. (Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein’s recording) – Ludwig van Beethoven
The second part of a piano concerto on this list, but Beethoven’s fifth could arguably not be more different from Rachmaninov’s second. Beethoven’s fifth, as one of his last major works, is to my mind potentially the clearest anticipation of the romantic movement in his repertoire. In the last months, as we have been celebrating 250 years since the great man’s birth, I’ve enjoyed learning more about his life. As well as the surprise of his apparently poor personal hygiene, I was struck to learn about his process, which was characterised by drafting, redrafting, cutting, agonising, and then more agonising. His was a different genius to Mozart’s, but a genius nonetheless, and I for one enjoy the notion that Beethoven created musical euphoria not just through inspiration but also through sweat, toil and heartache.
8. Fidelio Act 1: ‘O welche Lust’ – Ludwig van Beethoven
Fidelio is one of the happier by-products of the French Revolution. The fervour and contradiction of the Revolution – and Beethoven’s waning optimism for its trajectory – are all palpable in the music. It is a spectacular opera which asks more pertinent questions of romantic ideals than the later Italian masters would. The version we’re lucky to have inherited is Beethoven’s third draft, and, as with the concerto, it is all the richer for the agony, drafts and redrafts that went into its creation.
9. Goldberg Variations, Variation 1 (Glenn Gould, 1981 version) – J. S. Bach
Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations is the clearest example to my knowledge of a marriage of perfect music and perfect performance. Gould had previously recorded the variations in the 1950s. There is some continuity in the recordings: for instance, to my ears the fifth variation stays much the same. But the later recordings marry the different variations together in one forty-minute journey cut with remarkable fluency (Gould was a pioneer of recording technology). Unlike the recordings of Murray Periah (quite good, too) or Lang Lang (also great), Gould does not repeat any of the sequences which gives the recording much greater momentum.
10. Piano Sonata No.21 in B-Flat: i. Molto moderato – Schubert
The recordings by Paul Lewis of Schubert’s piano sonatas are among the best I have heard, and were one of the soundtracks of my school years. The part I have selected here is around 15 minutes, which was the length of time it took me to get to school at a brisk pace. Schubert had a wonderful gift for expressing how, as in great ecstasy there is sadness, in misery there remains hope. They remind me of old times, good and bad.