Desert Island Discs (5) – Bruckner and Nilsson

Without a doubt the most beautiful symphony ever penned is Anton Bruckner’s Seventh. It takes its rightful place alongside the composer’s other great works, in the same way that Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait (1658) is one of the best among his other masterpieces.

Bruckner’s  Seventh symphony captivates the listener with its endless flow of lyricism and its overwhelmingly joyous ending. Written between 1881 and 1883 and revised in 1885, the symphony is dedicated to Ludwig II of Bavaria. The premiere, given under Arthur Nikisch with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the opera house at Leipzig in 1884, brought Bruckner the greatest success he had known in his lifetime.

The symphony’s first movement opens tremulously, launching a soaring melody that seems as if it might go on for ever. The movement contains two moments of revelation, of the kind found in Schubert when the clouds part to reveal a glimmer of light. The second movement is a deeply felt Adagio dedicated to Richard Wagner, whom Bruckner greatly admired. Wagner died just before Bruckner completed it and the movement ends with a passage of hushed resignation and lingering farewell. The third movement is a boisterous scherzo whose trio offers yet another seductive melody, and the fourth is a fleet-footed dance that every so often gives way to climactic and ponderous utterances by the brass. The symphony culminates in a joyous fanfare.

Many great conductors have recorded this symphony, among them Celibidache, Solti, Wand, Haitink, Giulini, Sanderling and Jochum. I recommend every single one, but especially Herbert von Karajan (1989) with the Vienna Philharmonic.

A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973) is an album of classic 20th-century standards sung by Harry Nilsson (1941-94), the American singer-songwriter awarded Grammys for two of his recordings – best male contemporary vocal in 1969 for “Everybody’s Talkin’”, the theme song to the Academy Award-winning movie “Midnight Cowboy”, and best male pop vocal in 1972 for “Without You”.

Performing timeless songs such as “Lazy Moon”, “Always”, “What’ll I Do?”, and “As Time Goes By”, Nilsson sang with the London Symphony Orchestra as his backing group, conducted by veteran arranger Gordon Jenkins. The session was filmed and subsequently broadcast by the BBC. A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night met with modest chart success, but it is regarded as the finest example of Nilsson’s virtuoso singing. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act 4 Chorus: “O, now, who will behold / The royal captain of this ruin’d band / Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent… / A little touch of Harry in the night.”

Why this disc? Because Nilsson sings exquisitely, with great style and delicacy, and the orchestra plays beautifully in feeling, phrasing, and sheer musical integrity.

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