Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela
This was a very early discovery, on one of my grandmother’s 78s, the famous recording by Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It introduced me to the idea that music can create a mysterious and extraordinary world of its own. The cor anglais solo line representing the swan is utterly haunting and there’s something about the instrument, with its long neck, that does physically seem to resemble a swan. Some huge Romantic pieces are enormously appealing when you’re young and rather pall as the years go by, but not this. It’s death-infused and absolutely exquisite.
Beethoven: String Quartet No.14, Op.131
I first heard this when I was about 13 or 14 and I had been told that Beethoven’s last quartets were formidably difficult and thorny and took years of pondering. This is of course true but I found their immediate impact instantly compelling. There was something about the condensation of the musical argument, the way it strained against the medium and the instruments, that was and is intensely dramatic. Even now I don’t fully understand its complexities but on first hearing it was as if until that point I’d been feeding on bonbons and suddenly I was given chewy, rich steak as nourishment.
There is an extraordinary combination of gravity and levity in this music, a sort of campness and skittishness along with a sense of the numinous. We know Poulenc to have been fairly outrageous in his sex life and at the same time he was deeply and genuinely Catholic. And it wasn’t just the smells and bells – he was absolutely sincere. The Gloria is aurally ravishing and spiritually stirring; it represents all sides of his nature.
Schubert: Fantasie in C, Op.15,'Wanderer'
Two firsts are connected with this music: it was the first really big work of solo piano music I encountered, and it was the first time I consciously recognised a hemi-demi-semi-quaver. It asks astonishing things of the pianist and those notes just come tumbling out in great cascades. I heard Alfred Brendel play it once at a Promenade concert at the Albert Hall – one man commanding all that space and silence. Schubert’s ability to take a tune and turn it into a myriad different things is stupendous.
Grieg: Lyric Piece Op. 65/6, 'Wedding Day at Troldhaugen'
Grieg and I were both born on 15 June and I’ve adored his music since I was a child. The Piano Concerto was, again, among my grandmother’s collection of records, played by Maurice Cole. His orchestral music is wonderful but I think the piano music is the absolute core. He wrote this for his wife as a wedding present. Can you imagine anything more glorious to receive? The opening expresses pure joie de vivre; it’s an eruption of happiness, energy and optimism that is almost reckless. I am more moved by joy in music than by tragedy. If I was a pianist I’d be playing this.
Simon Callow is appearing in A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre, London, until 6 January 2013.
Interview by Henrietta Bredin.