After a lifelong career presenting music to the nation, writer and radio presenter Natalie Wheen found it a challenge choosing just eight discs
For more than 30 years, Natalie Wheen was an ever-present voice on our radios, with weekly shows ranging from presenting classical music on BBC Radio 3 (Mainly for Pleasure, In Tune, introducing concerts, Proms, operas and documentaries), and a broad selection of Radio 4 shows from the arts review Kaleidoscope to The Food Programme, not to mention a wide range of subjects on the BBC World Service. She also did the occasional TV – the opening of the new opera house at Glyndebourne and Cardiff Singer of the World.
Natalie was born in Shanghai, as were her father and grandfather, but in the turmoil of post-war revolutionary China they were evacuated in 1951 to Hong Kong, moving to England in 1957. Natalie, a student of violin and piano at the Royal College of Music, ‘hated practising.’ After her music degree at London University, she joined the BBC, working first as a radio studio manager, then producer and finally as a presenter.
Moving from the BBC to Classic FM in 1999, she was engaged as the ’shock jock’, charged with ‘spicing up the repertoire’ – which she did for four hours a week for more than ten years.
And then she disappeared from our radios.
As BV readers know, she has been busy producing olive oil under her brand name Avlaki (The BV, Nov 22) – and, most recently, has moved to Dorset in order to get ‘far from the madding crowd’, as she says.
She has said that her life now is a music-free zone, but when we heard that she is currently sorting out her vast CD collection we thought she might be tempted to share some of her favourites …
‘It is alarming to consider the amount of music I must have listened to in the course of building my radio programmes, which I always did for myself. ‘I mean, how can one properly engage a listener if one hasn’t really connected with the piece in question? And I knew that most of the producers that worked on Mainly for Pleasure, for example, had tastes and interests that were far, far removed from what engaged me!
‘In the sorting process, I have gradually built a large stack of composers and their music that will definitely be going; I might do something real harm if I have to hear another note …
‘But, the clear-out has also reminded me of such wonderful riches – actually, sorting out eight favourites has been very trying!
‘However, it became clear to me that my choices are of music, composers and performers who have broken through my natural resistance and will stay in the collection. Those who stopped me in my tracks, metaphorically grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and said ‘listen!’ – because they have something extraordinary to communicate.
A life in music
And so to Natalie’s eight music choices, in no particular order, along with how and why they have stuck in her life:
Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610
John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists
I’ll start with the Proms in 1968, and a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.
The anticipation around this particular concert was palpable.
John Eliot Gardiner had already electrified with it in his Cambridge student performance.
As far as I was concerned, Monteverdi was a history book name – but John Eliot, we understood, had brought drama, virtuosity – even ecstasy – into a very religious work which was written for the extraordinarily varied spaces of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, where groups of singers and musicians could be set up in balconies and spaces all over the church – literally throwing the music from one group to another.
The shock at the Proms was that John Eliot and his Monteverdi forces were using the Albert Hall spaces as much as possible to convey this antiphonal working of the music – throwing blocks of sound, then coming together with great drama. The Proms had never been so dramatically different. It was changed by it.
And the music itself … I had never heard anything so exciting. I’ve never forgotten it.
Michael Tippett: Concerto for Double String Orchestra.
Daniel Harding and the LSO
I was never very interested in performers just talking about their next record/concert tour/festival dates. It was the complicated characters who fascinated me: particularly the composers. Nor was I much interested in the grand old names – I remember presenting a festival of Mozart. Was there anything interesting left to say about Mozart after all those concert programmes, PhD theses, record sleeves? At the time, there was a fascinating book trying to uncover the true revolutionary Mozart (of which you get hints in an opera like The Marriage of Figaro) but the organisers didn’t want to risk their image of the great genius being tainted. I thought it made him much more interesting – but there you go.
The 28th and 29th May 1962 were two extraordinary days for British music, marking the consecration of the re-built Coventry Cathedral after the war. Britten’s War Requiem premiered in the cathedral itself, and the day before, Michael Tippett’s second opera King Priam was premiered. I heard the broadcast of both, but was utterly shocked by Priam. It was a brave, bleak, taut piece that makes one think of the futility and stupidity of war. I was knocked out – troubled even. Britten’s War Requiem was too sweet, too predictable after the stark directness of Tippett’s music and his subject matter.
I was transfixed by this person and began drinking in the music he wrote, learning as much as I could about him. I had the great privilege of interviewing him so many times – not least for his 90th birthday celebrations. He was a complicated man and his music isn’t always easy. He had a questing, curious mind and a boisterous energy.
In this piece we see the dancing, bouncing Tippett, where the music explodes over the bar line and the phrases grow exuberantly, breaking all the rules. Then it’s surprising Tippet, who suddenly bursts into a wonderful tune. And then in the slow movement he creates a hushed world of mystery.
Chopin: Nocturne No. 13 in C minor, op.48 no 1
Claudio Arrau: Philips
Until I was nine, we lived abroad; I had never heard a symphonic concert, or an opera, or any chamber music. The only music we got was from B or C grade pianists, on their world tour of your hundred best tunes. So when we got to London I was taken to endless Proms – all the Beethovens, Brahmses and Tchaikovskys you could shake a proverbial stick at.
But solo pianists somehow got pushed to the back burner. Was their sound too small or same or – with all the note-shovellers who were around – just boring?
And then I heard Claudio Arrau. From Chilé, a child prodigy who was sent to study in Berlin with a student of Liszt when he was nine, he had to fend for himself when his teacher died, had a breakdown, picked himself up … And understood, as a result, that he had to make music that had something to say. If the moment wasn’t right, if he didn’t feel right, if there was something wrong with the piano, he wouldn’t play. He wouldn’t dream of short-changing the audience.
He was the most elegant gentleman: very self-effacing, exquisite manners, nothing flash.
I’d long been devoted to his music when I was sent to do one of those quick superficial Radio 4 interviews. But we had rather a good time and he asked me to come back for a longer chat.
He made one brilliant comment, which has always stuck with me. He said: ‘There are two essentials for any performer. The first is to have therapy – how can you perform another person’s music, if you have no idea who you are yourself as a person? And the second essential is to learn how to dance – to move to the rhythm in the music. If you can’t do that, you can’t make music.’
I have selected Claudio Arrau with a Chopin Nocturne. Listen to the bass – it’s the foundation to the whole structure. It’s absolutely rock solid and it propels the music, moving inexorably, it also allows a freedom to the embroidery of notes at the top, rather as a dancer can create all kinds of elaborations to the given tune, but remains grounded to the beat from the bass.
And then the piece lets rip, and you can hear the elegant Chiléan gent has a fiery passion – and of course all the notes you need.
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for String Orchestra in C major op 48. Movt II – Waltz. Bavarian Radio SO, Sir Colin Davis.
More rhythm now – one man waltzing with an entire orchestra. Actually it’s a kind of Come Dancing, scooping and diving … you can see a pair of dancers leaning so far off the centre you think they’re going to fall … But this is the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Colin Davis conducting …
I once asked Colin how he got the orchestra to waltz with him like that: ‘Oh’ he said, ‘A little jogging with Igor’ (Stravinsky that is).
Colin Davis was a rather quiet, mumbling, enigmatic man – hugely attractive because he was so reticent. He never beat the drum for himself, and had a horrible time at the beginning of his career from sniping critics. He was music director of Sadlers Wells, then the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Opera House – and then left all that behind for Bavaria. Where, he said, they were actually interested in making music. Finally he became the grand old man of British music when he came back to London and took over the LSO.
Colin Davis has been part of my musical life for 60 years. I remember a school trip to hear concert performances of Berlioz by the Chelsea Opera Group in Oxford Town Hall. The conductor was a young Colin Davis – I was seriously smitten …
Richard Strauss: Die Rosenkavalier Act III Trio. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Teresa Stich-Randall. Philharmonia Orchestra with Herbert von Karajan
I arrived at the Royal College of Music, ostensibly as a violin student. I wasn’t any good, but I was very lucky in my professor who was the leader of the orchestra at the Royal Opera House. We did a deal: he ticked me off his register and instead of teaching me he gave me rehearsal passes and stayed in the pub for an extra pint. So I spent endless hours at Covent Garden watching some extraordinary singers and amazing productions – and got the opera bug very badly.
There are three opera composers who I have been mulling over, trying to decide who should come to my island: Janacek, Puccini and Richard Strauss. And it’s Strauss who wins for now – not least because of the cast in this recording of Die Rosenkavalier, which was marshalled together by a legend of the gramophone industry, Walter Legge (his casting and recording legacy is said to keep EMI in business still!).
I can’t do without the final trio from Rosenkavalier: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin – weary of her marriage and absent husband – with a young Christa Ludwig as Octavian, her ardent young lover. There is a bittersweet ensemble of goodbye, good luck and sadness. And a wonderful orchestral sound from the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.
Francis Poulenc: Concerto for two pianos. Lucas and Arthur Jussen pianos, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Stéphane Denève
Time for a little dazzle! I love Francis Poulenc because he is so mercurial: light and shade, sun and shadow, laughter and tears all together. He has a kaleidoscope of colours and atmospheres. He will let rip – as at the start of his Concerto for two pianos – and then pull the carpet out from underneath you to tumble into another emotion.
He’s also very naughty, hinting at a touch of Mozart, cutting it off with a bit of raucous music-hall … And (the essential element in any programme I built) he is naughty, jokey and irreverent – all aspects which were not terribly acceptable on BBC Radio 3 in my time!
The dazzle here is in a pair of pianists who I’ve only just encountered as I looked online to find recording information. They are Dutch brothers, Lucas and Arthur Jussen, and they dazzle indeed. They’ve been playing the Poulenc concerto since their early teens.
Eartha Kitt was really the only non-classical voice in my head for a very long time, and that’s because she was a favourite of my father. The last weekend I spent with him before he died, we watched Eartha’s show coming live – I think – from the London Hippodrome. She was brought on stage rolled up in a carpet which then unrolled, propelling her right to the front of the stage; and there she was, filling the TV in her close- up. I thought Father was going to have a heart attack he was so thrilled!
He died just a few days later.
Eartha Kitt was amazing to see live – I saw her at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, famous for its supper club. I think she was in her 70s, dressed in a figure-hugging silk number, and she spent the show seducing the chaps in the audience. She had amazing vitality and charm and of course fabulous songs.
I was on air at Classic FM, live on Christmas Day in 2008, when we heard that Eartha had died. There was really only one tune I could play for her – and did.
Vaughan Wiliams: The Lark Ascending. Nigel Kennedy, CBSO, Simon Rattle
My father always said that when he retired he would leave London and go to the country, to a farm in Cornwall. But he never made it, dying in harness in his early fifties.
I suppose Dorset is only half way to Cornwall – but I’m certain the country bug was a gift from my father. Landscape, green, trees, fresh air, big skies, winds and weather … they are all essential to my wellbeing.
And so I must have the quintessential piece of music for the English landscape: and a performance which is more than simply getting the notes right – there must be a fiendish control of the bow. Nigel Kennedy has a rare instinct for understanding what those notes are about. He shares his singing of the bird’s song, but also the George Meredith poem which inspired Vaughn Williams. He breathes the music out of the big hush of the wider world.
A book for a castaway
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. It takes the focus of history away from the western world, back to the centre somewhere in the Middle East. There is a map which puts Jerusalem in the centre of the world. It’s a book celebrating the great civilisations and legendary figures that a western view of history completely ignores. I loved travelling to such places before they became closed by war and religion. I never got to Samarkand, but Eastern Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Isfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis … I was haunted by Tamberlaine and Ghenghis Khan.
Frankopan’s book is a huge read and will not only entrance and educate, but also take me back to places which were once so intriguing and essential to me.
A luxury item?
J&B Rare whisky. In my house, the ‘hour of charm’ at 6pm–ish is the moment to pour a good slug of whisky and review the day. I take it with a dash of soda, but since there won’t be any soda washed up with the bottles, J&B is such a smooth and elegant blend that it also slips down nicely neat. I say bottles, because I’m minded of Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore when a shipwreck of scotch washed up on the shores of a remote island. I’m hoping that in my personal Dorset castaway situation, the wrecked ship will gently release case upon case of the nectar to float ashore … I wouldn’t expect to be rescued, and I’m too old to contemplate finding a way to escape, so the daily shot of J&B will be the perfect way to contemplate the sunset.
One to keep?
And if a giant wave was coming, and there was only time to snatch one record, which would Natalie save from the water?
‘The Lark Ascending. For all the resonances of England, as well as the bittersweet knowledge that skylarks are a dwindling presence thanks to industrial farming practices. Also that Vaughan Williams composed another elegy in it for the generation who were lost in the First World War.
So as well as marvelling at the music of it – it’s also fabulous for a good old crying session.’