Desert Island Discs Live, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Last Wednesday night's gathering for Desert Island Discs Live wasn't your average Royal Festival Hall audience. A plethora of mums, dads, grans and granddads fussed around the isles, most of them lost or signalling for a guide or shouting across to one another. Even the silent spectacle of the BBC Concert Orchestra slowly seating themselves against an exotic backdrop of potted or projected palms couldn't calm the pandemonium. But Sue Lawley did. Chic, personable and outwardly relaxed, she set the scene for this 60th-birthday celebration with admirable poise.

Roy Plomley's inspired idea, dreamt up in a cold Hertfordshire flat (so we were told), poses the perennial question: what's more important, the choices, or the celebrities who do the choosing? There were plenty of those on show, Joanna Lumley, Mo Mowlam, Sir David Owen, John Simpson and Pete Waterman, to name but a few, taking turns round a side-stage table while Lawley fired the odd pertinent question. And there were the names of the chosen: Lotte Lenya, Janice Joplin, the Beatles being among them. Maureen Lipman charmed us with a pithy tale about her first "in concert" Beatles scream. But what, I wonder, did she think of Wednesday's trio of Beatles ballads arranged by John Harle and sung by Sir Thomas Allen with a philosophical ardour that even Hugo Wolf would have appreciated? It was Lennon and McCartney turned Rodgers & Hammerstein, especially for "Till There Was You". Beautiful singing and sax playing, but the Beatles? Only just.

Harle's other main collaboration was with Lesley Garrett who, at the start of the programme, had sung an obliterating top line in Mozart's trio "Soave sia il vento" (Thomas Allen and Victoria Simmons hardly got a look-in). Edith Piaf's hit song "La Vie en Rose" was another matter, nearer a poetic cutting-edge than the rest, especially the "retake" performance that opened the second half of the show. The first had been jettisoned when the computers went down. "Be frightfully well-behaved," asked a smiling but unflappable Lawley, who fortunately for us had enough Desert Island anecdotes up her sleeve to fill in. Once they had been "booted up", we were refloated for a worthy half-finale to Beethoven's Ninth conducted by Paul Daniel.

It was a thoroughly pleasant show, more Friday Night is Music Night perhaps than Desert Island Discs, but none the worse for that. Tasmin Little was her usual vivacious self in the finale of Bruch's First Concerto, and Peter Donohoe played shamelessly to the gallery in the finale to Rachmaninov's Second Concerto. Allen and Garrett acted an affectionate "La ci darem" (Figaro), the Royal Choral Society contributed enthusiastically to the Beethoven, to Verdi's "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves", and a very middle-of-the-road Castaway's Medley. All joined in for Ian Gardiner's closing The Desert Island Variations, an amusing concoction in which radio theme tunes, classical asides and all manner of disparate motives hovered around Eric Coates's By the Sleepy Lagoon. Barry Wordsworth had already conducted Coates "straight' at the top end of the show. Which set me thinking about a South Bank all-Coates evening. That, too, might draw the crowds.

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