Arts: On air: A Russian reformationist, a Gershwin tune...

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NICHOLAS KENYON, Controller of Radio 3, has had some hard knocks in recent years, not least in this column, for his network's alleged lurches in the direction of Classic FM. But of at least one innovation he can remain justifiably proud: the Sunday afternoon feature-series, Spirit of the Age. For, primarily concerned though the programme may be with early music, it is fascinating how often its investigations throw up cultural, social, political or religious issues of continuing relevance.

Last Sunday's edition, presented by the solicitous Christopher Page and intelligently produced, as ever, by Kate Bolton, took as its pretext the current exhibition in the Queen's House at Greenwich celebrating the tercentenary of the three-month visit to England in 1698 of the young Peter the Great. Peter's subsequent attempt to Europeanise Russian culture had a particular musical impact: his reforms of the Russian church led to the evolution in the late 18th and early 19th century of that warmly chordal style of Orthodox hymnody which, sung with a generous application of vibrato, has become accepted as the authentic tradition.

What, then, of the religious opponents of Peter's reforms, the so-called Old Believers who, together with an entire earlier tradition of orthodox chant, disappeared "into the blue beyond", as Page's guest, that eloquent Russophile, Gerard McBurney, put it? Reconstructing such ambiguous notations of that lost tradition has not only proved musicologically contentious, but it was also discouraged by the Soviets on ideological grounds. In recent years, tentative attempts been made to perform it, notably by Andrei Kotov's Moscow Sirin Choir, currently visiting this country.

Recordings heard during the programme certainly suggested an early polyphony strikingly independent of Western ideals in its strange parallels and clashes. But, for scholarly reasons, Kotov has also encouraged his singers to adopt a non-vibrato style closer to certain Western early music groups, thus risking the ire of nationalists back home. And so it goes. Indeed, given the complexity of the scholarly, cultural and ideological issues, it is difficult to see how they could have been adequately developed - let alone so lucidly - to perform it, notably by Andre in a format any less spacious than Spirit of the Age. Yet, with the current Radio 3 mania for "access", one could well imagine the planners hankering to reduce the programme to an early music magazine; this Kenyon should resist.

Curiously, Monday's relay of the Halle Orchestra under Kent Nagano in the on-going Inventing America season also touched on matters musicological, with a series of Gershwin show overtures. To what extent these pot-pourris represented Gershwin's intentions and how much the initiative of his arrangers, is less than clear. Yet the inclusion of a pastiche Gershwin overture for the posthumous show My One and Only, put together in the 1980s, strongly suggested that the glamour of those original arrangers is now a lost art. In fact, there were sufficient issues of authenticity here to fill a whole latter-day Spirit of the Age.

Last week's `On Air' was wrongly credited to Robert Maycock. It was written by Adrian Jack