Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
THE LISTENING event of last week, and it may very well turn out to be the event of the year, was the BBC's weekend Messiaen festival, a sequence of magnificent piano, organ, chamber and orchestral programmes, mostly from Westminster Cathedral and the Barbican Centre in London, which were all broadcast on Radio 3.

They have already been reviewed on these pages as live concerts, but it is perhaps worth making the point that this marvellously enriching musical experience, which included things that you will probably not hear more than once in a blue moon, like the complete love triptych Harawi, Cinq Rechants and Turangalila, quite beyond the scope of most concert promoters, made for wonderful radio listening. Indeed the items from Westminster Cathedral, that vast graveyard of textural hopes, will have yielded far more of their expressive burden over the radio through the work of BBC sound engineers.

A far more modest sequence of programmes, though in its own way thought- provoking, was the survey of Rimsky Korsakov's operas which formed the topic for Radio 3's Composer of the Week.

For many years, the critical establishment's view of Rimsky's art was somewhat discouraging: that he was a marvellous orchestral colourist was beyond doubt, but one or two key commentators held him to be a rather cold-hearted composer, capable only of fairytale visions and a picturesque brilliance which lacked true humanity. It was an attitude which was unthinkingly parroted for some time, and the three famous orchestral showpieces which amounted to practically all that was regularly performed of his music seemed to justify it. But there is more to Rimsky than this, and the modest interest which has been shown recently in his operas has revealed much.

Piers Burton-Page saddled himself with a mammoth task in dipping into each one of Rimsky's 15 operas during the course of the week, and this broad survey necessarily did less than justice to the finer items in this rather uneven cannon.

It was ironic, too, that in what must have been intended as a counterbalance to popular acceptance of Rimsky as a purely orchestral master, a number of the operas were represented by the orchestral suites which their composer extracted from them.

Still, it was fascinating to see Rimsky attempting to expand his art with an intellectual urge to avoid recreating past successes - an admirable aim in one sense, but it let him into projects which were oddly unsuitable given his self-awareness. The austere little psycho-drama on Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri, for instance, the extraordinary attempt to get away from Russian subjects with that plodding drama of Romans and Christians, Serviliya.

Elsewhere, in bringing response to folk and fairytales, worlds of mysticism, legend and even satire, Rimsky did more than merely touch the surface of things.

The extraordinary majesty and proto-impressionism of the sea music in Tsar Sultan touches a deep chord, for instance, as does the magic of Christmas Eve and the mystical power of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, while the harmonic invention of Kashchey the Immortal simply made early Stravinsky possible.

Such a programme could not be expected to show the sustained power of Rimsky's best operatic work, but perhaps appetites were whetted for those six or seven operas which ought to be staged more often.