Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
TALK ABOUT concentrating the mind. Radio 3 decides to kill off its mid-morning programmes and suddenly they perk up. Artist of the Week, the daily 10.30 offering, always did have potential. For all the lazy format - half an hour's cosy chat with Joan Bakewell, intercut with the artist's recordings - it can respond to subjects who have something to say. A few weeks ago the violinist Midori vigorously batted back the most decorous questions, and this week's sessions with the pianist sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque were similarly lively. They have been in the public eye for over two decades now. In Britain they sailed through on a cloud of perceived glamour and were reviewed as sexual and national stereotypes. Asked how they coped, they seemed at ease. Image is the public's possession, said Katia, and my own life is somewhere else? These days you can change your image fast. Good for her, though she missed the subtle downgrading of their artistry that was part of the typecasting. Being glamorous was particularly suspect if you wanted credentials in contemporary music. The way it goes here is that you have to become part of the long- term scenery first: 20 years is about par (look out for serious treatment of Vanessa-Mae around 2015).

One key to the Labeques' musical personality is that they form a duo of different temperaments: extrovert and introvert, to put it basically. More often, you get like minds and a uniformity of response. For these two, lifelong intimacy goes with a vital tension. Their playing covers an uncommon expressive range from ultra-vigorous to lyrically soulful, and in the broadcast Scriabin Fantasy the two sides merged into a single, larger-than-life whole. This they also showed in the way they talked about finding music to play. Marielle didn't mind there being little from the Romantics since she didn't like them anyway, whereas Katia put the emphasis on the depth of the medium's French repertoire, Romantic or not. Now they are looking back in time, with period instruments joining the agenda.

Sound Stories, at 11am, sounds dead already. This week the subject is "Islands", presented by Peggy Reynolds instead of the advertised Richard Baker. Island mentality, more like. The method, as heard in Tuesday's "Manhattan", is to take a string of cliches about the place and hang on it some snippets of musical history. "New York! Anything goes, and anything is to be had - for a price!" This after Bernstein's "America", in which Stephen Sondheim's words draw a sharper picture of the city's aspirations.

"Manhattan Island was the cradle of the New World, attracting composers and performers alike." Cue straight to Dvorak symphony. Was this script a send-up? A little later, in nudge-nudge tones: "There was plenty of other music, of quite a different kind" - meaning Duke Ellington in Harlem. Different, eh? Yet, at the end, came a quick insight: 30 seconds of a hermetic piano piece by Milton Babbitt, followed by some more Sondheim - music this time. The link was teacher and student. And didn't the keyboard tinklings under Sondheim's tune sound a bit like Babbitt? By design or not, listeners had heard a fresh perspective. The corpse was still twitching.

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