Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
LAST MONDAY, Classic FM published the results of its fourth annual Hall of Fame poll, ranking listeners' top 300 preferences, with Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No1 in G Minor duly emerging yet again as "without doubt, the nation's all-time favourite classical work".

Meanwhile, last Saturday afternoon, Radio 3 launched a new, two-hour record request series, fronted by Humphrey Carpenter and entitled Listeners' Choice with, believe it or not, Max Bruch's Violin Concert No1 in G Minor.

No doubt both exercises are intended to foster a sense of "listener involvement". In reality, just as the Classic FM poll largely confirms what the network already plugs, so the Radio 3 process is likely to result in the same kind of record miscellany as individual producers already throw together for On Air, In Tune et al - that is, for all listeners except the tiny minority whose requests actually get heard.

Indeed, one might wonder at the institution of Listeners' Choice under a new Radio 3 Controller, Roger Wright, pledged to counter the dash for "access" - whatever the cultural cost - by restoring the network's seriousness and coherence.

But then, several of the functionaries under Nicholas Kenyon's controllership - notably Brian Barfield, the managing editor of Radio 3, and Hilary Boulding, Commissioning Editor, Music (Policy) - remain in situ, and some of their decisions are evidently still working through.

Thus, CD Review, that more mid-cult revamp of the old Saturday Record Review brought in just before Wright's appointment, continues to neglect pre-Baroque and more challenging 20th century releases, while the last fortnight has seen the end of two long-standing series which, ironically, were among Kenyon's more positive innovations.

If the quirky inventiveness of The Music Machine was failing to reach sufficient of its target audience of the seriously musical young, this doubtless reflected Radio 3's daft persistence in putting it out on weekdays at 4.45pm - just the time when those listeners are most likely to be tied up in after-school music lessons, rehearsals and so on. Placed slightly later, say at 6.30, it would surely have done better - but that, of course, would have meant violating one of the network's sacred cows, In Tune.

The other, even sadder casualty has been the early music series Spirit of the Age, one of the few Radio 3 slots in which it has been possible to develop a cultural topic over an entire hour - that is, until recent pressure, presumably from the Commissioning Editor, Music (Policy), to chop it into shorter attention spans, showed that the writing was on the wall. Christopher Page's mesmeric unfolding of the legend of Tristan and Isolt made for a fittingly elegiac final edition.

But both of these series-terminations are clear losses to Radio 3's range. It would seem that the tension between populism and elitism - or, as it might be more fruitfully defined, between culture as entertainment and culture as the pursuit of understanding - continues to see-saw, as ever, at the BBC.

Indeed, last Sunday's Settling the Score feature, written by Ivan Hewett and produced by Andrew Kurowski, promised to investigate precisely that tension in the relation between modern composers and the masses. As often in this series, there were some fascinating archival clips - a youngish Tippett musing on his creative isolation, Keynes outlining the function of an Arts Council, and so on.

But the commentary never clearly defined the masses from the standpoint of class, politics, or consumption, and there seemed to be a general (if highly questionable) assumption that musical culture before the 20th century was more unified. Yet again, one was reminded that sustained exposition or argument are still the rarest commodities on Radio 3.