Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
IT SEEMS odd to recall all the fuss about Paul Gambaccini, pop DJ turned Radio 3 presenter. He didn't last, although I'm not quite sure why he attracted such opprobrium when you consider how many other nudging, winking "presenters" there are trying to make asses of us listeners now.

It's still odder that so little has been said about Gambaccini's successor in the 9am slot, Peter Hobday. To me he is an oasis of sanity in all the confusion that remains in the search for a style on Radio 3. Never mind the style, let's have some content. Which is what Hobday provides. No doubt he, and we, should acknowledge the contribution of the producer of Masterworks, Tony Cheevers, who ensures that the 90-minute programmes are stimulating in the variety of music heard, but also coherent as journeys of discovery. Over the last two weeks, for instance, each morning has included one of Liszt's symphonic poems, quite short works of great historical importance, though rarely programmed in the concert hall, at least in this country. Masterworks doesn't cringe before the idol of populism, either, for previous strands in its menus have included such examples of high art as Haydn string quartets and Beethoven piano trios.

The other weekly theme is a vintage artist. Last week it was the pianist Julius Katchen, whom anyone with a memory longer than 15 years hardly needed to hear more of; don't ask why, but for some reason his recordings of Brahms piano music (crude and clattering, in my view) were at one time always being plugged into holes in the Radio 3 schedules.

This week the vintage artist has been the French violinist Ginette Neveu, who was killed in an air crash in 1949, aged 30. There's nothing so effective as an untimely death to enhance a reputation. Neveu was associated most famously with Sibelius's concerto, so it was sophisticated of Masterworks not to include it, though we did hear her legendary recording of Ravel's Tzigane.

"Legendary" is a word that passes Hobday's lips with some regularity. Yet you can't really blame him for observing a modicum of gentle pieties - they're part of his brief, and he delivers them in a tone of genuine respect for the listener, as if they're part of the body of knowledge that needs to be passed on. As indeed they are. He's not hung up about his own image, just responsibly informative; he doesn't presume upon one's intimacy, as Humphrey Carpenter does, nor is he a disengaged zombie like Richard Baker.

Jazz Century, which I praised when it was launched in January, reached its 21st week on Saturday. Russell Davies hardly pauses for breath in each 30-minute programme and the switchback intonation of his commentary positively dances with stresses, all competing for attention.

I expect that jazz aficionados are critical - and they're just as snobbish as any other focused and well-informed category - but the great thing about Davies is that he makes no assumptions about listeners' knowledge while taking it for granted that they can share his perceptions. How good it was to hear him say, for example, that Ella Fitzgerald was "ever so slightly uninvolved with the emotions", while Billie Holiday (who, on the contrary, was very much involved) had, in her younger days, "a little acid-drop of a voice".